Those hoping for a deeper, smarter, or more polished piece of action cinema: Sorry, but this franchise has pretty much established it isn't about that. Best to look elsewhere.
The Expendables has always been an attractive prospect for action movie fans: big-name action stars of eras past (and a few of today) unite on the big screen for a movie made in the vein of '80s and '90s machismo flicks. With names like Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham and Jet Li headlining the marquee, the first Expendables should've easily lived up to its easy promise of violent fun, complete with winking allusions and resurrected one-liners.
Unfortunately, some shoddy direction (from franchise creator Sly Stallone) held The Expendables back from fulfilling its potential - which is why director Simon West (Con Air) is under even greater pressure to make The Expendables 2 live up to an even higher bar, set by the promise of even more action movie icons; bigger, bloodier tongue-in-cheek violence; more winks to the past canon of action flicks, and even smarter twists on cherished catch phrases.
West proves to be a much more competent and (literally) steadier hand at the helm, and as a result, Expendables 2 is visually and technically coherent enough to set the movie on the exact ground it needs to be: where its cast can dive in with both feet and enjoy playing up their images as onscreen icons of badass. Does that mean the film is a superiorly crafted piece of genre entertainment? No. It's still an overflowing river of macho-cheese with half a plot, bad acting and some truly shoddy camera work at times - but if vintage macho-cheese is what you're after, this movie delivers a big heaping plate of it - much more than the first film, if that can be believed - and features some iconically awesome (and hilarious) onscreen moments.
The "plot" of this second chapter involves The Expendables team (minus of few faces from the first film) being handed a job by "Church," the CIA spook played by Bruce Willis. According to Church, Barney (Stallone) owes him for the chaos the team caused in Expendables 1, and payback is flying to some hellhole in Eastern Europe - in the company of a lady mercenary, no less - to retrieve the usual "MacGuffin" before some very bad men do.
Of course things don't go as planned, and when a ruthless mercenary gang (led by Jean-Claude Van Damme as the eloquent and meditative "Vilain") tangles with the Expendables, it starts a feud that Barney and Co. will see through to the bloody end.
The action in Expendables 2 is like something out of a video game, or a comedy parody of old action flicks. Our heroes fire big guns and blow bodies and property to bits, while never taking a scratch themselves. There's carnage and mayhem from start to finish, and an elaborate opening sequence quickly establishes that this world of the Expendables is one meant to be enjoyed with a low-brow smile, instead high-brow expectations. Every cast member is given time to inflict bodily harm to faceless hordes of bad guys in his signature way, and it's hard to imagine any action fan walking out saying, "There wasn't enough ass-kicking in that movie."
West still chooses to shoot a lot of the film with digital cameras (as Sly did in the previous installment), and subsequently, some of the problems of part 1 inevitably leak into part 2. There are times (particularly night scenes) where the camera is distractingly out of focus, or has the grainy, low-grade quality that can plague digital films with improper lighting; in a film that is supposed to be a throwback, one misses the look of classic film stock. However, on the whole West stages actions sequences with a much better hand, and knows creative ways of capturing the human body bending, breaking or outright exploding, making for some viscerally exciting violent imagery (definitely leave the kids at home for this one).
Sprung from the director's chair, Stallone is free to play alongside his muscled comrades. The whole cast seems to truly embrace the fun this time around, leaning hard on the fantasy of being untouchable superheroes of ass-kicking, rather than the "complex and troubled" individuals the first film foolishly tried to develop them as. In fact, the heaviest "drama" only lasts a brief second before Stallone's character is spouting lines like, "Track 'em. Find 'em. Kill 'em," which is about the extent of the "narrative" in the film. The screenplay (so to speak) hinges on such cliched and predictable plot devices that it can only be looked at as winkingly ironic (because otherwise it's just plain bad). There are some early subplots that get forgotten along the way - but see if you can even remember them in the midst of all the mayhem.
New faces to the franchise - like Hunger Games star Liam Hemsworth as a speedy sniper, or Nan Yu as female mercenary, "Maggie" - hold their own against the veterans and manage to be some of the more interesting (meaning, actually formed) characters in the piece - which is completely necessary, as they have no action movie clout to trade on. Jean-Claude Van Damme shows off some improved acting skill (in addition to his still impressive athletic ability), managing to create a memorable and fun villain in just a few key scenes.
Action veterans like Chuck Norris and Scott Adkins join the franchise in some smaller bit roles, but manage to deliver fun or thrilling moments; a self-referential joke from Norris is alone worth the price of admission. Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger are given expanded duties in this installment, and together they manage to nearly walk off with the entire film. Seeing the pair onscreen blowing things away and snapping on each other (and Stallone) multiplies the enjoyment factor exponentially; Schwarzenegger in particular seems to be more charismatic than ever, and is a welcome return to the genre.
The most fun to be found in this sequel, though, is trying to crack all the verbal and visual Easter eggs that get dropped along the way. From names, to faces, to lines of dialogue, meta references and physical action, Expendables 2 draws a fun map of in-jokes and trivia allusions, and if you're a buff of the genre, you'll enjoy things on a whole other level.
If you're not a genre buff, but want to see badass action icons blowing stuff up and beating people down (while pausing now and again to crack a joke), you'll still have a good time with this film. Those hoping for a deeper, smarter, or more polished piece of action cinema: Sorry, but this franchise has pretty much established it isn't about that. Best to look elsewhere.
For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant team check out The Expendables 2 episode of the SR Underground podcast.
If you’ve seen the movie and want to discuss details about the film without worrying about spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it, please head over to our Expendables 2 Spoilers Discussion.
The Expendables 2 is rated R for strong bloody violence throughout.