Never Say "Never"
Here's how I ended my review of The Expendables back in 2010:
"Despite all of the recent attempts to parody or pay homage to the beloved over-the-top action genre, the only person who could authoritatively close the book is someone who starred in enough hits and misses in his heyday to truly understand how the form works. Sylvester Stallone has directed the last great action/adventure throwback. His peers need to respect the hell out of that and let the genre die."
What an idiot.
One of the strangest lessons I've learned as a moviegoer is to never underestimate Stallone. My enthusiasm going into The Expendables 2 was so low as to be immeasurable; I figured the Italian Stallion had said everything he'd needed to say about his 80s superstar compatriots' relevance and viability in the Millennial marketplace, and figured the sequel was yet another grotesque cash-in on a summer sleeper.* The truth is, in handing over the directing reins to Simon West, he's helped shepherd one of of the coolest, most unironically entertaining action movies I've ever seen--perhaps the best one.
Don't be surprised at the hyperbole. Everything about The Expendables 2 is severely overcooked. But like bacon in the hands of a master chef, the film finds the perfect balance of mind-blowing flavor and oddly appealing bitterness that makes for an unforgettable meal. From the opening raid on a Nepalese prison--in which Stallone's Barney Ross and his team of mercenaries rescue another mercenary who'd botched rescuing a kidnapped Chinese billionaire--to a climax set at an Albanian airport where even the food court clerks appear to be packing heat, the movie prides itself on providing ridiculous situations that our heroes must fight their way out of. It's essentially the same premise as Part One, but with much of the "fluff" (i.e. story) cut out in favor of colorful, quip-heavy dialogue and beautiful gore mosaics.
You may think me hypocritical for praising the sequel for being everything that the original was not, but I have to admit, I was wildly entertained with the second movie in a way that I just wasn't the first time around. I thought I dug The Expendables, but Part Two is so much grander, so much more sure of itself and unafraid to be loud, obnoxious, and artfully graphic that it makes every other film of its kind seem flat--even one in its own franchise.
The three keys to making big, dumb action movies great are kooky villains, colorful heroes, and action set pieces that flow and engage--even if they're in the service of a weak story. Let's begin with the "Expendables" themselves. In case you're just joining pop culture, already in progress, the series' gimmick is that the titular pack of macho killing machines is populated mostly with 80s action icons and their modern counterparts--plus some pro-athletes thrown in for good measure.
In addition to Stallone, you have former NFL star Terry Crews as the weapons expert; Mixed Martial Arts Randy Couture as a Zen sniper; Dolph Lundgren as the brain-fried loose cannon who spent most of the first movie working for the enemy; and Jason Statham as the cocky, British second-in-command--who's also a whiz with knives. Replacing Jet Li this time out is Nan Yu, playing a Chinese operative working for Bruce Willis' shady CIA agent; she's signed on to help the guys retrieve a digital map that leads to tons of hidden Cold War-era plutonium--more than enough to kick off World War Three.
Our re-introduction to the characters lets us know that they've not mellowed in their old age. Storming into Nepal like an armored legion of cackling jackals, they pulverize faceless soldiers with their custom-made death machines--which have, of course, been decorated with stencilled slogans like "Knock Knock". I'm pretty sure the second word out of Lundgren's mouth is a completely-out-of-context invocation of 9/11, followed by hellish torrents of gunfire.
In fact, Lundgren embodies all of The Expendables 2's improvements. In the first film, he was barely intelligible, as if struggling to find personality and purpose. Here, he plays the "Howling Mad" Murdock role, revealing with each bit of nutty dialogue how smart he really is--even though his delivery is as mush-mouthed as everyone else on the team (seriously, you could experience this thing in a brand-new, state-of-the-art theatre and still swear the sound system is jacked up). Like his cohorts, he's looser this time around: more vocal, more vulgar, and much more like The Simpsons' Arnold Schwarzenegger parody, McBain. Somehow these stupid-sounding sides of beef are really talented, really committed to each other, and really, strangely endearing.
While the dangerous band of clowns are a laugh riot, they must square off against a foe who is as hilarious as he is menacing: the devil-worshipping, arms-running middleman Vilain, played by Jean-Claude Van Damme. Yes, the villain's name is "Vilain". Apparently he lost the second "l" along with his marbles. As played by the Muscles from Brussels, our nemesis is like a glitchy cyborg who's thinks it's Heath Ledger's Joker. Ruthless, twisted, and given to grand, butchered-English speeches that don't make a lot of sense, Vilain is truly one of the most unique cinematic creations I've ever seen. West and writers Stallone and Richard Wenk wisely use him sparringly, letting him pop up every once in awhile to throw wrenches ahead of the brutal climax--much like Khan in Star Trek II.
Much of The Expendables 2 takes place in the Albanian countryside, and follows the team as they track Vilain to the plutonium mine. Their mission is a true journey that takes weird detours, features a surprise cameo or two,** and offers many occasions for the ass-kicking equivalent of musical numbers. As staged, West's fight scenes are a fascinating, Peckinpah paradox: at once horribly violent and beautiful to watch. The cutting between multiple stand-offs is really well handled, and the combat itself--particularly when Statham takes on a group of thugs in a church--is like a blood-and-bones ballet. The movie's kinetic through-line is coherent, even if its actors are not.
I genuinely love almost everything about this movie.*** It's an hour-and-forty-seven-minute cartoon packed with inexcusable behavior, questionable messages about global politics, and characters whose names you'll forget before the end credits roll (aside from Vilain, of course, you'll likely just call everyone "Schwarzenegger", "Couture", "Lundgren", etc.). But one has to admire West and company for pulling off the ultimate cheesy action movie; the best example of great, bad art--which, I guess, raises the question: If it's great art, what's so bad about it?
I had no interest in seeing The Expendables 2. Now I can't wait to see what comes next.
Note: Thanks to the folks at Ain't It Cool News, I had a minor geek-out moment during one of the movie's early scenes. A couple weeks ago, the site announced a contest whose prize is a $5800 Expendables-themed pen. Yep, you read that right. When Stallone's character pulls that pen out at a bar to scribble something on a napkin, I thought, "This is the gaudiest, most beautiful case of product placement I've ever seen."
*Jesus, two bits of alliteration in one paragraph? Who am I, The Riddler?
**The guest stars' identities aren't surprising, as they're featured in the film's advertising, but the way they're used is lots of fun.
***Liam Hemsworth pops up as the sacrificial lamb who contributes nothing besides the impetus for a superfluous revenge plot and a bizarre story about leaving the army over a dead dog.