I’m not sure that Sylvester Stallone, or anyone else involved with The Expendables, thought that film would spawn a franchise. In many ways, The Expendables felt like a lark — a one-time moment that tapped into a well of nostalgia for 1980s-style action in the moviegoing public. It sold itself on its cast and its cameos, then followed that up with an uneven, but very exciting, film. It made a pile of cash, so of course there were going to be another one made.
The Expendables 2 was released in 2012, and was directed by Simon West from a screenplay by Sly and Richard Wenk. The film follows Barney Ross (Sly) and his company of mercenaries as they go on another violent adventure. Most of the gang returns from the first film. Barney is joined by Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), and Toll Road (Randy Couture). Jet Li’s Yin Yang appears in an introductory action sequence, but bows out for the remainder of the film. Also absent is Mickey Rourke, but he didn’t pick up a weapon in the first film, anyway. Barney’s company may be down a pair of players, but that’s made up for by the inclusion of Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth), a vet with tours in Afghanistan, and Yu Nan as Maggie Chang, a CIA agent accompanying the team.
Barney has been tasked by the mysterious Church (Bruce Willis) to retrieve a computer hard drive from a remote crash site in Albania. The hard drive is a particularly dangerous piece of equipment, because it contains the location where the Soviet Union stashed five tons of weapons-grade plutonium, and then forgot all about it. That’s bad.
Barney and company aren’t the only players after the hard drive, however. In a bit of sublime casting, Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a character helpfully named Vilain, who arrives on scene with his own personal army. He wants the plutonium for himself, but not because of any political agenda or anything like that. He wants the plutonium to sell on the black market. The remainder of the film, then, is the conflict between Barney and Vilain.
The plot in this film is no less simplistic than that of the first film. But the execution is tighter. There are far less drawn out sequences of tough guy dialogue and lamentations over days gone by. The pace established by Simon West could be taken as evidence that Sly was overburdened by both directing and starring in the first film. Or, perhaps, West is just a better director. Either way, I was prone to wandering while watching the first film, while weariness with this sequel didn’t being to set in until Arnold Schwarzenegger made his second cameo appearance, although trouble began when Chuck Norris first arrived on screen.
The appearances of box office action stars from decades past is inseparable from the brand that is The Expendables. But it hasn’t been handled all that well, this film included. Barney and his team have great camaraderie. It seems to extend off-camera, as well. It’s part of what makes these films work. But the cameos by Arnold, Willis, and Norris are inorganic and forced, and deeply unsatisfying compared to their promise. This film would be better without them.
The action is every bit as frenetic as before, while managing to incorporate more graphic violence. It’s gratuitous but not misplaced. It’s aided by better, but still below par, CGI effects. West strikes a great balance of action scenes and scenes of dialogue — something that many modern action flicks get wrong. Still, by the grand finale firefight, I was ready for things to wrap up.
Sly and the other returning members of the main cast have settled into their roles nicely. It’s no longer a costume party, but a group of almost real characters. Everything is still loaded with cliché and heavy on the tropes, but this second film has gone a long way towards humanizing these gun-toting ape men.
The Expendables 2 is a film that shows the classic formula of action films still has life left to it. It’s silly and stupid, but damned entertaining.