'The Expendables 2' hits a foul, not a home run
Walking into "The Expendables 2" is like pulling into the neighborhood baseball diamond and witnessing a bunch of graying, keg-gutted old men involved in an afternoon game. There are some on the field who just enjoy the trash-talking banter, others who still possess the skills to not make complete fools of themselves and still others who take the game far too seriously, as if a pennant was on the line.
Generally, it's a mess, sometimes sad to watch, but always entertaining. While this slapdash sequel is far better than the surprise hit original a couple years back, it remains barely more than ‘80s-era Cannon fodder. And by Cannon, I am referring to that decade's go-to studio for cheap, exploitative action. Owned at the time by two Israeli cousins, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Cannon spewed out countless films that seemed to spend entire budgets merely on explosives (and was home to such "Expendables" cast members as Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, Jean Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone). Titles included "American Ninja," "The Delta Force," "Invasion U.S.A." (both starring Norris), "The Barbarians," "Bloodsport," "Kickboxer" (both starring Van Damme), "Cobra" and "Over the Top" (one of Stallone's many career nadirs, which attempted to make arm wrestling a sport).
"Expendables 2" is no better or worse than anything in the studio's archives, which is probably the best that can be said about a film that feels about a decade too late to the starting gate to begin with. Plot-wise, there's not a whole lot that needs to be said. The mercenaries have banded together for another paycheck (much like many of the film’s stars), but the job costs them the life of one of their members, sending them into hostile territory on a quest for revenge. Led by Barney Ross (Stallone) and Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), the old honey badgers are soon ambling about in various stages of action, while taking plenty of time to needle each other and make ageist jabs at every turn.
There is plenty of action (some of the most thrilling combat sequences are courtesy of Jet Li, whose screen time appears to have only fulfilled a contractual obligation, as he vanishes within the first 15 minutes), but most of it is so poorly staged and lit by director Simon West, it fails to stir much enthusiasm. Both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis return for extended cameos, and both make light of their past big-screen action personas, but even most of their weary quips could use a dose of Geritol ("You've been back enough. This time, I'll be back," Willis shouts. "Yippee-kiy-yay!" Arnold retorts, in far-too-obvious references to their turns in "Terminator" and "Die Hard," respectively).
Credit must be given to the writers for including dialogue that contained the homoeroticism that was a staple for so many films of the era (I dare anyone to watch Stallone's "Tango & Cash" and tell me that he and Kurt Russell did not have the hots for each other). In a scene in which Stallone's Church squares off against Van Damme's villain (named Vilain, I kid you not), Stallone says, "You wanna man up? I'll man you up," before removing his belt from his pants. There's nothing Sly about that.
There's plenty of CGI blood splatter (the budget for which was probably only second to its Just for Men hair, beard and mustache dye supplies), and the film introduces a female to the team, which only comes off as only mildly misogynistic (no small task), but there just seems to be potential for so much more. And yes, Chuck Norris wanders in with all the charisma and stage presence he has displayed throughout his career. Which is to say, none. Norris has become an internet meme, which pokes fun at his bad-assery, but it's a lark, a joke. And one that Norris does not seem to grasp.
Stallone, for that matter, also seems to take his role far too seriously. Sure, the dude looks ripped at 64, but not at all threatening in the way that Clint Eastwood still manages in his 80s. He runs, tumbles and rolls through his scenes, and while his body may look great in the process, his agility looks…well, like he's 64 freaking years old!
While I will certainly return to watch another round of "Expendables," it's a shame that a film that has martial-arts masters Statham, Li and a still-spry Van Damme cannot squeeze a good action scene among any combination of them. Instead, they are relegated to the dugout, while we watch Stallone round the bases as though he's hit a home run, and all the others are too kind to tell him it actually was a foul.