The Expendables 2 is an ode to dick-wagging bravado in the best possible way. I think Stallone is a genius. He gets this in a way that maybe even his ‘80s action brethren don’t. He creates a world that has fun with excess, but he never winks at it and actually commits to sincerity, even when people are bound to laugh at the clichés.
On their latest mission, Barney Ross (Stallone) and his team rescue a Chinese billionaire and inadvertently Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who got captured trying to collect the same bounty. Now Trench owes Ross one. Back home, Church (Bruce Willis) shows up and calls in a chip that Ross owes him.
Here’s where the brilliance of Stallone shines. He shares screenplay credit with Richard Wenk but this is so Stallone’s voice. Church and Ross make it sound like they are talking about the most important thing in the world. All it is is some generic exposition about something Ross did to Church and how Church bailed him out but now he’s got the most important mission ever for him. Willis sells the sh*t out of this and Stallone’s on his game the whole movie.
The film’s best action scenes are the first and last, which is kind of okay, start big and end big. These sequences are pure love letters to violence, excessively destructive with ridiculous CGI bodies exploding around them. You can’t hear the banter over the shooting, but I don’t really care. There’ll be subtitles on the DVD. I don’t have any problem celebrating movie violence when there’s real life violence out there. It’s actually clearer than ever that this is a completely different language than what we’re dealing with in reality.
It’s the kind of action that’s so ‘80s. They raid a generic Asian country or an indiscriminate eastern European slum. A water tower just happens to be exactly where it needs to be for a cool stunt. Each sequence sets up impossible Rambo-like odds against the heroes, and then offers creative solutions (not realistic solutions, but creative ones).
Best of all, it’s shot clearly! Simon West opted out of the shaky cam nonsense so we can see all the cool stuff! Unfortunately, the digital footage looks dim and muddy, but if that’s what it takes to end this handheld crap, I’ll take it. But another positive: action sequences are not cross cut. West lets each scene happen in its entirety before moving on.
There’s some fun action in the middle but the reason this movie works more deeply than just a star studded action romp is the attention to tone. Action movies are more than just a string of cool scenes. There’s more that goes into creating a world where we invest in the ridiculous.
The opportunity for posturing is important. A key scene in the mission is just gratuitous flexing for Terry Crews. It’s a pure celebration of what it means to be male. Not a man, that’s something else for different types of movies, but totally male. Food talk becomes thinly veiled sex talk and it passes for bonding. That’s a thing. It’s important to acknowledge the superficial ways action characters relate, but not to condescend to it. The script is also full of dialogue that is best spoken in a growl.
And then the “serious” cliché. A character who’s written a letter to his loved one that now Ross is going to have to deliver for him. You’ll laugh that it’s such an obvious cliché, but Stallone gives himself a big speech to deliver, and plays it straight. This is the commitment I respect. Stallone’s been in this movie before, but he doesn’t try to outsmart it or give it a twist. He believes it’s important and hey, maybe for some kid this is the first time they’ll see this cliché in a movie, and that kid deserves as sincere a moment as we got the first 10 times.
The expanding ensemble cast works beautifully together too. A departing cast member is given a graceful exit. The big three are woven together much more seamlessly (although you can still see them cutting around Arnold in some scenes). Everyone who shows up gets something to do, and if it’s a legend popping in and out, it still makes total sense for the character. They’ve done exactly what they came to do, so there’s no reason to stay.
I should say how great Van Damme is as the villain. He relishes it and he’s more animated than he even was in JCVD (not as deep, but he’s having fun). I could give love to every single cast member but that’s the nature of The Expendables 2. Everybody shines.
One thing that did make me uncomfortable is that Lee Christmas (Statham)’s girlfriend (Charisma Carpenter) is referred to as an unfaithful cheater by the guys, and only Christmas stands by her. You may recall in Expendables 1, she moved on with her life after Christmas disappeared for months on end. She’s actually right to get away from such an unreliable guy, but her new boyfriend ended up abusing her so she was already punished for trying to move on. But they made up and Christmas kicked the abuser’s ass. Now Barney’s got to condemn her again? What’s weirdest is that this is the only scene Carpenter is in anyway. There’s no reason for her to even be in the movie. They could have cut her out completely and not made this uncomfortable comment. But also a girl’s gotta work so maybe it was a favor to give her a day’s work in one scene.
But hey, maybe it has to do with male insecurity and the bro code. I’m a sensitive guy. I can disagree with Stallone on the future Mrs. Christmas, maybe keep it as a reminder that this Expendables stuff is all fun pretend, but we don’t want it to get too real.