Thursday, August 23, 2012

THE EXPENDABLES 2: Stallone and Co. Are Back, and This Time ... It's Personal!


- Rarely have I felt more deflated after exiting a movie than after seeing the first Expendables. I was hugely hyped for it, and with good reason. It was an all-star assemblage of some of the greatest badasses in cinematic history. It came on the coattails of Stallone's one-two punch of a comeback - the surprisingly great Rocky Balboa and Rambo. And yet, The Expendables was a letdown - instead of embracing its old-school roots, it tried to be all nu-metal and cool and whatnot. There was quick-cutting and shakycam galore, with action that rarely satisfied. The tone was all-over-the-place (Mickey Rourke seemed to think he was in another movie entirely), and the plot instantly forgettable. That said, what fanboy in their right mind wasn't *still* primed and ready for a Part 2? I mean, the mere concept of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis, Van Damme, Norris, et. all together in one orgiastic bloodbath on a level not seen since the heyday of 80's action cinema? Hells to the yeah. So, the bad news is that The Expendables 2 is still sort of a dumb movie. But the good news is ... it's gloriously dumb in a way that makes it incredibly entertaining. The Expendables 2 is not good enough to stand side by side with the best action flicks from back in the day ... but it is more than enough to have fans of those movies smiling stupidly with nostalgia-fueled glee.

The main thing you need to know about the plot of The Expendables 2 is that Stallone's Barney Ross is back, along with Statham's Lee Christmas - and most of the rest of the original film's team of adrenaline-juiced meatheads ("Stone Cold" Steve Austin is, sadly, MIA). So yep, Dolph, Couture, Crews, and Jet Li are all back (though Li kicks unholy ass for like five minutes, then promptly and inexplicably leaves the movie). They're also joined by a young, ex-military sniper, Bill The Kid, played with starry-eyed, baby-faced boyishness by Liam Hemsworth - a stark contrast to the grizzled badasses surrounding him. In any case, after a harrowing mission to rescue a captured Trench (the Governator himself) Ross is contemplating calling it quits on the mercenary biz - and young Bill is thinking of doing the same. But then along comes Bruce Willis' Church - who is apparently some sort of government agent dude - who recruits The Expendables for one mo' mission. Church introduces the team to the slinky-yet-deadly Maggie (Nan Yu), who has the know-how to open a high-tech safe that's carrying a nuclear trigger device. If the device were to get into the wrong hands ... well, you know. In this case, the wrong hands are those of the absurdly (awesomely?) named Vilain (get it?), played with arrogant aplomb by the Muscles from Brussels, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Also, at some point Chuck Norris drops in as Booker, aka "The Lone Wolf." Yep, it's action-star overload to the nth degree.

Director Simon West makes this one much more entertaining that Part 1, by imbuing it with the sort of B-action movie sensibilities he brought to films like Con-Air. West keeps things feeling mostly old-school, and gets rid of the chopped-to-bits editing style of the first film. To that end, EX2 has some genuinely badass action scenes - from Jet Li's anything-goes ass-whupping toward the beginning of the film, to Jason Statham's videogame-esque knife-fight, to a suitably epic Stallone vs. Van Damme showdown which serves as the film's climax. And, praise the action-movie-gods, the film ends up being a pretty hard R - so there's plenty of blood, gore, and dudes being tossed into spinning propellers. Not to sound masochistic or anything, but I'm glad that this movie ended up feeling like The Expendables and not the Power Rangers.

Now, what deflates the movie is the mostly-terrible script. For one thing, the dialogue is atrocius, with most of the chuckle-worthy humor being of the unintentional variety (but not to worry, between the uniformly wackjob line deliveries of Schwarzenegger and Norris, there is plenty of hilarious, unintentional humor). I mean, come on ... all you really need in this sort of movie are great one-liners - both of the badass variety and the funny variety (or both). But this movie mostly fails at that, delivering some true clunkers that, surely, did not even sound good on paper (worst offender: Van Damme: "Man up!", Stallone's retort: "I'll man you up!"). The writers should be sentanced to a week of watching great 80's action movies like Predator to bone up on their action dialogue. Meanwhile, the actual plot is pretty threadbare, with only the vaguest notions of character. Again, do I need that much character-depth from a movie like this? Nope. But it would be nice to have some character motivations. Mainly, the through-line is Stallone and Hemsworth's questioning of the life they have chose. But Jason Statham? His main arc is how his girlfriend (Charisma Carpenter) has him by the balls.

The other main problem - and this is partly the script, and partly the direction - is that the tone of the movie is so all-over-the-place. Overall, the jokey, campy tone is a much better fit than the would-be seriousness of the first movie. Still, EX2 can deviate a lot from what works best. On one end of the spectrum, you've got overly-emo scenes, like a funeral scene that's heavy on melodramatic brooding, or a sort-of romance between Stallone and Nan Yu that completely fizzles. On the other end of the spectrum, the movie goes a little too cartoony with its winks and nudges. How many times in one movie does Ah-nold need to utter "I'm back" ...? And do we really need the theme from "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" to play whenever Chuck Norris shows up, suddenly making it feel like we're watching live-action Looney Tunes? Meanwhile, you have to cringe at some of the stuff in the movie that would have felt dated even in the 80's. Like when Willis tells Stallone that this agent Maggie will be joining his team, and Stallone exclaims "a woman?!". I mean, this is a movie universe where a bunch of saggy middle-aged dudes are kicking ass left and right - how is there surprise that a young and badass female military operative could do the same?

Of course, the actors pull off the whole B-action thing with varying degrees of success. Couture is still totally wooden - and it's weird that he seems to, undortunately, do more talking than ass-kicking in this one. Norris, too, seems like a total blank. I know he was never an acting dynamo, but damn ... the years since Walker: Texas Ranger have not ben kind. Dolph Lundgren - gets some good goofy moments. Willis mostly just squints and looks bemused. Hemsworth is okay, but he doesn't bring quite the gravitas to the table that his brother might have. Stallone has always been best at playing serious, brooding characters - and he does that again here and does a good job of carrying the movie and giving it most of its dramatic weight. But it is a strange contrast to, say, Arnold, who's in walking-quip-machine mode here. Statham is good - he's a better class of actor than a lot of these guys, and he's a funny guy to boot (Crank, anyone?). I'd love to see him do a buddy-movie type thing with Arnold or Stallone ... but here, he doesn't get to do a ton aside from lay the smackdown a bunch. Terry Crews is a scene-stealer - I think it's time for Crews to have his own action movie franchise, actually, because the guy is a.) jacked, b.) charismatic as hell, and b.) hilarious (mildly funny here, but see Idiocracy for further proof).

As for relative unknown Nan Yu, she's pretty decent, holding her own in the action scenes, and getting in some good one-liners. But, in a movie of icons, it would have been cool to have someone of similarly iconic stature to the movie's male leads. Get those rumors of a female-centric Expendables spin-off a-rolling ...

All that said, the true standout in this one has to be JCVD. Here's a guy whose acting skills have actually improved a lot since his Bloodsport days, and who is clearly relishing the role of villain (er, I mean Vilain!) in this one. Van Damme basically owns it in this movie, crafting a loathsome villain who will roundhouse kick a dagger into your chest and then taunt you for being a pansy. Van Damme is the best part of EX2, and I only wish that the movie gave him more screentime. While his brawler-vs.-martial artist faceoff with Stallone is pretty sweet, there are some true dream matchups that could have been ... Van Damme vs. Li? Van Damme vs. Schwarzenegger?! Man, there was some crazy potential there for ownage.

The Expendables 2 has plenty of groan-worthy moments, but it's also got more than enough awesome - or so-bad-they're-awesome - moments that yeah, if you're an action movie fan, it's an entertaining must-see. It's easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer nerd-out factor of seeing so many icons together on-screen (and the movie is none-too-subtle about playing up the icon-factor). This is unquestionably better than the first movie - but I just think any future installments need to find the right balance of self-aware campiness and legit awesomeness. If there is indeed an Expendables 3, I want it to be not just an amusing nostalgia-trip, but a legit action-movie classic on-par with Predator, Rambo, et. all. For now, I can appreciate that while this one is a bit of a mess, it's also got enough badassery to be a fitting end-of-summer ride.

My Grade: B

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