“Can’t beat a classic”
And here I thought the buzz was about how much The Expendables 2 made good on the promise set forth and not quite attained by The Expendables. It was going to be chock-full of humorous banter, over-the-top antics, bloody pulpy carnage, and as much fun as one berserker action flick can contain. There would be story, a worthy villain, and a reason for guys like Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jean-Claude Van Damme to come back from the shadows of obscurity. It wasn’t like these guys would just pop up now and then when their iconic musical cues played to pretend they’re shooting guns with one hand whilst hamming for the camera as catchphrases redundantly spew forth from their mouths. No, that would be silly.
Well, I guess by ‘better’ the hoards meant sillier because that’s all The Expendables 2 is—unnecessarily ridiculous. Increasing the carnage only makes the entire endeavor more futile as hundreds of bad guys die from kill shots while their horrific aim does nothing but make loud noises as the stakes against our heroes lessen with every passing minute. Rather than give us fantastic sparring matches like franchise cheerleader and co-creator Sylvester Stallone versus Steve Austin or pocket-sized Jet Li chopping down the tree that is Dolph Lundgren, we receive videogame gore from rapid-fire bullets as we await the eventual climactic fight. There is no build up at all—only flashes of true fisticuffs between the stars and five extras hitting their marks in order to be knocked down.
The first film’s best dynamic is ruined when Li puts on a parachute and disappears for the duration after a high-octane extraction opening to leave Lundgren’s goofy grin lonely and in need of someone to pick on; Jason Statham is tossed aside from being Stallone’s right hand man by either having his ear glued to his girlfriend’s voice on the other end of a phone or left off screen collecting weapons while the rest discover the powers of Norris’ beard; and Randy Couture and Terry Crews become background filler allowed to speak only when a culinary crack is relevant. What few things that did work two years ago are stripped away to leave a hollow shell of what was already little more than genre porn. Without character development, interaction, or motivation, the meaningless explosions and high body count do nothing but leave us as cold as the computer-generated fatalities.
It’s a shame too because I had hoped Stallone passing the reins to Simon West—director of the great Con Air and effective The Mechanic remake—would help it soar instead of plummet. The scale has definitely increased despite the special effects budget remaining the same and the sheer magnitude of battles does keep fans of destruction happy, but at what expense? The real reason they even go after Van Damme’s Vilain—yes, that’s his name and not his character’s description—is so obviously foreshadowed by the simple fact a guy like Liam Hemsworth was cast that any mention of code retrieval or stolen nukes doesn’t even serve as thin veils covering the astronomically weak plot. Who thought a script could be more useless in comparison to its finished project than The Expendables was?
If the whole reason is to see the Italian Stallion and Mr. Belgium beat each other to death, why take so long to get there? After all, Vilain is merely a MacGuffin who comes and goes for the sole reason of reminding us he exists. There’s no chase, just a series of full-scale assaults wherein our leads appear to be incased in some sort of invisible, impenetrable shielding. At least let one get shot, feign injury, and need to sit a fight out. The film never goes full-bore into cartoon mode so pitting invincible men against a cardboard adversary truly exemplifying the meaning of the title is simply boring. No amount of decimated heads can excuse the fact no one is risking more than a few minutes in the make-up chair. Muscle-clad Crews shouldn’t find himself at his most entertaining sipping a cup of coffee.
Even the inclusion of a female team member in Nan Yu‘s Maggie fails to do anything but replace the Asian flavor missing with Li’s departure. Giselle Itié worked in the first because she was a daughter figure needing protection. There would never have been romance and as a result there wasn’t a need to want any. Here, however, the Maggie role is all but begging Stallone’s Barney for a glimpse of affection to prove he has a heart if not a libido beneath his rough exterior and skull accoutrement. We hear him gruffly deflect the advances because “he’s bad luck” and grow tired of her monotonously ineffective attempts littering a script grasping at straws to pad a revenge quest easily ended in forty-five minutes. It’s just one more example of the few things not needing improvement being ruined.
The single change that fixes a problem from the original is hiring an antagonist who can fight. Van Damme is a huge step forward from the creepy but unimposing Eric Roberts. He owns the lack of feeling, skewed code of honor, and unbridled lunacy of a mad man possessed by an unchecked ego. Sadly, his twenty minutes of screentime doesn’t allow him to be anything but a fun aside we know we’ll get back to at a later date. Stallone and screenwriter Richard Wenk would rather show their surly bunch of pain inflictors laugh at inside jokes and corny oneliners as they remorselessly kill from a distance. Statham gets a couple decent knife fights and Lundgren’s leash is loosened to steal some moments with underrated humor, but it’s really only Jet Li’s un-cut dance with a frying pan that made me smile. And it happened before the opening title’s skull even flashed across the screen.
 Maggie (Yu Nan, front left), Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone, front center), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren, front right), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews, back left) and Toll Road (Randy Couture, back right) in THE EXPENDABLES 2. Photo credit: Frank Masi
 Jean-Claude Van Damme stars as ‘Jean Vilain’ in THE EXPENDABLES 2. Photo credit: Frank Masi
 Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as ‘Trench’ in THE EXPENDABLES 2. Photo credit: Frank Masi