Generally, it has been a policy of mine not to make a distinction between liking a movie and calling it good. I mean, if I call it good, obviously I like it, since my name is attached to the article calling it so. Conversely, if I like it, something must be good about it. And I hate saying “so bad it’s good” – if something is good in any way, I’ll defend it as such. But The Expendables 2 is causing me to rethink all I know, or think I know. Because on so many levels, it is inexcusably bad, and yet… I liked it.
Let’s first be clear on the one thing you probably most want to know: The Expendables 2 is better entertainment than part one, which boasted a finale so poorly edited that I still don’t know how Stone Cold Steve Austin was defeated. Nonetheless, it also features close-ups that are actually out of focus (the grain is in focus, so you know it’s a cinematographer’s error and not the projectionist), a reliance on deus ex machina to resolve almost every major action sequence, a significant subplot that gets no closure whatsoever (it involves Jason Statham’s character’s personal life), and a cast who all appear to be in completely different movies – Dolph Lundgren is method-acting crazy, and Sylvester Stallone shoots for gravitas and misses almost completely, while Arnold Schwarzenegger is as tongue-in-cheek over-the-top as you’d expect an out-of-practice Arnold Schwarzenegger to be. Randy Couture gets nothing to do aside from deliver a handful of flat line-readings, and as such need not be mentioned in this review again.
Does any of that matter? In a sense, yes; this could have been a better film in the hands of a better director (I know, friggin’ duh, but is it really too much to hope for someone who knows what he’s doing?). Presumably, though, you’re not expecting greatness if you’re buying a ticket to it, nor are you expecting dramatic tension: really, does anybody believe that even Jean-Claude Van Damme – who plays a villain named “Vilain,” pronounced “villayne” – stands a chance against the combined forces of Rambo, the Terminator, He-Man, the Transporter, John McClane, President Camacho and Walker, Texas Ranger? This is a movie designed not to win over new fans, nor even particularly to go head to head with modern action spectacles, despite what they tell you. This is the Traveling Wilburys reunion tour of guy movies (if, instead of being Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, et al., the Wilburys were made up of, say, Axl Rose, Fred Durst, Dave Mustaine and Kid Rock) aimed strictly at those who already know and love the familiar shtick, and want to pretend that all involved are still as awesome as they used to be.
I suppose it could also function as the ironic hipster version of an ’80s action movie: at the press screening I attended, I would venture to guess that those who cheered most loudly at Chuck Norris’ brief scenes playing the Internet-meme version of Chuck Norris were folks who have never watched a single episode of Walker, Texas Ranger in its entirety. But take anybody to it who doesn’t love really dumb action movies of the past, or anyone who fancies themself a screenwriter to see it, and I suspect you’ll have a lot of apologizing to do. To enjoy The Expendables 2, you have to not only be able to get when Willis and Schwarzenegger are stealing one another’s catchphrases…you have to be the sort of person who wants to see that happen more than almost anything. Although if you can’t appreciate the scene in which Van Damme calmly explains why he has a goat tattooed on his neck (“the pet of Satan!”), I’m not sure we’ll ever understand each other.
To talk about the plot here would be to give it more thought than Stallone or director Simon West did; let it suffice to say that the gang have to go to eastern Europe and find a thing of some sort, and the plot very slightly thickens when it turns out Vilain is after it too. Stallone probably likes to think he was going for his version of Wrath of Khan here, as there are some musings on old age and wasted lives, but he’s so un-directed that he can’t really pull it off (when he twists his face in one scene to indicate sadness, it just looks like he’s laughing and trying to vomit simultaneously). In an attempt to add some youth appeal, the team is expanded with the additions of Liam Hemsworth as the young guy who makes the others feel their age, and Yu Nan in the “Stallone-wants-a-hot-love-interest-but-no-really-that’s-gross-so-let’s-just-tell-him-she-is-one-and-not-actually-let-it-happen-onscreen” role. Lundgren’s intentionally creepy attempts to hit on her are some of the film’s best moments; presumably, having Arnold do that would have been just a tad too much.
Inevitably, Stallone does fight Van Damme, and while that may not be the ultimate dream 1:1 fans desire from this cast – that’d be Sly versus Arnold, which one hopes they’ll get to if there’s a part 3 – it is still a nice slice of wish fulfillment, even though it’s not as long as some might like. There were rumors surrounding the last one that Van Damme didn’t want to fight and lose to Jet Li, which may explain why Li is barely in the sequel, though his brief screen-time includes a standout frying-pan fight.
Other fun things: the Mortal Kombat-style explosions of CG blood any time any bad guy gets shot, the way Lundgren’s real-life degree in chemical engineering is used as a plot point and comes off more absurd than any of the fiction onscreen, Norris’ delivery of an MK-style fatality, and Terry Crews’ big scene with a bowl of rigatoni. It’d be nice to see a genuinely good director take the helm of this series if there’s a next time, but so long as the leap forward in entertainment value is on a par with 2’s improvement over 1, we’ll be fine. Now bring on Seagal, Chiba, Speakman, Kosugi or even (we can but dream) Cage.