The Expendables was a grand work of wish fulfilment on the part of writer-director-star Sylvester Stallone, bringing together a veritable who’s-who of action stars both old and new for a violent and riotously entertaining time, even if it did take itself a little too seriously. Though many will be relieved that Simon West’s take is far more humourous and cartoonish, it’s also surprisingly light on set-pieces, and keeps its more intriguing stars off screen for far too long.
The Expendables 2 begins promisingly, however, with a tremendously energetic and violent action scene, which sees the titular band of heroes assailing a small village full of non-descript soldiers, in order to rescue Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and a Chinese national he is attempting to extract. However, at the climax of this scene, as Jet Li’s Yin Yang parachutes out of a plane, declaring that he has to “go home”, the film’s momentum and sense of excitement departs along with him. Also absent from the sequel is Mickey Rourke’s philosophical tattooist character, with no explanation given for this.
Plenty of effort has been made to compensate for the disappearing acts, though; joining Schwarzenegger in supporting duty is a returning Bruce Willis, as the CIA agent who calls in a favour from Stallone’s Barney Ross and his intrepid crew, Chuck Norris as a literal one-man army, and Jean-Claude Van Damme as the film’s antagonist named, with little sense of irony, Jean Vilain. Lesser-known actors padding out the crew include a young soldier, Billy “The Kid” (Liam Hemsworth), and a new female Expendable on loan from the CIA, Maggie (Nan Yu).
It would seem easy work to make a fun action film out of these ingredients, and thus, the blame has to lie less with director West – who has proven himself capable on underrated vehicles like Con Air and his recent remake of The Mechanic – and more with co-writers Stallone and Richard Wenk (16 Blocks, The Mechanic). After the exhilaration of the initial rescue sequence, things grind to a winding, expository halt, as we’re painstakingly introduced to the new characters one-by-one, and like the last film, it indulges in one too many dreary monologues for a film that should be snappy and light on its feet.
What really disappoints, though, is the lack of action in the middle of all the gassing; after the opening shooting gallery, the next full set-piece isn’t for roughly 45 minutes, by which point the film is basically two-thirds done. This does allow for one of its most inspired moments, though, as we’re introduced to Chuck Norris’ character Booker, appearing in a winningly self-aware manner that fully accepts his stature as a popular Internet meme. Similarly, due attention is paid to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s iconic status, such that he’s given a good share of the zingers, though one dialogue exchange that actually name-drops Rambo feels too on-the-nose. The banter between the group is generally well-formed, and the new additions all slot into the fray effortlessly.
Another problem, then, is that the more savoury attractions are used in a manner closer approximating a glorified cameo than a co-starring role. Chuck Norris’ first appearance isn’t for almost an hour, while Schwarzenegger is kept off-screen for a good three-quarters of an hour after his initial showing. Van Damme also doesn’t show his face for the entire first act, and when he finally does, he tends to drop in and out of the film quite indiscriminately. Though he is probably the most in-shape of any of the legend-tier action stars in the film, we’re not given much time to buy into Van Damme’s menace, as well as his vague quest for dominance, and a peculiar, superfluous sub-plot in which he exploits a small town’s mining operation.
The film loses its footing after ten minutes and really never regains itself, only excelling again during the climactic set-piece, a wild, messy sequence which has all of the film’s biggest stars converging for a full-throttle orgy of carnage that amasses a colossal body count. And of course, we get a thrilling bare-knuckle showdown between Stallone and Van Damme, yet are its brief measures of brilliance enough to compensate for what largely feels like a missed opportunity? The answer for most will likely depend on how much esteem and nostalgia the viewer has for these stars’ best works – and how much you’ve had to drink first – yet speaking as a huge fan of most all involved, it still underwhelmed thoroughly.
Nobody was expecting great art – and in fact, nobody wanted great art – but one would expect the film to succeed as an action-packed extravaganza; rather, there are only two full-length action scenes, with a padded hour-long chunk of dialogue and very occasional action sandwiched in-between. For a film running in at merely 102 minutes, the pace needs to be faster to give all of these stars their due; instead it feels malnourished and sloppy compared to the confidence of the first Expendables. The moments that do thrill are wonderfully composed, full of graphic gore and an exaggerated, thoroughly ridiculous style that reflects the better action films of the 1980s, but they are too few and far between for a film that should probably have an action-to-dialogue ratio reflecting something like The Raid.
While it’s unquestionably great to see Arnie again toting a giant gun, The Expendables 2 fails to make the most of its game cast, and most surprisingly of all, is quite lacking in the action department. That said, count us curious enough for part three.
The Expendables 2 is in cinemas Thursday.
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