With all of its European intrigue, its wild shoot-outs, and its lantern-jawed fighting men, The Expendables 2 reminded me of a 1980s movie. But that movie, alas, is Top Secret.
Top Secret, an Airplane-style spoof of WW II action flicks, was only slightly wilder and more ridiculous than the sequel to Sly Stallone’s surprise 2010 blockbuster and career relaunch. The Expendables 2 features hundreds of interchangeable baddies who repeatedly pop up in front of our heroes, present their chests and heads for strafing, and fall obligingly to the ground in bloody lumps of meat. But E2 is slightly more enjoyable than the crashing, thumping mess that was the original, because it is at least aware of its own absurdity. Also it features more footage of Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, two stars who were barely in the first one and have never been guilty (as Stallone has, many times) of taking themselves too seriously. Put it this way, any movie that features these three actors standing hip to hip blasting away the scum of the earth isn’t all bad.
E2 begins with a robustly choreographed breakout/shootout/chase scene, in which Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture and Jet Li play a gang of buddy-mercenaries sent in to Nepal to rescue a hostage who is about to be tortured. It would be giving away some of the fun to say who they’re after, but as the lads ram into an enemy encampment (with a steel girder affixed to their Hummer on which the words “knock knock” are written), freely express their feelings with ammunition, and use a motorcycle to take down a helicopter (chopper beats chopper), you’ll have your action-movie quota filled and then some. For the ladies, or people not old enough to remember the Reagan years, there is also a new Expendable: 22-year-old Liam Hemsworth, one of the male leads in The Hunger Games.
Mostly, though, the movie is content to play to its audience of macho 40-plus men, with nary a sighting of Kirsten Dunst. Willis, who had a walk-on in the first movie, is back as a suspicious spymaster who sends the Expendables into Albania to find a safe, hidden in the wreckage of a downed plane, that turns out to contain blueprints for a uranium mine bursting with tons of the precious metal, even though just a few pounds of it could be enough to change the nuclear balance of power. He orders team leader Barney Ross (Stallone) to take along a new character, Maggie Chen (Chinese star Nan Yu), who seems thrown in specifically to make the movie marketable in China. Ross says he’s not interested in being a “babysitter,” but of course Maggie will turn out to be as ferocious a killing machine as any of the boys (though, because this movie is traditionalist at heart, she is left standing on the sidelines for the climactic fight scene).
When Team Expendable finds the downed aircraft with the invaluable blueprints, they get waylaid by a rival band of hired killers led by a ruthless kick-boxer who is so evil his name is actually Vilain. Also, he’s played by Jean-Claude Van Damme. Vilain’s villains are nasty and sadistic (also they think it would be fun and interesting if tons of weapons-grade uranium were suddenly let loose on the world market) but it hardly makes sense for them to do something guaranteed to give Barney’s men a lust for vengeance without taking an easy opportunity to simply kill their rivals. (The Expendables are persuaded to lay down their weapons for the sake of a hostage and are defenseless for several minutes.)
In Albania, the movie relaxes a little as the boys trade jibes (Barney tells Maggie, in one of several mildly flirtatious scenes that are slightly creepy, that “We keep it light until it’s time to go dark. Then we get pitch black.”). In a witty touch, they encounter a deserted former Soviet street-fighting training ground built to look like a New York City neighborhood and nestle comfortably in such a homey environment. The nostalgia for Stallone’s Cold War-era cinematic triumphs is palpable. In keeping with the 80s reunion theme, Chuck Norris even pops up in a funny cameo.
The many shootouts in Albania tend to be dull; there’s never the slightest sense that any of the important characters are actually in danger, and the director Simon West (subbing in for Stallone himself) doesn’t bother to lay out how the heroes’ skill and ingenuity enable them to keep emerging from firefights with barely a scratch. Instead, it seems as if the good guys always hit their targets and the bad guys always miss. In some cases they don’t even bother to take cover, even during an ambush.
E2 is therefore at its best in the climax, when it is effectively a shameless live-action cartoon. Willis and Schwarzenegger show up and all pretense of seriousness is discarded. Schwarzenegger, with that deadpan cheerfulness that made him the king of the box office, keeps offering up variations of some of his characters’ best-known one-liners and even cracks a Rambo joke, while the ever-unflappable Willis, after being shown a severed head in a bag, pronounces the gesture “a little extreme.” With its wall-to-wall violence, the whole movie is a little extreme, but what did you expect?
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