"Expendables 2" Makes Up For Weak Predecessor

In the summer of 2010, “The Expendables” promised audiences the ultimate action movie blowout, featuring all of their favorite muscular stars of a bygone era in a race against time and common sense. It should have been rousing, wild, hilarious, and most importantly, irreverent. The reality was that it didn’t just leave those hopes unfulfilled – it actively flew in the face of expectations and landed with an awkward thud. A film that should have been catnip to film geeks fell victim to hackneyed love stories, cringe-inducing dialogue, and an uninspired narrative. “The Expendables” was a sour, mean, and humorless cash grab, and while viewers flocked to see it, expectations for its inevitable sequel were tempered accordingly. Mickey Rourke, the original’s lone bright spot, doesn’t even appear in the sequel.

Yet, against all odds, “The Expendables 2” corrects course, reviving a series that appeared DOA. This time around, Sylvester Stallone, who wrote, directed, and starred in the original, hired a new co-writer (Richard Wenk), and the script is much tighter and livelier as a result. Stallone also ceded the directorial reigns to Simon West (“Con Air,” “Tomb Raider”), who does a competent job in capturing the type of energy the first film should have had. The onscreen mayhem has the fluidity of a typical tentpole actioner, which must have been outside of Stallone’s comfort zone as a director. But Simon West is not Stallone’s ace in the hole.

The returning cast – Jason Statham, Terry Crews, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, and Jet Li – all do acceptable work, and newcomer Liam Hemsworth isn’t bad as the newest member of the team. However, it’s four “newcomers” that absolutely run away with the film. Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger made brief cameos in the first film, but their characters are fleshed out here and their rapport is magnificent to watch. They get some of the worst dialogue in the film, but this time around, “worst” means “best,” as it should in this type of film. Jean Claude Van Damme’s villain (named Vilain… no, really) is just the kind the despicable stereotype that our protagonists need to rally together, to avenge the loss of a fallen comrade.

But, as amusing as Schwarzenegger, Willis, and Van Damme are, the film’s flagship moments belong to Chuck Norris. The screenplay is completely shameless in the way it plays Norris for laughs, depicting him as a “lone wolf” mercenary with a Just For Men® beard and a proclivity for gunplay. It’s a shame we don’t get any of his trademark roundhouse kicks, but such exclusivity was likely stipulated in Van Damme’s contract. What we do get is Chuck Norris telling a Chuck Norris joke, and it’s just as beautiful as it sounds. It’s great to see that Norris is in on the gag that he has become, and even though it’s five years late, it’s a sight to behold.

The film isn’t without issues, though. Act II slows down to a crawl, during which the story appears to have been written around a specific shooting location. The absurdity of a Hollywood backlot-style town in the middle of war-town Albania speaks for itself. Some of the cinematography is downright ugly, and there are major continuity issues with camera usage. Parts of the film look great, but a handful of scenes are unreasonably muddy, grainy and occasionally out of focus. It’s unclear if this can be blamed on second unit incompetence because one of the worst offenders is a scene between Stallone and Hemsworth outside of a bar – not typical second unit stuff. Additionally, the special effects are sloppy and the bloodshed looks just as artificial as it did in the original.

Ultimately, “The Expendables 2” fulfills the promise of a dim-witted action film packed with aging movie stars. It’s loud and dumb, sure. But it’s affable and funny in ways the original wasn’t, and Stallone was wise to find a different co-writer and hire someone else to fill the director’s chair. If the idea of Schwarzenegger and Willis cracking wise while Chuck Norris jumps in and out of the narrative like a 72 year-old bearded, heavily-armed guardian angel sounds inherently appealing to you, you won’t be disappointed. If not, I can’t believe you’re reading this review in the first place. With great incredulity, I can say that I’m ready for a third round of “The Expendables.”

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: August 17, 2012
Studio: Lionsgate
Director: Simon West
Screenwriter: Sylvester Stallone, Richard Wenk
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Liam Hemsworth, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, language and brief sexuality)