There are times during The Expendables 2 when you wonder if maybe a Wayans or Zucker brother was involved in making it; you could easily re-title it Action Movie and send it out into theaters as a spoof. Of course, this sequel to 2010’s all-star-mercenaries-blowing-up-foreign-lands flick is practically a spoof already: aggressively dumb, aggressively macho, and just plain aggressively aggressive. It’s got Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham and Jet Li and Terry Crews and Bruce Willis and Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris, and it’s got heads exploding in airplane propellers and knives being kicked (kicked!) into people’s chests. It’s not supposed to go to eleven, it’s supposed to go to eleventy-thousand.
But it doesn’t, and that’s kind of the problem. To be sure, The Expendables 2, which has our team of aging and not-so-aging tough guys from the last movie trying to retrieve some old Soviet plutonium somewhere in Eastern Europe before an even more mercenary army led by Van Damme gets to it, delivers on some basic level. It’s scene after scene of people getting mowed down and/or blown up and/or otherwise shredded, to the accompaniment of acres of dumb action-movie quips. But believe it or not, there’s a strange kind of lifelessness to the movie that makes you wish it were dumber – that it was more obnoxious and louder and crazier.
A concept like this should be liberating: Throw a bunch of action stars in a movie, forget plausibility or plot, and just watch the mind-bending insanity ensue. But what we get instead is mostly generic. The aforementioned quips are often so flat that David Caruso would have a tough time delivering them: Upon discovering a wrecked plane, somebody says, “Looks like somebody had a bad day.” Then, upon discovering some bad guys coming down the street, “Houston, we have a problem.” Next to that, Van Damme’s bad guy ruminations sound like poetry. (“Respect is everything. Without respect, we’re just people. Common, shitty people.”) The script does have some welcome fun at Schwarzenegger’s expense; his overdone “I’ll be back!” shtick gets a well-deserved dig from Bruce Willis, which is followed by a “Yippee-ki-yay.” Yes, I know … genius.
Even the action leaves something to be desired. Most of it is of the machine-guns-rat-tat-tatting-away variety, probably ‘cause that’s a little easier on the aging cast. (The low point of the film is the 72-year-old Norris’s lifeless cameo, supposedly a riff on his Lone Wolf McQuade persona; watching him blow away baddies with some giant guns, you might forget that Norris’s specialty used to be martial arts.) Even the film’s more florid action moments feel borrowed. A bit where Stallone points his finger like a gun at some baddies only to have the baddies drop dead is actually a gag from Statham’s Crank movies. And I’m pretty sure the scene where Stallone kills a helicopter with a motorcycle was in the otherwise-forgettable Brian Bosworth vehicle Stone Cold. (And Willis killed a copter with a car in Live Free or Die Hard, as I recall, with the immortal line, “I ran out of bullets.”)
Theoretically, the idea of casting not-ancient actors like Statham and Jet Li (the latter of whom only briefly appears at the beginning) alongside dinosaurs like Stallone and Schwarzenegger is supposed to create some kind of tension between the aging heroes and the fast and furious young guns. (Or should that be “young” guns, since Jet Li is 49?) But in practicality, it’s distracting. Watching Statham’s whirling-dervish-on-crack moves, you’re actually taken out of the film when you have to switch back to Stallone lumbering around; his belabored “Rraargh!” as he kicks down a door comes off less like machismo and more like arthritis.
The first Expendables was directed by Stallone himself, with all the dull-edged grace of something you might have found in an oversize VHS cassette in a dusty attic somewhere. As bad as that movie was, its roughness had a quaint, nostalgic charm. This new one is directed by Simon West (Con Air), so it has actual shots, not to mention a pre-fab pseudo-Bruckheimerian sheen. But it lacks conviction and its professionalism is only skin-deep. The Expendables 2 creates the right environment in which to get away with bloody murder, but then lazily tries to let its concept do all the work; it can’t be bothered to care.