Monday, August 27, 2012

Blogorium Review: The Expendables 2

 Around this time two years ago, the Cap'n was way out west and The Expendables was in theatrical release. There was a bit of a kerfuffle on the internet* because The Expendables opened against Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Scott Pilgrim lost. I may have had a thing or two to say about that, because they selectively chose to denigrate The Expendables even though Scott Pilgrim also came in behind Eat Pray Love, Inception, and The Other Guys as well. But The Expendables weathered the storm, even with some shaky hand-held action chicanery and over-earnest monologue-ing from Mickey Rourke.

 It was a throwback to action movies that managed to upset action movie (no pun intended) die-hards for its adherence to new action movie techniques (see: hand-held camerawork during fight scenes) and also upset the kind of people who pretend to be action movie fans but actually just assume that it means every "action" movie is exactly like Commando or YouTube compilations of Steven Seagal kicking people through windows. I saw both kinds of reactions, and both camps seemed to say "boo hoo, it didn't meet my expectations so it sucks." And okay, it wasn't the movie it could have been, but to expect The Expendables to be the last twenty minutes of Rambo for two hours is absurd.

 To expect any action movie to consistently be as ridiculous as Commando is asking too much. People tend to forget that Commando has a few (not many, but a few) scenes where Arnold isn't punning or brutally murdering people. Predator has a LOT of those moments, and so does Die Hard and First Blood. Even Bloodsport has a story, threadbare though it may be. I know, you're shocked, but it's more than a 90 minute string of explosions and arterial spray, and other than maybe Bloodsport, I think you'd consider those to be some of the best films the action genre has to offer.

 But anyway, so we got past The Expendables and the people who didn't automatically feel "disappointed" it were pleasantly entertained, even if it wasn't great. And now, without the burden of political careers or Scott Pilgrims, there's a sequel. So how was The Expendables 2?

 Basically, it's exactly what it needs to be. Not a whole lot more, and certainly with things that improve on the first film but also some changes that I wouldn't really call "improvements." Still, overall I have to say that it delivers on the action, has a few good laughs (and a lot of chuckles / groaners) and is going to provide the "popcorn entertainment" quota for late summer action. It doesn't feel bloated like a Battleship or unnecessarily convoluted like a Bourne Legacy, and for the most part West and the cast get things right about where they need to be.

 This time, since they killed off "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Eric Roberts, there was a need for new villains, so Stallone and director Simon West (Con Air, The Mechanic) brought in Scott Adkins (Undisputed II, The Bourne Ultimatum) and Jean-Claude Van Damme (JCVD, Universal Soldier) to give Barney Ross and his crew some real trouble.

  The first thing The Expendables 2 does better than The Expendables is streamline the plot: instead of some kind of rogue-CIA agent funding a military coup / dictatorship in a fictional South American country that our team are vaguely invested in, Van Damme's Villane / Villain (it depends on what site you check) makes good on the promise implied by the name "expendables" by kicking Barney (Stallone)'s knife into the chest of a team member. (SPOILER ALERT) To be fair, it's kind of a cheat because a) it's the new "Expendable" Billy (Liam Hemsworth), the sniper who announces two scenes earlier that he wants to leave the team to be with his girlfriend, and b) because Liam Hemsworth is mostly in the movie so they could use his last name in the trailer to trick you into thinking it was his older brother Chris, prompting guys to say "Oh shit! Thor is in The Expendables 2" when in reality it's just the dude from The Hunger Games. In fairness, he does blow a guy's head off with his sniper rifle and holds his own for a while.

 Anyway, Villane and his crew the Sangs (who have goat tattoos on their necks for a reason Van Damme sort-of explains) steal the layout of a Russian mine where weapons grade plutonium is stored from our heroes, so the movie becomes a combination of "stop them from selling the plutonium" and "get revenge on this asshole" that invests the audience in the story. I'd be lying if I said we get to know more about the individual members on the Expendables - Jet Li leaves after the first action sequence, providing a waffling "maybe I'll be back, maybe I won't. Maybe I'll start a new life." and then parachuting out of the plane.

 Randy Couture and Terry Crews don't get much more to do than they did in the first one, Jason Statham only gets two scenes to really show off (one in a church and the other fighting Adkins at the end), but I guess it's nice that Dolph Lundgren has a few defining character quirks introduced this time around. Stallone (who co-wrote the screenplay with Richard Wenk) incorporates some of Lundgren's actual life into Gunner's character by making him a former chemical engineer (and Fulbright Scholar) who worked at a nightclub "to impress a girl" (all true, although I'm not sure if he was working at the club to impress a girl or because he was a 3rd degree black belt.) It makes up for the notable absence of Mickey Rourke, even if that means we're spared another monologue about the value of human life.

 Most of the focus in the film is on Stallone or the new / returning characters. In addition to Hemsworth's Billy, when Jet Li takes off before the title screen, Church (Bruce Willis) tells Barney that Maggie (Nan Yu from Speed Racer and Lundgren's Diamond Dogs) is going to join them on the mission to retrieve that map Villane steals. Maggie can hold her own, and is in a lot of ways more interesting than most of the guys on the team. She also gives Stallone the opportunity to be funnier because Barney Ross is so uncomfortable around women that he just can't understand why she keeps flirting with him. Van Damme is also good to see, although if you've seen Universal Soldier: Regeneration or JCVD, you know he's more than capable of putting his weathered face to use as an imposing adversary. He's a bad guy out for the money, but the Sangs have a code built around respect, so he's very particular about how he deals with the Expendables.

 Oh, and then there's the other driving force of the film, which provides for some of the best (and also worst) adjustments between the last movie and this one: Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Chuck Norris. Of the three, only Willis really seems to be playing a character, as Norris and Schwarzenegger are basically playing their personas. Case in point: Chuck Norris, introduced after killing an entire Sang team and blowing up a tank, walks into frame to the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (?), is identified (repeatedly) as a "Lone Wolf," and proceeds to provide a "Chuck Norris Fact" in the span of three minutes.

 And look, it's kind of funny at first, until he leaves shortly thereafter and it's clear that when (and if) he shows up again that's all he's going to be used for. He's a walking reference to the fact that people mythologized Chuck Norris. But then we get to Arnold, reprising his cameo from the last film as Trench, who is a walking "one-liner": he says "I'm back" or "I'll be back" repeatedly, and when Chuck Norris walks up next to him, I kid you not Schwarzenegger says "Who is next? Rambo?" It's like Arnold wrote all of his dialogue for the film and delivers it in the worst possible way (seriously, when he has things to say relevant to the plot, the delivery is much better).

 Oh, and then there's this exchange between Church and Trent:

 Trent: I'm almost out. Stay here - I'll be back.
 Church: No, you've been back enough. I'LL BE BACK.
 Trent: Yippie-ky-yay.

  The walking, talking reference to your more famous movies is a little groan-worthy, but it is mostly contained near the end, where Statham was a pretty good knife fight with the largely unused Adkins (seriously, check out some of his movies), Stallone has a better fight with Van Damme (even if they re-use footage of one of JCVD's high kicks right after he did it the first time), and I have to say that I laughed at Arnold and Bruce in the Smart Car and Chuck Norris' use of an airport scanner. That said, it's not exactly the direction I was hoping to see these movie go in. We're seeing them because we know who these action stars are, not because we want to be reminded of their "greatest hits." That just reinforces the assumption that The Expendables as a series is a glorified YouTube compilation of action tropes.

 But overall it's a fun time at the movies. I really enjoyed Van Damme and Statham's "I now pronounce you man and knife" and Dolph Lundgren being a part of the team (and failing miserably to impress Maggie) and let's be honest here: there's something cool about seeing Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger standing side by side and shooting at Jean-Claude Van Damme and assorted goons. I still wish that Randy Couture and Terry Crews had more time to shine, but I guess the third movie is an inevitability, so there's always next time, right?

 Oh, one final note: so Simon West made Con Air (which I liked) and The Mechanic (which was a serviceable but not great Jason Statham vehicle) and also a few other things I didn't see or didn't like (The General's Daughter and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider respectively), so I didn't really know what to expect here. The Mechanic was competently shot but the action scenes were few and far between, so it was hard to say what we'd get here. I'm happy to say it's mostly an improvement over the impossible to watch fight scenes in The Expendables (I'm looking at you, Lundgren / Li fight), so that's an improvement over Stallone. The pre-title sequence was good and easy to follow other than awkward framing in the Jet Li "knives vs frying pan" scene. Still, I don't think the series has quite found a director that can convey the action in a way that does it justice. So that's something to think about for next time, if you ask me. And by that I don't mean the movie leaves itself blatantly open-ended - it has a beginning, middle, and an end, but it's clear there can (and more than likely will) be more Expendables adventures. I mean, the producer has to make good on promising Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford, Nicolas Cage, and Clint Eastwood for part 3**!

 So yeah, if you didn't like the last one I'm sure you'll find lots of things not to like about The Expendables 2. And to be fair, it's not like they knocked it out of the park. It's more like a "ground rule double" of action films, which is probably less than what you expected with this kind of lineup but it's getting them in place for a grand slam. I hope, anyway.

 * Interesting tidbit: Auto-Correct didn't even blink when I typed the word "kerfuffle" even though I'm positive I've never used that term before on the Blogorium and I'm honestly surprised to think that it might qualify as an actual word with a working definition.
** Two of the four names will be in that movie, and I bet you can guess which ones.

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