The Expendables 2 is an improvement over its predecessor in almost every way, building a more satisfying structure around the tolerable but middling foundation of the original – so while this sequel continues the original’s disposition of being both highly flawed and fun, it still feels as if there’s a better Expendables film waiting to be made.

Ultimately, it’s an altogether critic-proof affair. These are films made for a very specific flock with very specific expectations. We want to see men obliterated by artillery, we want high-risk fisticuffs, bone-breakage, explosions, testosterone oozing off the screen – and so much blood and viscera projected into our eyes that raincoats become suitable attire. It’s a gimmick movie; heavily reliant on cameos, catchphrases, music cues, and a working knowledge of the films from which it’s derived. But it’s also the best kind of Reagan-era escapism that – in today’s political climate – has some degree of significance again. Expendables 2 fits like a snug throwback jersey – it’ll never be the real thing, but it puts you in touch with a moment in time that would’ve been forgotten without it.

When Sylvester Stallone is on your set, you’ve already resigned yourself to sacrificing a certain amount of creative control – which is why I was pleasantly surprised to see just how much of the film actually feels like it was directed by someone not him. Simon West has an undoubtedly spotty track record, but he’s in Con Air mode here – making Expendables 2 something of an agreeable return to form. That West frames his action better than Stallone did in the first Expendables is evident from the very first sequence – the team’s rescue mission in Nepal is some of the most expansive and beautifully-staged action I’ve seen this year. It’s wholeheartedly gregarious bravado, with the gang doling out as many quips as they do bullets. And there’s a certain amount of “America, Fuck Yeah!” affability to the intro that pulls you into the film’s (mostly) tongue-in-cheek nature.

The film is most alive in sequences like this one – to the point where exposition and backstory become tired distraction. Thankfully, we’re never long for another shootout amongst more-than-able performers.

So the action works – what else? Jean-Claude Van Damme. In all his strange, Dieter Laser, bronzer-infused glory, JCVD’s Jean Vilain (yes, I know) manages to be summarily delightful.. Van Damme arrives in full-on greasy-dickhead mode – something that doesn’t seem like much of a stretch for him. He’s clearly relishing this opportunity, making the most of his few short scenes before laying down some hardcore physicality in the last act. It’s a rediscovery of sorts, as Van Damme seems more at home playing “evil, hyper-sexualized douchebag” than he ever did playing “noble, hyper-sexualized douchebag.” Van Damme spins slimy gold, delivering old-school DTV charmers like “Thees ees my symbol: di goat. Dey say eet ees di pet of Satan.”

When The Expendables 2 runs into trouble, it’s is in the way it juggles its robust cast of heavyweights. There’s a certain transparency to the comings and goings of characters like Jet Li’s Yin Yang or Chuck Norris’ Booker. Availability seems to have been a challenge for production, so characters get written in only to get immediately written back out, then in again, rinse and repeat. But none of it makes very much sense anyway unless you forsake character and embrace the history of the performers. Schwarzenegger is Schwarzenegger. Willis is Willis. So there’s never any real need to explain their motivations (which become laughable when they both pop up for the end) – they just sort of come and go as they please. To engage the film at its own level, motivation is excess baggage Expendables 2 need not concern itself with. If you need to explain why Schwarzenegger caps fools whilst riding shotgun in Bruce Willis’ electric shaggin’ wagon airport joy ride, then you’re not the audience for this film.

A money shot for the ages at Planet Hollywood’s final meeting of the boards.

The cast additions work for the most part. Liam Hemsworth’s Billy the Kid has an arc that’s telegraphed the first fraction-of-a-second he opens his mouth. He’s there for a very specific reason that, honestly, would’ve been better served by a character like Li’s Yin Yang – someone with a touch more group history. But it’s a credit to Thor’s lil’ brother that it still pays off as intended. Chinese film star Yu Nan pulls off Stallone’s potential love interest with great aplomb, and injects some much needed sexy amid this oiled sausage festivales.

My biggest issue with the previous film was Dolph Lundgren’s Gunnar Jensen, whose addictions and unglued demeanor had jeopardized the lives of his mates. He should have been capped with extreme prejudice, instead he shows up at the end and everyone says, “Hey – no hard feelings for trying to murder us all, brother.” But I’m glad he survived because – of all of the returnees – it’s finally Dolph’s time to shine. Gunnar’s still a mess – but he’s now the comedic presence in Li’s absence. He’s Lurch from The Adams Family if Lurch was a genius-level alcoholic with a physics major and a little more conversation. Terry Crews’ involvement pays dividends – though I’m positive his outfits were getting strangely smaller and tighter as the film progressed. It’s such a packed cast that it’s easy to forget someone as capable as Jason Statham’s even in the film – until he delivers a line like “I now pronounce you man and KNIFE.” Then you remember.

Expendables 2 feels in many ways like the film I’d hoped for when the first Expendables was announced. This is a movie that’s only concern is not concerning itself with unnecessary plot. Stallone’s script (co-written with Richard Wenk) is sturdier than his last. And – implausible as it may be – the film finally puts Stallone, Willis, and Schwarzenegger side-by-side to do intense property damage (a feat not seen since the age of Planet Hollywood). Having seen The Raid this week, there’s nothing Expendables 2 offers that cannot or hasn’t already been improved upon. But this is not experimental cinema intended to forward an established genre – it’s comfort food. It’s going to the State Fair and seeing Lou Gramm open for Eddie Money, or any modicum of aging rockers still playing their old shit.

Expendables 2 is familiar territory, knowing its audience well enough to never trod out the dreaded “We’ve got something new we’d like to play for ya’ll right now.”  It sticks to what works because the filmmakers have been working it for so long.

Now bring on Seagal for Expendables 3, or we riot.


Out of a Possible 5 Stars

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