The other day, my mom asked me if The Expendables 2 was a Pixar film. She had it mistaken for a sequel to The Incredibles, you see. I feel a little bad about laughing at my mother right in her face, but can you blame me? Aside from a hardcore porn film, I don’t think anything could possibly be further from a Pixar movie.

For the uninitiated, this is The Expendables 2. I wasn’t looking forward to seeing the movie, mostly because I’d already seen the poster. No movie with a cast like that is going to bother with such trivialities as plot or characters. Furthermore, I saw the first Expendables back in 2010, and I had completely forgotten everything about it until I looked back at my notes.

Still, I wanted to get a blog entry in before going on vacation this weekend, so I went ahead and gave it a look. Imagine my surprise to find that this movie was far and away better than its prequel.

I suspect that the change in directors was a reason for the upgrade in quality. Last time, the film was helmed by star and co-writer Sylvester Stallone. For this installment, the reins were handed to Simon West, director of such fare as Con Air, Tomb Raider, and The Mechanic. The difference is literally like night and day.

In the last film, most of the action was so dark that I could barely see it. Here, all the fight scenes and explosions (with one minor exception at the climax) were all brightly lit and perfectly visible. I should also point out that unlike Stallone, West shows much greater competence with shot composition, editing, and how to use a film score.

Something else that I appreciate about West’s approach to action is in how relatively old-school it is. I had almost forgotten what it was like to watch a huge action sequence without speed-ramping, shaky-cam, 3D, or any of the other gimmicks so commonly found in action spectaculars nowadays. West just points the camera at whatever’s going bang, and I personally found that very refreshing.

(Full disclosure: There’s one instance of shaky-cam, but it takes place during a plane crash, so I’ll let that slide.)

Perhaps more importantly, the script is much tighter this time around. Last time, Jason Statham’s love life took up an entire worthless subplot. Here, it’s used for a few jokes before disappearing entirely after the first act. Additionally, there are no worthless speeches and no poorly-established poetry readings like there were in the last film.

The script also benefits for dumping a lot of dead weight. Mickey Rourke’s character was essentially worthless in the last film, and he doesn’t get so much as a mention here. Jet Li gets one awesome fight scene in the beginning, and then he departs the film permanently. Then we have the characters played by Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Chuck Norris, all of whom appear very briefly and disappear just as quickly before reappearing for the climax (how they all got to the climax, however, is among the many and varied plot canyons in this film). As a result, this film focuses pretty much entirely on Stallone, Statham, Lundgren, Crews, and Couture. The latter three are every bit as interchangeable and cardboard as they were in the previous film, but at least three oafish comic relief characters is a manageable number.

Another improvement over the last film is that this one uses meta humor. All too often, the characters make jokes and references regarding the actors’ previous roles and catchphrases. Honest to God, Chuck Norris hisownself appears just long enough to make a Chuck Norris joke. I love this, because it’s so refreshingly honest. We know that this film was only made due to the star power of its cast, we know that this film is totally devoid of brainpower, and we know that the film knows it. The movie openly admits as much, which does a lot to help cut the bullshit and enjoy the film for what it is.

I should also mention that the last film’s villain was played by Eric Roberts. In this movie, the over-the-top cartoon villain (with a pentagram tattooed on his neck, I might add) is played by Jean-Claude Van Damme. That’s an upgrade if ever I heard of one. And while I’m on the subject, I should probably explain that his dastardly mission is to retrieve five tons of plutonium laying abandoned since the Cold War. Because that’s exactly what we need in this movie where everything blows up. Fucking plutonium!

Still, this movie’s true secret weapon is its female lead (note that I didn’t say “love interest”). In the last film, the female lead was some totally unmemorable damsel in distress. Here, the female lead is a CIA specialist sent to assist our main crew on their mission. I don’t know who Nan Yu is (IMDB tells me she played a small role in Speed Racer), but I was genuinely impressed with her in this movie. She very nicely plays a foil for all the testosterone in the picture, and Yu even gets to crack a few jokes at the expense of her male co-stars. Best of all, this character kicks ass. She’s every bit as formidable in combat as the others in this film, which is really saying something with a cast like this.

The only real weak link in this cast was Liam Hemsworth, the only one who never gets a “Fuck yeah!” moment. This is mostly due to the fact that Hemsworth plays a sniper, so his action moments consist entirely of squibs going off while the character himself is off-camera somewhere. As such, Hemsworth’s primary job is to make us sympathize with the character, so the plot can adequately change direction when something awful happens to him. This called for an acting performance that Hemsworth — bless his heart — wasn’t quite capable of delivering.

Yes, the movie does take time to develop Hemsworth’s character, but only to make the villains look that much more evil by comparison. This is one of many times when the movie ruminates on old age and hope for the next generation, only to use it as a way of enforcing the film’s black/white morality. This film somehow uses thematic depth to make itself even more two-dimensional. I didn’t even know that was possible.

The Expendables 2 is essentially critic-proof. Anyone who loves cheesy old-school action will go see it, anyone else will stay away, and that’s exactly as it should be. For my part, I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy the film, as it turned out to be far better than the original.

If you’ve still got a summer action movie itch, this is definitely one to watch.

For more Movie Curiosities, check out my blog. I’m also on Facebook and Twitter.