There’s a scene towards the beginning of The Expendables 2 in which Dolph Lundgren quite literally sneezes into Einstein’s theory of relativity. Nothing sums up the film’s modus operandi more succinctly, or phlegmatically, for that matter. The second instalment of Sylvester Stallone’s rib-cracking, hip-replacing, geriatric men-on-a-mission franchise has little interest in reason or rationality, instead opting to celebrate bloodthirsty machismo and the art of the terrible one-liner above any sense of cosmic coherence.
Make no mistake about it, this is a hulking brute of a film, butch beyond comprehension. Quite literally, in fact – a good proportion of the dialogue gets drowned in the edit. Lundgren alone could do with a wholesale Bane-style remix, his character here reduced to a bumbling, mumbling thug, albeit one with a penchant for nuclear physics and casual sexism. But in the topsy-turvy, bullet-soaked, mano-a-mano world of The Expendables 2, it’s clear that actions speak louder than words, its veins violently convulsing with each and every kill.
And yet, for all that, Simon West’s film (the Con Air director takes over the reins from Stallone, who presumably appreciates the sit down) remains almost completely enjoyable. Crass, vulgar and low rent, for sure, but with just enough whizz-bang action and a solid helping of laughs – some of them scripted, others less so – to pull it through, in spite of the occasional lapse into unpleasantness. Low expectations work in its favour.
The film opens with a daring rescue – explosions, snipers, ridiculous high wire escapes, full-on McBain nonsense – that sets the tone for the rest of the film. The intro sequence is so overblown and spectacular that the subsequent ninety minutes suffer by comparison. The final showdown twixt Stallone and Van Damme, for instance, feels like something out of a straight-to-DVD Universal Soldier sequel. No matter. It does the job. Just. There’s perhaps little surprise that the film lacks the sprightly excitement of something like The Raid, very much the defining action film of 2012. In truth, the entire budget of Gareth Evans’ breakthrough bone-cruncher would barely cover the Botox bill of The Expendables 2, which isn’t really interested in the shock of the new as it is about kicking it old school. Really old school. With elasticated trousers. The actual plot isn’t important but, for what it’s worth, consists mainly of some guff about retrieving uranium – apparently the world’s safest and least radioactive uranium, such is the nonchalance with which it’s handled throughout – from the dastardly clutches of evil bastard Jean Claude Van Damme (character name: Jean Vilain – it’s that kind of film) in a country that’s a bit foreign. Story is secondary to the stabbing, however, so probably best not to dwell.
Those looking forward to the promised injection of young blood by way of Liam Hemsworth, fresh off his stint as That Guy In The Hunger Games Who Isn’t Josh Hutcherson, will leave disappointed. The film’s only real concession to modernity, he’s in it for about 10 minutes, not enough time to make a lasting impression although plenty to establish his character as the world’s worst mercenary. The rest of the cast are afforded equally short shrift. Terry Crews and Randy Couture get lost in the scenery, Nan Yu sleeps her way through a thankless role as token woman with a skill, and even Jason Statham gets stiffed this time around. He was practically the joint lead in the original Expendables, but here he’s basically a sidekick, albeit one who gets to dress as a priest and dispatch his enemies with excellent lines such as ‘I now pronounce you man and…knife!’ It’s a moment that very much sums up the narrative aspirations of the screenplay – wheel him on, wheel him off again. This certainly explains the presence of Chuck Norris, whose sole job is to turn up, be Chuck Norris for a bit, then bugger off like a good little Republican. His cameo plays like an advertisement for the National Rifle Association, although it’s ridiculously self-aware, and to be fair to the old war horse he gets the best entrance and the best joke of the entire film.
The real stars of the show are, of course, the Planet Hollywood triumvirate. Naturally, as Expendable-in-Chief , it is Stallone himself who hogs the screen time. Behind the grunt, he has an undeniably charismatic presence which binds this motley crew together. He also gets the most lingering and exploitative close-up of a vein in the whole of cinema. You worry he might burst. Regardless, Stallone is a solid, paternal presence, replete with facial hair that borders on the avant-garde.
The reappearance of Arnold Schwarzenegger is something of a damp squib. He gets a beefed up role here, in what is very much his post-gubernatorial comeback. And while there’s undoubtedly a transitory thrill in seeing him pick up a machine gun and mow down every last man in the room, the truth is that the big man is out of shape, looking every one of his 65 years. He is a rubbish colossus. Willis, on the other hand, has an easy charm. All he has to do is unleash that smirk and suddenly the prospect of a fifth Die Hard film makes a whole lot of sense.
The sight of these three titans sharing screen time and trading kills is undoubtedly a guilty pleasure. The quips come thick and fast, the in-jokes relentless. There are “I’ll be backs” and “yip-eee-ka-yays” galore, and at one point, Arnold even drills his way through a wall of rock like that bit in Total Recall. In many ways, The Expendables 2 is the Stardust Memories of obnoxious action cinema. Rarely has a film this loud and chaotic been so stuffed to its wrinkly gills with allusions to former glories, so neurotic in its obsession with its own Z-grade, R-rated past. It’s a violent, rugged orgy of self-awareness. How else to explain the almost constant winks to camera, the boorish cavalcade of one-upmanship, the persistent allusions to the cast’s earlier, funnier, better work? Less of a Greatest Hits then, more of a superior B-side compilation.
(Note 1: Loses marks for no Mickey Rourke.)
(Note 2: The climactic showdown is uncomfortably reminiscent of the airport massacre in Modern Warfare 2, which makes the whole thing seem a little more sinister if you think about it.)
(Note 3: The Expendables 3 should almost certainly feature Harrison Ford telling the world to stay away from his family. His wife? Cynthia Rothrock.)