Reviewing The Expendables 2 is slightly unnecessary. Like most films, the merits of story and characterisation deserve to be considered but the chances are no review of The Expendables 2 is likely to sway you one way or the other. Most people will have already decided whether they’re willing to just switch off and watch a bunch of older actors nostalgically lay waste to a small army or you see it as so empty and gory that watching this film would be a waste of time. Honestly, both points are valid opinions. The Expendables 2 does delight in showing the biggest guns blowing massive holes in a dozen faceless mooks per scene and outside of that there really isn’t much else to the film. Unless you enjoy bloodshed and 80’s throwbacks, this film won’t appeal.
So why am I reviewing the film anyway and why should you be bothered to read on? Well, as I’ve said, every film deserves to be considered for its merits, or lack thereof, regardless of genre or theme. And, in fact, The Expendables 2 does have some themes working bubbling beneath the surface. One of the most interesting additions to this sequel is the injection of some new blood. Liam Hemsworth picks up a sniper rifle and joins the crew as Billy the Kid. With him comes the conflict of youth vs. age. And in many ways, Billy is show to be better than the older guys, despite their implied experience. For instance, there a scene where Billy is sent ahead to scout the area and jogs enthusiastically up a hill. Sylvester Stallone and the rest of the gang look on in resentment and awe. They cheerfully chuckle about the days when they could do that.
It is interesting, for a film packed to the hilt with aged action stars and out of work muscle men, there’s no sign of trying to stay in the spot light. I mean, sure they’re doing this movie but outside of this movie and its franchise and beer adverts how much work are Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme really getting? Just as the characters readily admit that they can’t keep up with Billy’s youthful energy, the actors too are really just doing this for fun. They’re not trying to show up the modern action stars like Jason Statham or Scott Adkins. They know that they’re getting over the hill. It’s as Arnold Schwarzenegger says, ‘we all belong in a museum’.
That admittance is also part of the reason that the film is fun to watch despite the lack of characterisation and story. If the characters were trying to prove they could still hang with the modern action heroes and running down the youth, it might be pitiful to watch but instead it’s rather enjoyable to watch two men out on a day trip from the old people’s home wail on each other with chains and knives because they’re aware of how out of shape and out of touch they are. That’s not to say that it doesn’t make a damn good action sequence when Stallone finally faces off against Van Damme. In fact, the hand to hand action sequences in this film are a very enjoyable spectacle. Anything with knuckle dusters or knives in The Expendables 2 ends up looking like ballet in the hands of director Simon West.
Strangely though, I feel that Stallone did a better job directing the story in the first film than West did in this one. The plot is laughably simple. Action films aren’t exactly known for being intricate mysteries that pose troubling existential questions but even this one takes the cake. There is an underground bunker of plutonium, the location of which is stored in a safe which was on a plane that recently got shot down. The Expendables are tasked with retrieving the blueprints which then slip into the hands of Van Damme’s character, Jean Vilain. They clearly struggled with the names of these characters, but I digress. From there Vilain digs up the plutonium but is stopped before he can transport it out of the country. That’s pretty much it as far the story goes. There’s some stuff about the workers being taken from local villages and getting trapped underground but the women in the villages are of no help and instead require protecting. The underground scene actually leads to a very stupid subversion of character development and instead goes with a Deus Ex Machina to free the people.
So the story isn’t up to much, and the characterisation isn’t much better. Except for Billy the Kid. He gets some characterisation, being the new guy and all, which shows that they can create interesting characters when they try. The biggest let down in the film was actually the gun fights. This being an action film shoot outs between the few good guys and the army of minions is the norm but there were so many shoot outs and it was edited so that it felt extremely fast paced. I’m not asking for bullet time or anything but the film really felt like it was racing from one gun fight to the next without really giving the viewer enough time to appreciate the headshots and near-misses. It took out some of the tension and suspense from the shoot outs specifically because it was all passing by quite quickly. The film certainly feels a lot shorter than 103 minutes.
At times, I wondered if the producers were trying to appeal to both the nostalgic older generation with the actors and the references to old action films whilst trying to consider the younger generation of movie-goers by trying by making the film visually similar to a video game. A lot of shots reminded me of something from a Call of Duty game including the scene at the airport towards the end, or something that I’d like to see in a first person shooter. The initial shoot out between Stallone and Van Damme at the end actually reminded me a lot of a fight in the Tanker in Metal Gear Solid 2. I’m not sure it was intentional but visually I definitely sensed the use of video game mechanics at work.
Again, this review won’t sway you to see this film if you don’t like action films or you want something more out of your action films than blood and allusions to things the actors done in their prime. Seriously, there are about two significant conversations in this film and that’s about it. The story is pretty simple, the characters don’t get to grow and a lot of character moments never actually become anything important. The film certainly misses a step here and there which might have elevated the enjoyment for viewers. But it’s clear that the creators of this film don’t really mind if they don’t get it all right so long as they had fun doing it. And if there’s one this film is, it’s fun.