The Expendables 2

And the award for most improved film franchise goes to… The Expendables.

It’s rather ironic that Sly Stallone’s anti-Metamucil campaign that begun in 2010 bears the name ‘The Expendables’, considering that’s how most of Hollywood has seen most of the (literal) heavyweights in the picture since the advent of CGI, Neal Moritz and Skin-coloured padding.

The last time Dolph Lundgren and had seen the silver screen was when a martial arts convention run a tangled reel of their past work before an autograph session, and Sylvester Stallone? well, a few short years ago the one-time king of action cinema was seemingly a kickstarter campaign away from keeping himself employed.

But sometime around the news got out G.I Joe Channing Tatum – just one of the young guns considered a contemporary action movie star – had burnt his dick (I kid you not) while working on a pricey adventure film, audiences and studios begun to latch onto the idea of seeing some of the old, steroid-stumping action men of yesteryear back on the big screen.

And then it happened : The old was new again. The ’80s action hero, much like the 12 inch (that’s not a throwback to the Tatum reference), was getting another spin.

Suddenly Stallone was engaged again, Arnold Schwarzenegger was rethinking his political career, Dolph Lundgren renewed his membership to Bodybuilders weekly, and contemporaries like Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steve Austin and Randy Couture were emerging from under the bargain bin of your local DVD retailer. If you were the cinematic equivalent of a French bread stick – huge, crusty and terrific when smothered in cheese, you had a career again.

“The Expendables” was Stallone’s way of declaring ‘we’re back!’ by uniting every available (and agreeable) fallen action star for the one, big, bad blockbuster.

Well, that was the plan, anyway.

You see, despite the presence of that Levi’s-wetting cast – Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis in the one scene!? Oh my! – the film, written and directed by Stallone, was one big ad for latex-carrying cashew satchels. And that’s about it. It was as weak as sugarless lemon squash.

No real story to speak of, a confused mesh of tones, and a bunch of characters and a plot you couldn’t care less about.

“The Expendables” was, as far as many kiddies of the ’80s were concerned, the most disappointing movie of 2010.

I know I had the usher stick a plastic fork in my eye mid-way through the film, just to wake me up.

We were promised cinematic sex, and we got nothing but scorched Tatum Schlong.

Lesson learnt though, it seems – at least on the filmmaker side.

Simon West and writer Stallone have crafted a much more confident, well-balanced and more entertaining sequel. In fact, Stallone’s seemingly so confident he’s not the man to direct these films that he stepped aside and pink-slipped himself from directing duties, leaving someone who knows his way around these ensemble actioners – “Con-Air” being West’s calling-card – better than he.

Choosing to go with the “let’s play this for laughs” tone, rather than flipping back and forward between drama and dud gags, the film celebrates the rebirth of the old school action hero in a way the first film struggled to do. At times, it goes way too over-the-top, but it’s still no-doze compared to the tranquilizing original.

If the cast for the original read like a ShoWest VIP invitation list, then the sequel reads like the table cards at the “Last Action Hero” premiere party (sans MC Hammer, sadly). Aside from returning cast members Stallone, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture and Terry Crews, add forgotten ass-kickers Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris ,and young hotshot Liam Hemsworth (“The Hunger Games”), to the mix.

And it’s not just a case of ‘Yo! Look at my famous friends, Adrian!’ this time around.

Thankfully, everyone’s got something to do this time too! — well, not in that “Once Upon A Time in America” sense but definitely in a “Dirty Dozen” or “Ocean’s Eleven” way.

The first “Expendables” felt like a bland direct-to-DVD cash-grab from the opening sequence; the sequel looks and feels like an epic, expensive action movie from the immensely entertaining and excessively over-the-top pre-credits sequence. West knows how to frame and shoot, something Sly didn’t even attempt to play with on the first film – and his effort gets the blood flowing better.

This first sequence have the mercenaries-for-hire (Stallone, Statham, Couture, Crews, Lundgren, Li and new recruit Hemsworth) charging their armoured vehicles into the high-security terrain of a villains compound. There, they spectacularly splatter many-a-rogue in their attempt to rescue fellow mercenary, Trench, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger (who merely cameoed in the original).

The sequence is the first of several hints that this films out to convince us of its worthiness of the predecessor. And the moments that follow are also rather cool.

The shady ‘Church’ (Bruce Willis), the C.I.A suit who regularly hires ‘The Expendables’ for dangerous missions, informs Barney Ross (Stallone) that he owes him one – for screwing up the last mission, and consequently, running off with his millions. He needs someone to retrieve an item from a safe from an airplane that was shot down in Albania. The team, accompanied by tech genius Maggie (Yu Nan), snatch the item from the plane, but the mission is extended when one of the team is kidnapped by a mad-man named Vilain (yes, you read it), played by Jean-Claude Van Damme. The Belgian baddie snatches the item and skirts off in a plane with his team of heavies.

The mission ends up becoming a personal one, when one of The Expendables is permanently incapacitated by Vilain (and it’s not Jet Li, he disappears from the film about three minutes in for different reasons; and Mickey Rourke’s character isn’t even seen this time around – suggesting he didn’t want a bar of the franchise after catching the nonsensical original), and so with guns-a-blazing and heads-hot, the team set out to obliterate this scumbag enemy and his team.

Along the way, they’re assisted by several colleagues, including ‘Lone Wolf’ Booker (Chuck Norris in a scene-stealing cameo), Trench (Schwarzenegger) and ultimately, Church (Willis), who is pressured into getting his hands dirty.

In other words, the plot is shit. There isn’t much of one. And the motivation and reasoning beyond getting so-and-so from A to B, and having this person here and that person there, is ridiculously flawed.
Still, much better than what we were served up first time around – something about a mad dictator who isn’t nice to women, wasn’t it?

Here, the chit chat scenes between the main characters flow better, the action sequences are staged and shot more spectacularly, and though most of their dialogue is woeful, the cast seem to have their parts a little more down pat this time around.

As terrific as it is to have Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Willis shooting side-by-side and spitting out woefully apt Reagan-era dialogue (in fact, that’s great to watch!), the real goods lie within the delivery and turns of some of the supporting team – talented young Hemsworth, living legend Norris (taking the Mickey out of himself but still dishing out something resembling a performance; can’t say that for everyone involved), humorous hulk Lundgren (inexplicably forgiven for trying to kill the team in the original), and especially Van Damme, who is amazingly enthusiastic and deliciously fun as the films menacing villain – Oh, and those high-flying kicks he does? Amazing! The muscles from Brussels will undoubtedly get a career boost from his S.O.B role here.

There’s a further reason beyond acting capacity as to why the supporting characters, like Norris’s ‘Booker’, might score more points with the audience than the bigger names do – ego. Seems the film’s main three stars are determined to remind those watching “Expendables 2” just how much they’ve contributed to the action genre. It’s this uncomfortable mesh of self-deprecation and self-awareness that hurts the second “Expendables” movie.

Don’t mistake those laughs for appreciative giggles; the audience is laughing at horrible hokey these moments are.

Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis are the biggest culprits, constantly winking at the audience, while – for no reason at all, except to take you out of the film – referencing some of their trademark lines or famous characters. In one particular scene, Schwarzenegger’s character rides a bit of machinery through a solid wall and pops his head out the window to say “I’m… back!”. Yes, we know he’s taking the Mickey out of his “Terminator” persona, but he’d already done that once in the film (by way of Terry Crews’ character, emphasising the word ‘Terminated’ in a conversation about big guns), but it makes no bloody sense for him to be even saying it. For a start, he was never there to begin with, so for the character to announce that he’s ‘back’ doesn’t make a lick of sense. It’s actually rather stomach-churning to hear the words come out of the Oak’s mouth. But he doesn’t stop there, a few minutes later he has to throw in a ‘I’ll be back’ gag. ‘Please, make it stop’ might’ve been an appropriate response for one of the characters in the scene.

Even though Schwarzenegger’s abysmal lines stand out the most – and maybe only because Schwarzenegger seems to be a bit green in the acting department, even more so than he was pre-political career – Stallone and Willis also have their fair share of head-shaking lines. A fun drinking game in the future might be counting just how many times these three guys in particular reference themselves or their past films in the space of “The Expendables 2″ – off the top of my head, I can think of at least half-a-dozen key moments in which the Terminator and Rambo are mentioned, and lines from ”Die Hard” and ”T2” are referenced.

You’ll notice Van Damme isn’t throwing ‘Kickboxer’ or ‘Universal Soldier’ lines at the audience, and Lundgren isn’t reciting some of his famous ‘Rocky IV’ dialogue (“I Must Break You”) either. As a result, the audiences see them more as characters – not, as is the case with Sly, Arnie and Bruce, ‘ageing action stars playing themselves’.

So you can thank the truly expendable… Expendables for saving the pic.

“Expendables 2” is a genuinely more entertaining picture, but more so, one that feels like something that might’ve come out of 1987 (the stratagem and motivation of the series from the get-go)… As opposed to the first that played like it came out of someone’s ghastly blemished rear end.

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