Two years after their first on-screen mission, The Expendables are back to face their biggest threat yet. The Expendables’ leader, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) owes the shadowy CIA operative Mr. Church $5 million in confiscated cash from a previous job. Faced with a choice between prison and one final assignment for Church, Ross chooses the latter, a decision for which the Expendables will pay a high price. What starts as an uncomplicated mission for Ross and his team – comprised of Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Dolph Lundgren, Jason Statham und the newcomers Liam Hemsworth as the sniper Billy the Kid and Yu Nan as the team’s first female member, the fight-experienced safecracker Maggie – turns into their biggest nightmare. Once they retrieve a mysterious device from the safe in the wreckage of an airplane in Albania, they are promptly confronted by the ruthless Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude van Damme) and his team of mercenaries (the anti-Expendables so to speak). Vilain (yes, the movie isn’t very subtle in case you didn’t guess) snatches the contents of the safe and leaves, but not before humiliating Ross’ team and brutally murdering one of its members. From then on, it’s personal. The Expendables need to stop Vilain before he can sell six tons of weapon-grade plutonium to the highest bidder. But the main priority for Ross is to avenge the death of one of their own. A relentless pursuit of the villains’ gang, the Sangs, ensues in the course of which The Expendables need to rely on some unexpected, but very welcome help.
Bringing together the biggest action stars of the 1980s, 1990s and the 2000s together in one movie sounds like an action fan’s wet dream. In 2010 Sylvester Stallone made this dream come true and crafted himself and his colleagues their biggest hit in years. He even snuck short cameos by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger into the film. The concept worked as expected and most audiences left the film not just satisfied, but also wishing for more. Since the logic for sequels in Hollywood always goes by the “bigger and better” premise, it was obvious that for the inevitable sequel, Stallone would need to ramp up things. It meant more action, but also more action stars. On the latter, the movie delivers. Not only did he expand the cameos by Arnie and Willis to something almost resembling supporting parts, but he also got Jean Claude van Damme in his first villainous role, the famed martial artist Scott Adkins as his henchman Hector and Chuck Norris in his first big-screen appearance (aside from his cameo as himself in Dogeball) since 1995 to appear in the new movie. With this much star power and machismo on-screen, he still managed to build a somewhat significant female part for Yu Nan. Even though her character doesn’t give her a whole lot and forces a small romantic subplot for her and Sly, at least she gets to kick some ass along with the rest of the team.
As the ensemble cast of the film grew, some actors just had to suffer. Mickey Rourke is the only significant surviving member of the first film’s cast that did not return for a second round, though his character is hardly missed. Rourke’s monologue from the first film was a good piece of acting, but it also seemed like from a different (more serious) movie and caused a rather unwelcome tonal shift. Jet Li is reduced to such a short cameo appearance here, comparable to that of Bruce Willis in the first movie, that one has got to ask why Li and the filmmakers even bothered. At least he’s given a nice little fight scene to showcase that he has still got the chops. As for the rest of the old team, only Stallone and Statham get their individual moments of glory. Whereas the first movie allowed each individual members of the team their individual moments to shine, the follow-up is more about teamwork. Afterall, it’s the newcomers that the focus is on. However, some hoping a lot of ass-kicking by Bruce Willis and Arnie might be in for a disappointment. In particular Willis’ part is only marginally larger than his appearance in the first film, whereas the Governator’s turn is being overmarketed compared to his screen time. The two do get to join forces in combat during the film’s larger-than-life final showdown, but it’s not nearly as much as one might have hoped for. Their turns mostly consist of comedic banter through one-liners (“Yippee-Ki-Yay”, “I’ll be back” both are heard) and shooting numerous interchangeable minions. As short as Chuck Norris’ part may be, however, he almost steals the show. The movie and Norris himself fully appreciate his unexpected internet fame. Even the recital of one of the most popular Chuck Norris facts is included here. The only thing missing is the trademark roundhouse kick, but afterall Norris is already 72 and, as Arnie states in one of the movies most self-aware moments, belongs into a museum with the rest of the film’s ensemble. That doesn’t apply for the still incredibly fit van Damme who fully relishes his bad guy part, complete with a hokey foreign accent, some babbling about the importance of symbols and unhidden arrogance. The much talked-about mano-a-mano face-off between him and Stallone is way too short considering the build-up to this monumental confrontation, but manages to showcase the strengths of each fighter, including the Muscles from Brussels’ trademark kick. Liam Hemsworth on the other hand only serves the purpose of humanizing Stallone and his team and injecting some young blood in order to maybe lure a few younger audiences into the movie. He does an adequate job, no more, no less.
There isn’t much to be said about the rest. Statham still owns the action scenes and the one-liners (including the already legendary “I pronounce you Man and Knife”), but the small subplot of him getting married and being constantly called by his fiancée is entirely useless. On the other hand, his fight with Scott Adkins is one of the movie’s most distinguished action scenes and easily tops the more hyped van Damme/Stallone face-off. Dolph Lundgren’s oafish Gunnar is the movie’s pronounced comic relief, whereas Terry Crews and Randy Couture are reduced to some forgettable banter.
The first movie worked best when it didn’t take itself seriously at all. It could also benefit from the awe-inspiring novelty that it offered – getting all these stars in one movie and just run with it. Obviously the second film cannot offer that novelty experience again, so in turn, it just ramps up the ridiculousness of the whole thing. Admittedly, there are still some overly serious moments, like Hemsworth’s heavy-handed account of what he has suffered in Afghanistan before joining the team. For the most part, however, it feels as if the filmmakers had a checklist of iconic quotes, movie references and character moments that needed to be in this film. The first flick introduced the ridiculous concept to the audiences, but the second is the one that lives up to it more. Don’t get me wrong, it is still a very calculated enterprise pandering to very specific target audiences. However, it is obvious that the cast had a great time here and doesn’t shy away from poking fun at themselves (including Lundgren’s real-life academic achievements). It’s pure, unabashed, self-aware and constantly self-referential fun giving its audiences just exactly what they expect from a film like this.
The aspect where the film lets down is the action. Sylvester Stallone, apparently busy enough with the screenplay and trying to recruit his old friends for the movie, gave over the directorial reins to Con Air’s Simon West. West who hasn’t produced a solid movie since The General’s Daughter in 1999 does a run-of-the-mill job here with not particular standouts. There are heaps and heaps of action here and a lot of things go boom, but most of it consists of The Expendables shooting up hundreds of faceless opponents, while almost never showing them in any danger. The stakes seem not high enough to generate much suspense. Moreover, while there is a lot of blood and splatter to be seen, it appears obvious that the movie was shot for a PG-13 rating originally and had later blood CGI’ed into it after the outrage of its fans. The fact that not a single “F”-word can be heard during the film is another proof of that. So while the action does entertain well, the set-pieces are simply not memorable enough and only few of the stars actually get into hand-to-hand combat (another result of the actors’ advanced age).
Nevertheless, anyone who has followed the careers of these stars during their prime will be hard-pressed not to enjoy them having this much fun on-screen, while recognizing their over-the-top action personas. It’s a movie for fans and it makes the most out of this undeniably silly idea. Just grab a beer, check your brain at the door and enjoy these aged legends doing what they do best.