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Big on star power, low on plot, but worth a watch
on November 29, 2012
Sylvester Stallone's out-of-nowhere film 'The Expendables' managed to do the unthinkable: gather some of the biggest names in action movie history and assemble them all under one roof, for one truly spectacular action-fest. The plan worked well enough for a sequel, which brings us to 'Expendables 2,' a bigger, badder, louder entry in the series. Does it have the cajones?
First and foremost, let's take a look at the cast. If ever there was a bigger collection of ultra-stars all together on the same screen, I haven't yet seen it. Stallone, Statham, Lundgren, Willis, Crews, and Couture all make a return, though Mickey Rourke is nowhere to be seen this time. Jet Li only makes a cameo appearance for the film's exciting opener, which is equal parts disappointing, and misleading. This does, however, make room for a few other faces, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Scott Adkins. All in all, it's a pretty impressive cast of heavyweights, but the story is quite another matter.
Stallone once again stars as Barney Ross, the leader of the Expendables mercenary team, who have been sent to Nepal to rescue a Chinese hostage. They inadvertently stumble upon the antagonistic Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who has also been captured. Following a daring escape, the newest and youngest of the team, Billy (Liam Hemsworth) decides that the life of a mercenary is simply not for him, and that he would rather spend his days in the arms of his girlfriend. Before he can quit, however, he must accompany the Expendables on one final mission. CIA operative Church (Bruce Willis) forces Barney to accept the mission to Albania to retrieve a non-disclosed item. They are accompanied by Maggie Chan (Yu Nan), a female operative with impressive technical expertise. In the midst of the operation, the Expendables are confronted by the Sangs, an international criminal syndicate run by the ruthless Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme). Vilain brutally executes young Billy before retreating with the package, which is revealed to be a computer with the stored location of refined plutonium in an abandoned Bulgarian mine. Mad with vengeance, the Expendables vow to track Vilain and the Sangs, and kill them all. But Vilain's unpredictable, psychotic nature soon manifests itself in the most horrible manner, and the team are forced to think past their desire for vengeance, and protect the innocent.
The biggest gripe with Expendables 2 is that it doesn't quite have the grand sense of spectacle as the original film. The sequel feels grittier, dirtier, more down to Earth, and on a smaller scale. The writing isn't always the greatest, either, and makes the mistake of putting heavy-handed drama at the forefront of some key scenes. It's muscle-bound guy's drama, amplified to the point of embarrassing caricature. The story is engaging enough only to the point of setting up key scenes for its ensemble cast to play around in, which smacks more of an attempt to sell tickets via star power, than a vehicle for contemplation. Whatever, it's a big dumb action movie. I get it. But while certain characters like Barney or Lee get all of the attention, others are flat-out forgotten, underdeveloped, or simply underutilized. I was too busy keeping an eye out for Van Damme or Norris that I actually forget about Toll Road (Randy Couture) completely. Perhaps if they gave the man more than three lines to speak, he would have stuck out more. Similarly, Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren) seems less like the brooding, unstable loose cannon he was in the first film, and more like the butt of every joke this time 'round. It's great to see Van Damme back on the big screen again, though, and in a villainous role no less. Van Damme hasn't aged all that well, yet this actually helps his character's rugged, brutal and sociopathic personality. His body is still in peak form, complete with trademark leaping reverse kick. Some lesser characters like Scott Adkins do quite well in their respective roles, especially when it comes to fight scenes, but we all walked into this looking for the silver screen legends. It's nice to see Schwarzenegger get a lot more screen time this time around, especially after his teaser scene in the first film. After his long stint as Governor of California, Arnold can still hold and shoot a machine gun as if he'd barely walked off the set of Predator.
Expendables 2 is more of the same, but...less as well. The writing and plot structure has taken a significant back seat to the cluster of bulging biceps and legendary personas, which makes the film a give-and-take affair. You get more of the cinematic greats, but they have a lot less to do with the story they're given. At the end of the day, it's a relatively run of the mill script about a villainous madman who is out to make millions of dollars on nuclear weapons, only to be taken down by a team of heroes. Could it be anything more, really? That's a hearty question, but no real attempt was made either way. If you like straightfoward action movies with ear-splitting explosions, high-flying martial arts fists n' feet, and pavement littered to the ankles with empty machine gun shells, then this is your film. If, however, you've matured and evolved along with more ambitious action films like The Matrix, The Bourne Identity, Mission Impossible, Pitch Black, and Avatar (to name but a few), then you might have trouble feeling this one. Either way, it's a cinematic achievement that nobody believed could be pulled off, yet Stallone managed it. If that isn't worth a trip nostalgia lane, then I don't know what is.
NOTE: This review will be edited with more content once the Blu-Ray is released.