Monday, August 27, 2012
The Expendables 2 (2012) review
THE EXPENDABLES 2 2012
Sylvester Stallone (Barney Ross), Jason Statham (Lee Christmas), Jet Li (Yin Yang), Dolph Lundgren (Gunner Jensen), Chuck Norris (Booker), Jean Claude Van Damme (Jean Vilain), Bruce Willis (Church), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Trench), Terry Crews (Hale Caesar), Randy Couture (Toll Road), Liam Hemsworth (Billy the Kid), Yu Nan (Maggie), Scott Adkins (Hector)
Directed by Simon West
The Short Version: This overly silly, bombastic and troubled big budget throwback is packed to the gills with aging 80s action stars and a few new ones. Very much a Chang Cheh style 'team movie', the narrative reverberates THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) once the action shifts to the Soviet Union. The movie is somewhat hindered by a spectacular opening that should have been the ending. It also seems to lose some equilibrium right after; wobbling around, bumping its head through a few massive plot holes bigger than the combined muscle mass of the main cast. Still, it's entertaining fluff with occasional, and welcome character nuances and moments, there's just not enough of them to keep this from being little more than a 'Big, Dumb Action Film'. The first movie has the edge in terms of narrative cohesion, while the second is louder and excessively, if intentionally stupid. Packed with muscles, sweat, big guns and bigger explosions, the cast seem to have had a grand time making this in spite of the hackneyed and hacked plot. Silliness rules the day; everything else is Expendable.
After pulling off a daring rescue of a Chinese political figure in Burma, Barney Ross and his band of mercenaries are hired by Church to fly into the Albanian wilderness to locate a downed airplane carrying a safe with an armed, and time- sensitive lock. The Expendables are assured this is a simple mission, but when it's accomplished, they suddenly run afoul of a European criminal cartel led by Jean Vilain who not only takes the safes contents, but humiliates the mercenaries and kills one of them in the process. Discovering that the safe contained a digital map revealing the location of five tons in plutonium, The Expendables have limited time to stop Vilain from selling off the potential weapons of mass destruction to the highest bidder.
Stallone steps down out of the directors chair and allows the guy responsible for CON AIR (1997) to take his place. Considering how well the first film flows, this wasn't such a good idea.
THE EXPENDABLES 2 starts off strongly, but steadily collapses after the films title makes its belated appearance. This explosive, and lengthy opening action sequence seems like half the budget was spent on it. It sets up the remainder perfectly; if only the remainder matched, maintained, or exceeded the boisterousness of said opening.
Unfortunately for the ending, which seems to just start without any transition, is minimal by comparison. This is just one of a few things that makes this sequel, while entertaining, not quite as good on the whole as the first film. One thing it does do better is spread things out for the mercenary all stars and the action doesn't fall prey to rapid edits and uber close ups.
While it's still The Stallone & Statham Show, the serious tone of the first is jettisoned and replaced by a goofy one filled with one-liners that, by the finale, have worn out their welcome. Some may find this pleasurable, I found it annoying as hell. For example, Schwarzenegger utters two "I'll be back's". Why? Wasn't one enough? Other characters toss about classic 80s action lines with rapidity equaling the rounds per second of the automatic weapons they use to mow down endless streams of automatons. The best line in the entire film isn't even a one-liner, but a remark Schwarzenegger makes at the end about them all being old. It's bittersweet, but touching in its irony and affection.
Some other things that are conspicuously apparent--Jason Statham carries on his tradition of whispering nearly all of his lines; Jet Li, who is third billed, bows out of the film after the extended opening sequence; Dolph Lundgren is lovably insane instead of the demented outcast of the first picture; Crews and Couture get more scenes and lines, but are only modestly expanded upon from the previous picture; Schwarzenegger, now in his 60s, rattles and shakes while firing a high-powered weapon.
One of the more bewildering aspects of this movie are how people enter and exit the narrative at random without any explanation whatsoever; which owes to some of the plot holes mentioned above. These aren't ordinary plot holes, either. These are bigger than the combined muscle mass of the main cast. You almost expect to see the intruding characters do some product placement promotion for a new protein bar or the Total Gym.
Speaking of Total Gym, the sudden appearance of Chuck Norris is simply ridiculous and takes you out of the movie; unless the intention was to hearken back to his invincible hero of INVASION USA (1985) who seemed to always be in the right place at the right time.
Aside from an hilarious joke that alludes to the legion of online Norris memes, his entrance feels sloppily tacked on. He somehow manages to single-handedly take out a tank and several dozen men carrying nothing more than a machine gun.
His reprise during the conclusion feels less intrusive since the editing cuts right to the big finish without any set up at all. As nice as it was to see him in a new movie, his addition to the cast really adds nothing to the film and wasn't necessary to the plot. It's like one of those episodes in an old television series that introduces a new character for the sole purpose of a spin off series. That's how Norris's participation felt to me.
The sloppiest moments involve the bad guys plan for extracting their destructive payload.
Once the good guys have rescued the slave laborers digging for the plutonium, Jean Vilain sets off explosives to bury them. A conveniently placed hole allows everybody to duck inside. A short time later, our heroes try to find a way out, but it's not necessary; Schwarzenegger's character, who somehow knows exactly where they are, shows up in some sort of burrowing bulldozer to free them!
Jean Claude Van Damme, who loves to meddle with movies to "make them better", plays the main villain here, Jean Vilain. Personally, I despise his movies as much as anything with Donnie "Look! I've lost my shirt!" Yen. Since VD plays the bad guy, it's a guarantee he will die at the end, so it's okay.
At the point in the film where he wants the Plutonium dug up within a three day time frame, he orders Hector to kidnap all the women and children in the village to use as slaves to speed things up. For whatever reason, his men are a bit slow to do this as seemingly a day or more passes by the time the Expendables reach this village to talk with the gun-toting, yet frightened women who are hiding their children. When they do finally show up to kidnap the women and children, they're easily killed off, yet Vilain, for all his meticulous planning, never realizes the extra hands fail to materialize. Yet, a few scenes later, the Plutonium is excavated on time, but without all the extra hands Vilain had ordered!
Speaking of Van Damme, he reportedly tweaked the finale (at Stallone's approval) to suit himself. This is akin to him stating in past films that his ass must be in frame x number of times presumably for the ladies in the audience.
Arguably the most famous example of this was his destruction of John Woo's original version of HARD TARGET by interfering with the editing process. Anyways, he trots out his old 80s repertoire of kick (notice that's singular) which he does over and over. Known for his splits and the same tired ballet sissy kicks, Van Damme would never even qualify as a second rate Occidental Hwang Jang Lee.
He also wears sunglasses through most of the movie, which is good because when he takes them off, his eyes (whether due to the lighting, the make up, or past substance abuse) seem to bug out like the aliens with the ping pong eyes in KILLERS FROM SPACE (1953), or the zombies with the protruding, bulbous orbs from I EAT YOUR SKIN (1964).
Van Damme also makes a serious action movie faux pas during his first interaction with Los Mercenarios. Apparently Jean Vilain didn't finish watching THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) to learn that Calvera ultimately lives to regret allowing the seven to live by humiliating them instead of killing them. But then our 'big dumb action movie' would only be around 30 minutes long.
Liam Hemsworth's character is a new, if younger addition to the Wild Old Bunch. He also gets the most exposition. And considering this is a 'big dumb action movie', it doesn't require brain cells to foresee his future in the movie.
Chinese actress Yu Nan is also new, and the sole female member of the group. She's unwanted, yet proves her worth on a couple of occasions. It's interesting to note that the IMDb's bizarre policy of placing the Chinese family name last instead of first (as it should be) is confusing on their entry for EXPENDABLES 2. They list Yu Nan as Nan Yu, but fail to list Jet Li's character, Yin Yang, as Yang Yin.
Speaking of women, EXPENDABLES 2 is a six pack of abs worth of Cheh-isms. The level of machismo on display here would make the Godfather of Hong Kong Cinema proud. EXPENDABLES 2 is all about men, muscles, guns, sweat and CGI blood.
Chang Cheh made a celebrated career out of making Oriental versions of this same type of action picture resulting in his sexual preference coming into question for it; despite Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah doing virtually the same thing. But then those guys didn't make close to a hundred gore soaked action films where women take a backseat to the men.
Outside of Maggie (Yu Nan), all the women here are virtually helpless, and Maggie herself isn't highlighted the same way as the men. She participates in the fights about as much as some of the swordswomen in Cheh's movies do.
In keeping with the Chang Cheh connection (not that one was intended, but I couldn't help but see it), The Stallone & Statham Show is highly reminiscent of Cheh's immensely successful double act pairing David Chiang with Ti Lung.
For all the "conspiracy theorists" kung fu fans who often prefer debating Cheh's alleged homosexuality instead of his movies, Stallone tells Van Damme during their disappointing climactic fight scene that if he wants to be "manned up", he's going to "man him up". It goes without saying that both men did porn--with Mr. VD appearing in gay porn--early in their careers.
Aside from being more plentiful, the action choreography is better photographed this time out allowing Thailand's Don Thai's action design to be more visibly appreciated. Cory Yuen's choreography from the first EXPENDABLES was mangled by that films editors.
Composer, Brian Tyler returns and his score makes the film more exciting and engaging at the right moments. The score is compensated by some great 50s-70s songs that fit beautifully considering the age of the cast.
And that is probably the single greatest thing about this series--it gives some of action cinemas old hands a new chance to shine; whether for the last time remains to be seen. If revisiting the memories of those 'big dumb action films' of old was the intended mission of the filmmakers, then for them, and for those who still love those movies, there's nothing Expendable about that.
***ALL IMAGES: GOOGLE IMAGES***