Even more so than its 2010 predecessor, The Expendables 2 feels like a juiced-up wish-fulfillment fantasy. The second go-around for Sly Stallone and Avi Lerner’s super franchise is nothing if not a colossally silly indulgence—as much for its padded out cast of (mostly) over-the-hill action movie icons as its target audience of backward-looking genre nostalgists.
Having established the dynamic between the half-dozen above-the-title stars (none of whom proved to be actually expendable), The Expendables 2 opens not with a mere bang but a symphony of booms, blasts, and exploding heads, as action cinema’s over-the-hill Avengers crash through Asia on track to extract a hostage from a pirate/terrorist hideout. The film’s lengthy opening prologue rumbles with more blazing, edge-of-the-seat energy than any of this summer’s more respectable blockbusters. As realized by Simon West (seizing the directorial reigns from Stallone himself), The Expendables 2’s fiery opener is giddily violent crap filmmaking of the highest order, exploding like a surge of pent-up testosterone. It’s as much a credit as a demerit to West’s capable direction that the film can’t improve on it.
Having laid (and lit up) its scene, The Expendables 2 reintroduces Willis’s Mr. Church, a high-level government agent harboring a grudge against Stallone’s mush-mouthed Barney Ross and his crew of for-hire hatchet men (Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, and the rest). He tasks Stallone’s squad—now rounded out by new recruit Liam Hemsworth, playing a soured Afghan war sniper (essentially recuperating the trauma of the war in Afghanistan as nothing more than another action-movie trope)—with retrieving a computer from a downed airplane. Yu Nan also tags along as Maggie, a safecracking whiz whose inclusion scans as a hilarious bid at gender equity, amounting to little more than a modest rumple in the film’s leathery, hyper-masculine fabric. (In one of the film’s funnier bits, Stallone and Crews combine their brawny efforts to valiantly hold a door open for her as she hacks into a safe.)
The team’s routine in and out is foiled by a perfectly menacing Jean-Claude Van Damme (whose character’s name is, for real, “Vilain”) and his company of guerillas, who have designs on the captured hard drive. Gunfire, roundhouse kicks, and steely glares are exchanged in turn, until Stallone, Statham, and company are chasing Van Damme into post-Soviet Eastern Europe to shut down his massive plutonium mining operation.
Where The Expendables played out as a re-skinned update on Commando (heroes dispatched to Central American any-island to put down a military dictatorship while getting the girl), the sequel paints its lively panoramas of violence with a considerably broader palette. All the globetrotting serves to superficially advance the film, with its various chases, urban assaults (one in an ersatz mock-up of New York City built by Cold War-era Soviet operatives), and mineshaft sieges broken up by plenty of burly male bonding. As in the original, the uneasy bromantic interludes are an embarrassing attempt to contemporize the attitudes of the film’s knowingly outdated male icons.
When The Expendables 2 really fires on all cylinders, its aging supermen (including expanded roles for Willis and Schwarzenegger, and an entirely too ironic Chuck Norris) combining their efforts like some kind of fleshy Voltron, all the wink-nudge genre nostalgia seems entirely validated. Where the original erred toward grim self-seriousness and Stallone-scripted sentimentality (recall Mickey Rourke’s jarring monologue about not intervening in a woman’s suicide), the sequel tends to overcompensate with flat meta humor. Schwarzenegger and Willis especially behave as if they’re little more than pull-string versions of themselves handily locked and loaded with various catchphrases (“I’ll be back,” “Yippee-ki-yay,” and so on).
Still, the film’s obvious stupidity is the point; its premise is to invest the proceedings with big-budget, devil-may-care, “let’s put on a show” boldness. At its best, The Expendables 2 plays out like a series of wet-dream scenarios (especially the climactic macho-a-macho showdown between Stallone and Van Damme), performed by a cast of vintage action figures battered and broken from overuse, bleached and slightly molted from sitting in the sun too long. As ludicrous as it is to see this troupe of largely past-prime action-movie icons manically reassert their own box-office primacy, there’s enough empty calorie fun to be had in humoring their shared fantasy that they’re not getting too old for this shit.