Watching The Expendables 2, I was repeatedly reminded of the Julie Brown single “I Like ’em Big and Stupid,” a 1980s synthpop novelty song about the inexplicable attraction to muscle-bound men with low IQs. A sample of the opening verse: “When I need something to help me unwind / I find a six-foot baby with a one-track mind. / Smart guys are nowhere, they make demands / Give me a moron with talented hands.” Rare for song lyrics to apply to a film so naturally. Rarer still that they would also accurately describe the audiences that find such films appealing. Just like its predecessor, The Expendables 2 is pornography for the action film buff – a noisy, aggressive, violent, and utterly absurd testosterone fantasy that doesn’t have two gray cells to rub together within its extra-thick cranium. If this is what counts for escapism nowadays, we might have actually devolved back into Neanderthals.
There isn’t much I can say about this film that I didn’t already say in my review of the first Expendables. As before, much of the action is an incomprehensible blur of blood, bullets, and body slams, which is to say that, even if you appreciate that kind of filmmaking, the editing has seen to it that you can’t distinguish a lot of it visually. As before, much of the dialogue is a pathetic mishmash of one-liners, macho sentiment, and really bad puns. And as before, the plot is weak and has been manufactured solely as a vehicle for scene after scene of people getting shot and things blowing up. I hesitate to call it an homage to the action films of the ’80s and ’90s, as the word “homage” implies artistry, intelligence, and respect. This movie is more like an extra value meal at a fast food chain; you get plenty to eat but nothing in the way of nutrition.
We’re reunited with all of the Expendables, well-armed and well-trained mercenaries. The leader, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone, also the co-writer), is the only one who was given a normal name. The others didn’t fare as well; there’s Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), Toll Road (Randy Couture), Yin Yang (Jet Li), and Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), the latter, as his name makes all too clear, being a sniper. New to the film are Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth), a young soldier who may not have what it takes to be an Expendable, and Maggie (Yu Nan), a tech expert. Both represent two of the most tiresome action movie clichés imaginable. The former, who has a girlfriend living in Paris and dreams of reuniting with her, gives the Expendables an excuse to swear vengeance on the villain. The latter satisfies the need for a female sidekick and provides the teasing possibility of a romance. As to whether or not one actually blossoms, I leave for you to discover.
The plot, if I can even call it that, involves the Expendables going to Albania and butting heads with Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme), a heartless kick boxer who schemes to sell the five tons of plutonium stored in an abandoned Soviet Union mine. The mine operates on slave labor, mostly men who have been kidnapped from a local village. Those who fall out of line are not shown any mercy. It’s up to the Expendables to rescue the men and help the village women, who know that Vilain will soon come after their children. I realize we’re not supposed to question the lack of a language barrier, and if the filmmakers had tried harder to make a better movie, I probably would have overlooked it. As it is, I have to wonder how a group of English-speaking tough guys can enter a destitute Albanian village and just happen upon women who know the language fluently.
In the previous film, both Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger made cameo appearances. For this chapter, they’re roles are only slightly expanded. Both are so blatantly at the mercy of the screenplay that it’s almost embarrassing. In Willis’ case, he’s required to be nothing more than a mysterious CIA agent that talks in a menacing whisper. It’s even worse for Schwarzenegger, who’s forced to be annoyingly self referential, especially at the most inappropriate times. Rest assured, his immortal line, “I’ll be back,” works its way into the film several times. He and Willis will eventually argue over it, promoting the former to mutter, “Yippee kai yay,” under his breath. At one point, he even says, “Who’s next? Rambo?”
That line is prompted by the sudden appearance of Chuck Norris, who enters almost every scene he’s in with the main title from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly playing on the soundtrack. He plays Booker, a sniper who was rumored to be dead. Not that the name of his character matters; The Expendables 2 is nothing if not a self-congratulatory exercise in all things action packed, which is to say that Norris’ appearance will be appreciated at face value and nothing more. I think the greatest failure of this film is that it could never be a complete entertainment or a complete parody; it exists in a gray area somewhere between the two. Had the filmmakers had the courage to make it one thing or the other, maybe it would have been halfway decent. As it stands now, it’s only suitable for those that like their movies big and stupid.