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Review: The Expendables 2 (2012)

The Expendables 2 (2012)

Directed by: Simon West

Premise: The team of mercenaries races a terrorist to cache of weapons-grade plutonium.

What Works: The original Expendables was an entertaining but average buddies in action shoot-‘em-up adventure. The sequel is a significant improvement. What distinguishes The Expendables films from similar movies is its cast of action genre heavyweights including Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The original film assembled all of these men but never took the step of acknowledging the kitschy appeal of its lineup. The Expendables 2 corrects this with gags and one-liners that demonstrate that the filmmakers of the sequel are in on the joke. Because it has that self-reflexive quality the movie becomes disarming and appealing in ways that the picture wouldn’t be if it were the same film but with a different cast. The humor helps the film considerably but The Expendables 2 also fulfills its duty as a sequel by upping the action. This film has several outstanding action set pieces that are unabashedly violent, raw, and masculine. The action scenes come more frequently and with a nuclear threat the story puts something meaningful at stake. Like the original, The Expendables 2 is a throwback to the action films of the 1980s and (aside from nostalgia) the appeal of those films was their simplicity. The action films of the 1980s like First Blood, Commando, and The Delta Force adapted the western for a post-Vietnam audience and these movies avoided elaborate plotting and minimized dialogue to emphasize the spectacle and the filmmakers let the gunfire, fistfights, and explosions do the talking. They also retreated from the moral ambiguity of the films of the 1970s and largely relied on Manichaean, white-hats versus black-hats conflicts. The combination of simplicity and spectacle led some critics to accuse these pictures of being an idiot’s delight (and that is a criticism worth taking seriously) but those qualities are exactly what made the films so entertaining. The filmmakers of The Expendables 2 get that and they deliver to the audience the carnage but also the moral clarity that makes this genre appealing.

What Doesn’t: No one is going to mistake The Expendables 2 for great cinema. It’s almost redundant to call this movie stupid because it is a picture about brawn, not brains, but there are some inconsistencies with the first film, mainly the return of Dolph Lundgren character, which does not make sense given the events of the first film. Like its predecessor, The Expendables 2 is a throwback to the action movies of the 1980s and it has the same appeals but it also has the same shortcomings. The moral simplicity of the action films of the 1980s was appealing in part because it let audiences off the hook. Those films did not challenge audiences to think about violence in the way that contemporary action pictures do like The Bourne Identity or The Dark Knight. The Expendables 2 has the morally disengaged take of earlier films and as a result it comes off an anachronistic. This film also has a problem with women. In an effort to diversify the gender of the cast the story introduces a female character played by Nan Yu but the filmmakers mishandles her; Yu’s character and other women in the film are often marginalized or demeaned not only by the villains but also by the heroes. The nostalgia of the film gets overplayed at times especially in the humor as some of the one-liners and allusions hit things a little too narrowly on the head. The problems with the humor of The Expendables 2 are symptomatic of a broader flaw. At times the filmmakers seem a little confused about exactly what they want this picture to be and at various points the tone shifts from straight action film to a parody to an homage in the vein of Quentin Tarantino.

Bottom Line: The Expendables 2 is brutish, clunky, and stupid but it is also really fun. While it is not a movie for the ages it is undeniably entertaining and in many respects The Expendables 2 is what the first film should have been.

Episode: #402 (August 26, 2012)