Silver Screen: The Expendables II *1/2
One of the most annoying phases of childhood development comes when kids start to tell jokes. Their inability to understand irony or double entendre means the joke is usually just a clunky bit of meaningless absurdity, but the worst scenario is when the junior comedian accidentally stumbles onto something funny. The adults laugh not because the joke is so good but because they're surprised the kid actually managed to pull off even a simple gag, and, now emboldened, the kid keeps repeating the same shtick ad nauseum.
That's essentially the situation with The Expendables II. The first movie was more appealing in theory than practice, but its gleeful audacity gave it a scruffy charm: a decade and a half worth of action icons crammed into one old-school shoot ‘em up! But like an encouraging uncle, we, the moviegoing public, laughed a little too loud, and now we're going to have to sit through permutations of the same gimmick until someone takes Sylvester Stallone home and puts him to bed.
Whatever leeway the first installment received for its zany all-star team-up has elapsed. With the novelty value gone, Expendables II is forced to try to be a good action movie in its own right, and it fails miserably, kept barely, artificially alive by a series of cameos and meta-references to catchphrases of yore. Most of the stunts here are in the casting.
The team, headed by partners Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), has added a new member, and like Statham and Terry Crewes, he's not a member of the Action Hero Senior Tour. It's Liam Hemsworth, boyfriend of Miley Cyrus-- at least briefly. Our ragtag crew is assigned a cakewalk of a mission by Mister Church (Bruce Willis), but it turns into a setup. Generically evil mercenary Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) shows up, steals the mysterious package our boys were to retrieve, and ruthlessly dispatches young Liam before flying off in a helicopter.
A furious Barney vows vengeance for his slain comrade, though the team is called the Expendables, and leads a charge into a fictitious oppressed eastern European nation to root out Vilain and kill him before he can make some bombs for no real specified purpose. There's some shooting.
Actually, there's a lot of shooting. If The Expendables II serves any real purpose, it's to show the evolution of the action movie. Popular culture has largely replaced the death-dealing commando with the superhero, which means an emphasis on bright costumes, stunts, and acrobatics rather than blood and guts. Our remaining killer elite, influenced by superior Asian fare from top directors in China and Korea and perhaps reflecting the national trend toward austerity, thrives on speed and stealth. Jason Bourne is the prototype of the modern American action hero, and his primary weapon is efficiency.
The Expendables II is a reminder that a hero's primary weapon in the 1980s was, well, a big weapon. The vast majority of the action here consists of shots of Stallone and company firing machine guns into the camera, rapidly edited with quick shots of various foreign people collapsing in a spray of blood. Set aside the socio-moral queasiness of the realization that the Reagan-era ideal was a big guy endlessly pumping bullets into foreign people, and just in terms of cinematic style and aesthetic, guys shooting guns while stuntmen tumble over balconies and car windows shatter just seems stodgy and inert.
The only other way to watch Expendables II is to take it as a controlled experiment in bad acting. In a typical star vehicle, Stallone or Van Damme or whatever meathead in question is surrounded by a host of supporting actors to prop them up and maintain the illusion that this is a professional film made for grownups. But The Expendables features an entire roster of meatheads-- Stallone, Statham, Willis, and Van Damme, plus Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Jet Li, Terry Crews, and Randy Couture. It may be an ensemble piece, but in terms of acting, it's every man for himself.
The results are mostly unsurprising: Willis remains the only real actor of the group. He's able to sell the stupid one-liners and cheeky references to former glories. Despite being the least famous of all of them, the talented Crews also comes off well. Van Damme, Norris, Dolph Lundgren, and Li are all astonishingly bad-- a reminder that Norris was always terrible, even with the advantage of English being his first language. Mixed martial arts fighter Randy Couture is terrible as well, but it's noteworthy that he's only just as bad as the rest of the guys despite having thirty years less experience in front of a camera. Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, looks tired and annoyed to even be there, as if he's saving that weird Arnold pseudo-charisma for a starring project.
Come to think of it, The Expendables II serves a third purpose: It clears up a lot of misbegotten nostalgia.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.