In this day and age of prequels and sequels, there is one important question every studio or filmmaker must be prepared to ask when they produce a hit: “How do we make the next one bigger and better?” If you’re Sylvester Stallone and your hit is The Expendables, the answer to that question is simple: just add Chuck Norris. BOOM. Your sequel is immediately and appreciably better.
The Expendables 2 finds Barney Ross (Stallone) and his crew of mercenaries still running roughshod over third world baddies and taking on the jobs that no one else will. Given a mission by CIA agent Church (Bruce Willis) that will ostensibly settle their debt to the agency, the Expendables head to China in order to track down and bring home a mysterious box with the help of Maggie (Nan Yu). But upon retrieving the box, the team is ambushed by the notorious Villain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) who steals the box and does the group an irreparable harm. With revenge squarely on his mind, Ross, Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), and the rest of the gang take on perhaps their toughest challenge yet in order to apprehend Villain and prevent him from executing his diabolical plan.
As it pertains to movie criticism, for me there is nothing harder than rating and reviewing a film like Expendables. How do you judge a movie that is rife with blatantly bad dialogue, displays absolutely no character development, and values style over any semblance of substance? You’d say that movie is pretty bad, right? But what if that same movie is also an unhealthy amount of fun, makes up for its lack of story with tremendous doses of absurdly violent action, and creates an environment that is unquestionably perfect for its content? That would be a pretty good film, right? In almost every way in which we as a society value and grade movies, Expendables is an abomination. And yet, after about 30 minutes, this film (even more so than its predecessor) has a way of winning you over, even if you went in dead set on hating it. As strange as it may sound, there is a certain charm about Expendables that transcends the ridiculous action sequences and the beat you over the head with an iron rod approach to storytelling.
For me, the specific charm that Expendables (and other films like it) utilizes is the understanding between the audience and everyone involved in the production that none of what transpires in this film should be taken with even the slightest hint of seriousness. From the very beginning and over and over throughout the course of the film, Expendables extends to the audience a sly wink or, if you prefer, a knowing nod, that allows you to completely dispense with the silly notion of “reality.” It’s as if the movie opens with a scrolling note, Star Wars-style, that simply reads, “Hey, you know how stressful work was this week? Well, you can forget about all that, little buddy. For the next two hours all we’re going to do is blow crap up and make some jokes that are so bad you can’t help but laugh. And when it’s all over and we’ve killed approximately 100 million Russians, you’ll feel a little better about that glass ceiling. So sit back, relax, maybe inject some testosterone into your veins, and enjoy. Later ‘brah.” Every ounce of Expendables is easily comprehended (duh) and once you’ve accepted the mindless but undoubtedly awesome brand of entertainment, director Simon West wastes no opportunity to make each stunt more ridiculous than the last.
Moreover, every single member of the cast (with the exception of Dolph Lundgren who might not actually be alive) completely buys in to the sheer absurdity of their film and “acts” accordingly. Stallone will never get the credit he deserves for realizing exactly what he is today and exploiting that to the best of his ability. There’s a genius to the creation of this franchise and its execution that is due almost entirely to Stallone and his ability to pull in virtually every washed up action star to actually make Expendables live up to what it sets out to be is paramount to the success of this film. West does a great job, too, of hiding the members of the cast who really can’t act in the background and propping them up with hilariously bad one-liners. The cast outside of the actual members of the Expendables represent perhaps the best of the movie. Sure, the action scenes are great but getting to see Bruce Willis smirk through every TERRIBLE piece of dialogue he’s given to work with is a treat to behold. I am shocked to report that Van Damme is actually good in his role as the over-the-top villain (seriously, his name is Villain!!!) and gets my vote for “Best Performance in a Horribly Acted But Nonetheless Great” action movie. And then there’s Norris who appears in the movie for all of three minutes, delivers perhaps five lines, and yet somehow completely steals the show. His first appearance marks the moment when Expendables 2 outreaches its predecessor and the joke surrounding his entrance is worth the price of admission in and of itself. (I won’t spoil it but rest assured that keeping it quiet is KILLING me.)
I could spend hours pointing out all of the plot holes, bad acting, and willfully bad writing that comes into play in Expendables. Virtually everything about this movie is completely detached from reality, except for the number of rounds a gun can hold which for some reason seems to be a real bugaboo that no one is allowed to violate. But at the end of the day, Expendables is EXACTLY what it is supposed to do and hits the mark on every level that an awful movie like this could ever be expected to aim for.