One of the joys of the first Expendables movie was the cameos of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis in Sylvester Stallone’s already man-tastic mega-muscle movie. The Expendables 2 takes the stunt casting to a whole new level.
Seriously, this movie is basically an excuse to take even more 80's action icons and pack them into as many explosive frames as possible. That is not a bad thing, exactly The Expendables 2 is a movie that is long on mindless fun but short on story.
The movie picks up a few years after the last film. Barney (Stallone), the leader of this bloody A-Team has to deal with the consequences from his crisis of conscience from the first movie. Now he owes Mr. Church (Willis) the shifty CIA agent, who collects by having the mercs recover some data from a crashed plane. This time he adds his own person to Barney's team: Maggie (Nan Yu). The rest of the original team returns for at least part of the action, and this time they have a sniper protege Billy (Liam Hemsworth) who looks less like his character Gale from The Hunger Games and more like his real life big brother Chris in Thor. But it all takes a turn when they encounter Jean-Claude Van Damme as the movie's villain: Villain. (No, that is not a type-o. That villain's name is “Villain” only its pronounced “Vil-lane.”)
The best piece of casting was actually Van Damme. Unlike the others in his fraternity of Reagan-Era butt-kickers, he does not carry with him the same nostalgic affection. He fits very well into the role of the bad guy and he plays it with delicious cheesiness. You enjoy hating him from start to finish, and it is actually one of his best performances. Yu is a pleasant addition, but she doesn't have the same charisma as the others, and she serves to remind you how depopulated this movie is of women (not counting Charisma Carpenter's brief reprisal)
The rest of the story turns on this first meeting, but it plays like a by-the-numbers action film that you can see on Saturday night cable movie. This is not necessarily an insult, but it also isn't a compliment. The movie doesn't try to be anything more than an excuse to have some fun. The other members of the team have big personalities, but there is no depth behind them. The joke with each other and then kill the bad guys and that's all. Or as Barney puts it “We keep it light until its time to get dark.” And while there is fun to be had, there is nothing special about most of it. The only thing that sets it apart is the stunt casting.
In fact, the moment Church Norris enters the film, you can feel the tone of the movie turn a corner. The first Expendables was a throwback to some gritty, dark action, close to the last Rambo movie. This movie plays close to a parody of the first, but not quite. It winks way too much at the camera (Arnold actually breaks through a wall and says “I'm back!”), but doesn't commit to full comedy.
And yet, I couldn't help but smile from ear to ear as I saw the great stars of yesterday joining forces and dramatically march, raining bullets on the those who deserve their righteous fury. For that alone, I felt like I got my money's worth. And the final fight between Stallone and Van Damme, while not like the classic Bruce Lee/Chuck Norris, is one of the better set pieces.
I have to mention a scene where the heroes set a trap for the bad guys in a lonely village. Second in command Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) poses as a priest and waits for the thugs in the church. He then dispatches them with brutal flair, including bludgeoning them with censer. This was a little much for me. It made me very uncomfortable to see the hero dressed as priest of God doing such horribly violent things in that sacred place. I know that Stallone has renewed his Catholic faith in recent years and I don't think he imagined what he did as disrespectful, but there's something wrong with stabbing people in the house of the One who said “Turn the other cheek.”
If you are in the mood for some mindless action, then The Expendables 2 is for you. Just be sure to not to think about it too hard.