Stick Around, by Scott Nye
By the very nature of its title, there is something inherently disreputable about The Expendables as a franchise (which it can now be called). That the first film was stocked to the brim with washouts and has-beens (save for Jason Statham, who never stopped being awesome) only made it more ludicrous. Yet that movie never really capitalized on its inherent insanity, feeling, for all the ridiculous carnage, surprisingly tame, and far too self-serious. The sequel’s marked improvement over the original is almost reflexive, unavoidable, but its considerable quality on its own terms is not to be overlooked either. Beginning with a set piece that’s larger than anything in the original and climaxing in an insane battle that’s just the right side of ironically entertaining, The Expendables 2 might not be the most necessary film, but neither should it be thrown out with the trash.
To be perfectly honest, I remember very little of whatever plot The Expendables might have had, so I couldn’t make any grand claims towards the timeline of this, nor its own plotty particulars. What I do know is that the crew – Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Dolph Lundgren, and new kid on the block Liam Hemsworth (I’ll be referring to the characters by the names of the performers, for obvious reasons) – are reintroduced to us in their daring rescue of a Chinese businessman. It’s the kind of perfect opening action scene to which so many lesser films aspire, one that blends simple character sketches with outlandishly complex and entertaining physical feats.
Director Simon West (still, fifteen years later, best known for his debut feature, Con Air) clearly favors the quick-cutting, blink-and-you-miss-it style so beloved by audiences and filmmakers these days, but it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand for that alone. He composes striking compositions that account for the movement therein, allowing machinery and humans to move flawlessly within the frame without having to swing the camera ever which way in an attempt to catch them. When a long take is called for (say, an especially striking bit of martial arts from Li or Statham), he’ll let it play, but by and large West expects you to look at what’s in his frame and make the connections from one shot to the next. Those who do so will easily follow, and likely be thrilled, by what’s on display.
The rest of the plot concerns a safe containing a certain device of deadly import, a woman who can open it, Jean-Claude Van Damme as the batshit crazy villain who also wants a piece (of the device, mind), Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, villagers, mines, nuclear armament, and yes, you guessed it kids, Chuck Norris, in what has to be the apotheosis of the Norris-as-joke phenomenon. Right? At any rate, all of these elements combine in just the right way, with West doling out the gravitas when it concerns Stallone or other main characters, and ramping up the humor any time Arnold comes onscreen. In this way, The Expendables 2, despite being a rather tight ensemble piece, is also a reflection of its cast’s individual talents – Stallone for his melodrama, Arnold for his one-liners, Willis for his casual smirking, Hemsworth for this generation’s sensitive action hero, and so on.
On the whole, it’s hard to have any major qualms with a movie bookended, as it is, by two such enormous, perfectly-executed action sequences (the climactic fistfight between Stallone and Van Damme is everything one could hope for), and a whole host of delights in between. Sure, some of the jokes are pretty lame (“I now pronounce you man and knife,” says Statham, disguised as a priest, before unleashing hell), and there’s a casual misogyny that’s a little off-putting (specifically a scene in which the boys are safe from gunfire because girls can’t shoot), but there’s also a moment in which Arnold rips the entire door off of the car to get into it. And if we can’t get that from our movies, what really do we have left? I’m not one to excuse stupidity for stupidity’s sake, but the simple pleasures of cinema need not be overlooked nor dismissed. And The Expendables 2, in addition to being a superbly-executed action bonanza, is chock full of simple pleasures.