The “Expendables” franchise certainly deserves some credit for truth in advertising, although I suppose “The Disposables” or “The Predictables” might have been even more on the mark: This is the sort of generic action movie you’re already forgetting as the lights come up.
“The Expendables 2” is the full-metal followup to the successful first film, a mercenary shoot-’em-up that was basically “The Avengers” of 1980s action cinema, with Sylvester Stallone supported by the ring-ready physiques of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke and Dolph Lundgren. Rourke is gone in the sequel, but Willis and Schwarzenegger have beefed-up roles, and are joined by Jean-Claude Van Damme and 72-year-old Chuck Norris. (Steven Seagal still can’t get no satisfaction.)
The grizzled old-timers are accompanied by relatively younger hard-men Jet Li, Jason Statham, Terry Crews and Randy Couture, with Yu Nan the sole concession to the current taste for kick-ass heroines.
The film starts with an armored raid on some militia compound in remote Nepal; who the bad guys are seems irrelevant, as long as they’re teeming and Asian. (And not Chinese, apparently, as that idea was scrapped from the original script to reflect market realities — China’s movie market is growing fast.) Director Simon West (“Con Air”) quickly seeks to demonstrate that his movie will feature more rounds fired per minute than anything in the history of cinema; you could play “Call of Duty” and not even come close to the body count here.
Stallone, still as pumped as ever at age 66, plays Barney Ross, a cigar-chomping, world-weary soldier-for-hire who leads his team of bad-ass mercs into the dodgiest raid-and-rescue missions. Statham plays his right-hand man, Lee Christmas, and the homoerotic undertones are even more pronounced than in the first film. Barney is constantly whinging about Lee’s strumpet of a girlfriend, and when Barney praises young sniper Billy (played by Liam Hemsworth), saying “The kid’s amazing, ” Lee sulkily replies, “So am I, but you’re used to me.”
CIA operative Mr. Church (Willis) is back, and sends Barney’s team on a mission to recover the contents of a safe from a downed aircraft in Mongolia, with the help of know-it-all operative Maggie (Yu). The mercs are ambushed by some even more ruthless gunmen led by Jean Vilain (Van Damme), who kill one of Barney’s men and make off with the safe’s contents, which turn out to be a secret map leading to a mine containing several tons of abandoned Soviet-era weapons-grade plutonium. Vilain’s gang plan to sell the plutonium to the highest bidder and change the balance of world power. Can The Expendables stop them in time?
Well, perhaps they can if they attack the mine by flying their airplane straight down the mine shaft, shearing off the wings and somehow coming to a halt before their full fuel tank blows them all to kingdom come. This is typical of the over-the-top action sequences on display, which include armored hummers with battering rams that smash right through building walls, and taking out helicopters with a motorcycle.
There’s plenty of hand-to-hand combat involving Li, Statham, Stallone and Van Damme’s trademark swinging high kicks, but for the most part, this features guns, guns and more guns. It also has plenty of those ’80s one-liners, like when after literally shooting a guy to ribbons, a merc snarls, “Rest in pieces.”
Every now and then there will be a little interaction between the characters during some downtime, which usually ends with an awkward pause, and somebody saying something like, “I need a gun, something big,” like they realize their audience is already starting to tune out. Hemsworth, for reasons known only to the director, is given the big emotional speech of the film, where he’s about as convincing as a transvestite with two days’ stubble.
It’s illuminating to go back and compare “The Expendables 2” with the 1980 mercenary movie “The Dogs of War.” The premise was based on actual mercenary exploits in Africa; the planning of the operation took up much of the film and reflected the seriousness of people who hoped to come back in one piece. Whereas “The Expendables 2,” like all too many films these days, is strictly comic-book, with almost zero plot, 10 times as much outlandish action, and chaotic camerawork that just zips from one row of crumbling bodies to the next. Adrenaline-fueled, yes; memorable, no.