Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Everyone's Expendable

Many of you might remember a review I wrote at about this time two years ago. In it, I spoke of a not-great film that pitted its heroes against completely unbelievable odds and saw them come out the other side successfully. But what made this film so different from its modern action counterparts were two things. One, it didn't take itself nearly as seriously as your standard movie by Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer. Secondly, the "heroes" in this instance were not young guns, but veterans of the action movie industry. If you haven't guessed by now, I'm talking about The Expendables, a comeback movie of sorts that was written by, directed by, and starred Sylvester Stallone as the leader of a veteran mercenary group who are generally hired to carry out impossible missions. While implausible, dumb, and a lot of other negative adjectives, The Expendables had one good thing going for it: it was FUN. And that is why fans of the original have been waiting patiently for the second chapter in Stallone's mercenary saga; unlike a lot of this year's summer movies, it's a safe bet that The Expendables 2 - despite not being directed by the remarkably-talented Stallone - would retain that same sense of excitement and good old-fashioned mayhem that made the original a box office champion.

Schwarzeneggar, Stallone and Willis: the holy trifecta.
After a battle in Nepal that likely defies any previous records in terms of body count, the Expendables return home for some rest and relaxation. It's slow in coming however, as Barney Ross (Stallone) is once again approached by the man known as Church (Bruce Willis). The CIA is a little miffed at the group's actions in the first film, to the point where Church believes that the Expendables owe him the money he paid them before. To pay him back, Ross agrees to go through with a mission to retrieve sensitive material from a downed plane in Albania. What starts off as a cakewalk gets more complicated when they lose the material - plans to a cache of stored Russian plutonium - to rival mercenary Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme). It's up to the Expendables and their newest recruits (Yu Nan and Liam Hemsworth), along with a few allies, to track down the bad guys and put them down for good.

Okay, Moses he ain't...
The man behind the camera this time around is Simon West, an experienced action director whose previous efforts include Con Air, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and The Mechanic. Yeah, that seems like a mixed bag of a recommendation, but what can I say? Stallone didn't want to do all the heavy lifting this time around, and at least West has a record of audience-pleasing that would seem to suit his expectant audience. It's not as though we expect a whole lot out of this sequel: stuff gets blown up, old action stars make cameos, and the dialogue doesn't so much move the story forward as it does spew out glib comments and hilarious gags about the history of the icons on the screen. In other words, it's an action director's low-maintenance dream.

Yes, the bad guy's name is 'Vilain'. I swear you can't make this stuff up...
Of course, those "great" actors of action's golden age don't quite stand up as straight in this second go-around. For one, while expanded roles for Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger are used to great effect, and new cast-mates Van Damme, Chuck Norris, Hemsworth and Nan work well with their material, the original heroes are the ones left with little to do. Only Stallone feels untouched, while Jason Statham, who was a major factor the first film, finds his role drastically reduced. While the original Expendables made an effort to include all the hero characters equally, that wasn't the case for the returning Randy Couture, Terry Crews and even Jet Li, who isn't even present for most of this outing. The over-sized cast is the main culprit, and while the new guys manage to give us plenty to laugh and be excited about, the final effect just isn't the same. Nobody steps up to claim the "soul" portion of the film and fill in for the departed Micky Rourke, either. That's a shame, because the first movie definitely benefited from his emotional and heartfelt monologue. At least Dolph Lundgren gets ample moments to shine, as he's a natural comedian when called upon. In fact, he's probably the biggest surprise of the cast, by far.

Tell me this wasn't your favorite part of the trailer.
While all the violence, explosives and smart-assery are all thankfully similar to The Expendables, the film does actually get better in one department with the casting of Nan in a major role. In the first movie, females were an afterthought, with only damsels in distress somehow needing to apply. I stated outright that plenty of female action stars, from Cynthia Rothrock to Michelle Yeoh, could have been tapped to fill the male-dominated scene and shown that women did - and still can - kick ass. Nan might not have the pedigree of those actresses, but her part here is definitely a step in the right direction for the franchise. She's got the rough stuff down, but while she most certainly can hold her own in a firefight, it's frustrating to see the script try and force her into a romantic subplot with one of her (much) older co-stars. Can't a woman be in an action film without automatically being a love interest? As I said, it's a step in the right direction. What we need now is a booty-busting femme fatale who doesn't respond to the testosterone factory that is this merc group and we'll be fine.

Just shooting a little shit before committing mass murder.
The inside jokes are really funny (favorites include mockery of Norris' Internet fame and a verbal interaction between Willis and Schwarzenegger), the action is solid, and even the story picks up in the latter half of the film. This all manages to make up for the a practically dull first half, rote and predictable plot devices, and Stallone's downright horrid moustache. Probably the worst thing the Expendables franchise has done is start up a whole sub-genre of action films starring past-their-prime stars, such as Stallone and Schwarzenegger in next year's The Tomb and the former "Governator" himself in the upcoming The Last Stand. The Expendables has managed to resurrect the careers of these once-dominant monsters of the big screen, and now they will not let go. If all such releases can be as entertaining as The Expendables 2, then good for them. But hopefully this won't be the catalyst for every major action film filling a quota for at least one geriatric to round out their roster. There's no need for it, and no reason to think that the magic found in The Expendables and its sequel can be artificially generated in any clone. The Expendables 2 is the real deal, and if you like action films, then you shouldn't turn up your nose to this particular brand. That said, I hope it's the last one, as I really don't want to see anyone break a hip, or Clint Eastwood blow anybody away from the comfort of a wheelchair. You've got to say 'Stop' eventually.

It's time.

And a big Boom for the win.

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