If the first Expendables was an enjoyable – if slightly stolid – homage to the (in)glorious Cannon fodder of the 80s that wasn’t quite as funny or crazy as we hoped for, the second adventure takes nothing seriously, playing exclusively for laughs. It’s an understandable approach, and the steroid sexagenarians all work (very) hard for chuckles amidst the carnage. But for every odd funny moment there are dozens of damp squibs. The end result is always watchable – although it plays out less like the beloved action epics of the Golan-Globas era and more like a feature-length Orange cinema ad.
Opening with a lengthy action-sequence (naturally) we find our band of mid-life crisis mercenaries, led again by Barney (Stallone), breaking-out a kidnapped Chinese billionaire and dispensing with hundreds of random bad guys in a blur of roundhouse kicks and monster weaponry. This is merely a warm-up for the film’s main mission though, given to Barney’s team by Mr. Church (Bruce Willis on Olympian smirk form), that brings the gang into contact with psychotic rival mercenary Jean Claude Van Damme (extremely entertaining) who has dastardly plans for a cache of weapons-grade plutonium, hidden away by the Russians after the cold war. New members Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth) and Maggie (Yu Nan) provide youth and glamour to offset the pension-age pyrotechnics.
Look, this is an action picture with Stallone, Statham, Schwarzenegger, Willis, Lundgren AND added Van Damme. How can it possibly be anything less than amazing? As Predator-era Arnie would say “C’MAAAAAAAAAN!” It’s the guys, the dudes, right? But you do have to extend some generous goodwill here as Ex2 is all over the place. The script, by Stallone and VAMP scribe Richard Wenk, manages to be both undercooked and over-heated and the banter never really catches fire. In terms of old guys mocking their image, it’s definitely more City Heat (1984) than Tough Guys (1986). Look ‘em up, kids!
While Stallone falters by his standards, Lundgren goes for pure cheese and Statham plays things largely straight – bagging a cool fight sequence of his own where it all goes a bit Assassin’s Creed. Three of the team get practically nothing to do – Jet Li exits the film after the first sequence (and a great fight) and the other two blokes no-one can remember remain utterly forgettable throughout. Willis and Schwarzenegger trade blatant comedy banter (with varying results), and Arnie seems to be under the impression he’s signed up for Last Action Hero 2. New guy Hemsworth’s narrative arc is one of the few serious elements. Ironically this part of the movie raised more chuckles at the screening than many of the gags.
It’s a testament to the star-wattage on show that there is still an undeniable frisson about seeing these guys together. One unnamed star absolutely steals proceedings; a ‘lone wolf’ who turns up at exactly the right time and has a payoff line about a deadly cobra that is priceless. And the irascible Van Damme – playing a baddie called JEAN VILAIN – is the standout though. There’s still madness in the Belgian’s eyes (understandable given he’s ingested enough Bolivian over the decades to fell Tony Montana) and the film crackles into life whenever he’s around. His set-piece face off with Sly is premium-aged ham with a serious side order of butch homoeroticism; JC taunting his adversary with a mouth smeared with lipstick-like blood while Stallone retorts: “Oh, I’ll MAN YOU UP!” Oooh, get you Sly.
I have a feeling Ex2 will play much better on blu-ray, fuelled by lager-based refreshment. It’s fun but a bit feeble and I can’t help feeling this should be their last mission. Seemingly a third helping is already in the works, proving that perhaps these guys will never be too old for this shit, even if all the evidence points to the contrary.