The Expendables 2 Review
Just as I predicted, this movie was twice as good as the original purely by the virtue of having more famous names. How is that supposed to be right? Star power shouldn't be what drives a movie forward, but rather a good plot, and movies that cramp in too much star power are almost always destined to fail by putting together a half-baked plot with too much emphasis on cameos for actors who aren't even going to do the characters justice because their faces are too famous to keep willing suspension of disbelief taught. They end up being cheap films that use budget and brand names to get the audience to come.
So by that logic, The Expendables should suck. Yet it doesn't, because it's precisely a parody of those types of movies. It plays the part of the grand 80's action movie, but it knows that if it took itself too seriously it would be just like all the other films with too many big names attached. That shouldn't be taken to mean that it's a comedy; there are plenty of humorous moments, but the parody stops once the action gets going, at which point The Expendables 2 is meant to be treated like a popcorn action film. Simple action in its traditional sense, with lots of explosions and shooting, can still be fun. When the film doesn't get too serious and plays its tropes right, like The Expendables 2, the audience can do just that. Have fun. Because rule of cool prevails.
Moving on to the battlefield, the most impressive play of The Expendables 2 is its ability to make each character stand out. In most movies with an ensemble cast of action heroes whose main strength is being action heroes, the faces and the names become irrelevent. Not so with Barney Ross, Lee Christmas, and...whatever the name of Dolph Lundgren's character is. Actually, the names of the characters are irrelevant. As far as this audience member is concerned, the character named were their actor names. How did each character stand out? The actors played themselves, and their backgrounds have already been told, much like the individual superheroes in The Avengers except with more detail, more movies, and more iconic moments. They come into the film with intact legacies, and it does the work for them.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with Dolph Lundgren. His character came off as little more than a brute in the first film, but in the second he's revealed to have a Chemical Engineering degree from a prestigious college. Then the character admits to being Swedish. That's Lundgren in real life. It was an awesomeness the film could get away with, because since when did a stereotypical bodybuilding 80's male action hero get an Masters in Chemical Engineering and help design water filtration systems for NASA? As far as I'm concerned, he had every right for his character to have that extra level of competency.
The other characters with a less colorful wall of pop cultural osmosis were helped along by unique skills and fighting styles. There's the one guy who prefers big guns, and the other who loves to use knives. It gives this batch of Expendables an excuse to try out every cool action idea ever when the going gets tough. Remember the rule of cool: if it initially comes off as cool, don't question it. Thus, when people get shot, they don't just flop over, they explode. Heads get chopped off, limp break, and chests turn into open cavities. The main characters, all of them MANly men, endure the craziest of odds, even when fighting with their bare hands.
It's a ridiculously lopsided battle. The army of villains never stood a chance against such MANliness. It's simply the way stereotypical 80's action heroes rumble, because MANliness always prevails. The original group of MANly men, before they gained new friends, managed to take out the army of an entire third-world country. It's basically been established that even when they're losing, they can basically kick butt at any time when the story needs them to. Sometimes it's difficult to root for characters who are basically overpowered to the point of invincibility or padded with plot armor to the point of being the mighty Flash Gordon, who according to Queen was "just a man who could never fail". Just one of these guys on their own could have saved the day with the same efficiency, as is proven when Chuck Norris first appeared onscreen. Yet dangit, I rooted for these guys, because I ultimately liked the actors so much, because they were the icons of MANliness.
Which brings up the best thing about The Expendables 2. The greatest icon of MANliness of all time...is back. Anything Arnold Schwarzenegger touches turns to gold. He's such a caricature, and he's often made fun of for it, but the stereotype for MANly action heroes exists because of him. And no, no one has ever lived up to the stereotype. There's a reason his name was often larger than the titles for the movies he was in. There's just something about him, something that puts him in a league of his own, and the movies he stars in take on a magical quality. They instantly become surreal in such a way that they tap into the spirit of true cinema. It's like a fairytale. Whenever he was on the screen, I couldn't stop enjoying myself. I just loved every minute of it, which, when you think about it, is the mark of a good movie.
The only glaring problem was the single drop of estrogen added to the cast, played by Yu Nan. Her acting ability was good, but her character was invented for the film and had to be developed onscreen, which otherwise wasn't the way the movie worked, where all the male characters were for all intents and purposes preestablished. Even the young Liam Hemsworth (who, I admit, would have paled in comparison to seeing Liam Neeson in the cast, but there's always room for that in the sequel) had built-in persona compared to her. If they were going to cast an action heroine next to these guys, they should have gone with Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hamilton, or even Angelina Jolie.
Regardless, she fell underneath the radar once the men did their thing, because it's next to impossible to overshadow the Big Three when they're competing among themselves for dominance. And then Chuck Norris appears again. And then these MANly men drop references to their past performances left and right, which shifts the movie's focus to a commemoration of a dying rock-n-roll genre of movies. Chuck Norris got his obligatory Chuck Norris joke and Walker Texas Ranger music, Stallone got his Rocky boxing scene, Willis got a Die Hard reference, and Arnold was the Terminator. The biggest thing going for these old legends is that they're old, and that if anything is expendable it's the continuation of these actors' careers. Who knows how much longer we'll have Arnold Schwarzenegger, King of Action next to Elvis's King of Rock? Their days are limited, and a generation of memories is making its last hurrah, even in its old age.
This isn't one of their greats. But it's good, and they will be remembered for it. It's almost like a high school football memory, where people will remember the people who played and not the results of the games. Yet it's not high school football, because that's a youthful memory. Yet they're still finding things to do throughout their life to the very end, and I respect that. As Schwarzenegger said after Stallone observed his new plane "belongs in a museum"..."Don't we all?" He's right. But their not.