Two years ago, I called The Expendables “the official movie of the 13-year-old boy.” With The Expendables 2, star/screenwriter Sylvester Stallone doubles down, ramping up the violence while making an action movie for the Chuck Norris Facts crowd. Personally, I don’t think the whole Chuck Norris Facts thing has improved much with age. Neither has the core concept of Stallone’s budding franchise, which is to gather the elder statesmen of dumb action movies together with the titans of straight-to-DVD sport-to-actor crossovers and set their combined unstoppable juggernaut against some exaggerated, outdated kind of villainy. In the first movie, The Expendables visited the isle of Villena. Here, they take on a dude named Villain (Jean-Claude Van Damme), emphasis on whichever syllable you like. Here’s a guy so evil he only takes off his sunglasses before an intended kill.
He’s also a dude evil enough to actually kill one of the Expendables, giving credence to their name. His name was Bobby (Liam Hemsworth), and he was a good soldier, so you’d best bet that Barney Ross (Stallone) wants some revenge. Conveniently enough, Villain happens to be after a cache of plutonium he plans on selling, a plot the CIA—here represented by Church (Bruce Willis)—is hot to stop. Ross owes Church over one perceived injustice or another, so he agrees, taking on Church’s technology expert Maggie (Nan Yu), who has the honor of being the only girl allowed in the all-boys clubhouse. Joining them in their mission of revenge and crisis aversion are Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), knife expert; Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), adorably dim-witted demolitions expert; Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), big gun aficionado; and Toll Road (Randy Coture), master of hand-to-hand combat.
The only vaguely interesting character in this assemblage is Van Damme’s, who is the sort of vague religious fantic that allows the mind to wander to your chosen boogeyman of choice. It’s no coincidence that Villain’s big kill is an ex-Marine with a sweetheart at home; watching Stallone’s assemblage of old, muscled flesh tear through henchman after henchman in pursuit of Van Damme’s thick-accented revolutionary is meant to stir up images of apple pie, baseball, and the rocket-propelled grenade. Mostly, I’m thankful Stallone’s script spared us the usual jibber-jabber wherin the villain explains to the heroes that he’s merely a businessman. Van Damme’s Villain is The Expendables 2‘s one true throwback to the 1980s, a bad guy who’d rather throw down than philosophize.
The Expendables 2 is mostly notable for being Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s first non-cameo role since assuming the office of Governor of California, and his mercenary (Trench, if you’re wondering) is a curious mix of Schwarzenegger’s 80s charm and his late-career cigar-chomping paycheck mode. He and Van Damme are the only two men capable of elevating the thin material they’re handed. When Arnold rips the door off of a SMART Car and complains that his shoe is bigger than the vehicle, The Expendables 2 not only scores a rare worthwhile one-liner, but becomes fun for a fleeting minute, a small oasis in a desert of thrown knives and blown-off heads. The promotion of Schwarzenegger and Willis to main cast members necessitates the demotion of one Expendable and a brief visit from another action film luminary. Getting the axe early is Jet Li‘s unfortunately named Yin Yang, who wonders who the crew will make fun of without a short Asian guy around, and stepping in as deus ex machina (well, one of several) is Chuck Norris.
Norris is the oddest curio in a movie filled with them. 70-years-old and riding dual internet meme fame as the subject of a running Conan O’Brien joke and the aforementioned Chuck Norris Facts craze, Norris appears on screen to flourishes of Ennio Morricone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly score to deliver helpful information, ruminations on his nature as a lone wolf, and a few Chuck Norris Facts, none of which are worth immortalizing on film. The movie stands still for Norris, whose inability to lend his fabled roundhouse kick to a scene leaves him out of depth. Whatever charisma the internet has imparted to Norris quickly evaporates. Given a choice between him and the absent Mickey Rourke, whose soliloquies got in the way of the first Expendables film, I’d welcome Rourke back for the inevitable third installment. At least he was different.
Thinking about it, that’s the whole problem with the Expendables franchise. Left at one movie, its easier to forgive overlap between Hale Caesar and Toll Road, to look past the flaws evident in stuffing both Jason Statham and Jet Li into sidekick roles. As a franchise, there’s no excuse for the characters to feel like action figures, interchangeable but for their names, outfits, and accessories. Yes, it’s intentional, but making a movie about a crew of men and women who, specifically classified though they may be, are as generic as a handful of knockoff G.I. Joe figures represents a massive error of storytelling. It hangs over the current two installments as it will over any in the future. The Expendables, no matter how many villains and Villains they dispatch, no matter how kitschy their mode of transportation, no matter how many one-liners they snarl, are only expendable because the audience doesn’t care if they die.
The Expendables 2. Directed by Simon West. With Stallone (Barney Ross), Jason Statham (Lee Christmas), Jet Li (Yin Yang), Dolph Lundgren (Gunner Jensen), Chuck Norris (Booker), Jean-Claude Van Damme (Villain), Bruce Willis (Church), Randy Coture (Toll Road), Terry Crews (Hale Caesar), Liam Hemsworth (Billy), Nan Yu (Maggie), and Arnold Schwarzenegger (Trench). Released August 17, 2012, by Lionsgate.