As a diehard Sylvester Stallone fan it pains me to admit it, but the first Expendables was merely passable. As much as I wanted to love it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a missed opportunity in many ways. The Expendables 2 manages to improve upon everything lacking in the original. The chemistry amongst the brawny cast is more natural, the jokes are sharper (and more frequent), and the action scenes are more coherently staged. I had a blast seeing it in theaters and I’m happy to say the film held up perfectly as I revisited it on Blu-ray.
Maybe the improvement was down to the fact that Stallone didn’t try to do everything himself this time. Don’t get me wrong, as detailed in the phenomenally entertaining Inferno documentary, Stallone’s dedication as writer-director-star while making the first Expendables was truly admirable. But by his own admission, he had bitten off more than he could chew. Bringing in Simon West, a good meat-and-potatoes action director previously best-known for Con Air and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, was a smart move. Even though it’s the same length as its predecessor, the sequel’s 103 minutes simply move faster. Stallone stayed on as a co-screenwriter (with Richard Wenk), so the film still very much bears his stylistic imprint.
The story is more straightforward this time around. After successfully completing the daring rescue of Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a role beefed up beyond his cameo in part one), Barney Ross (Stallone) is contacted by CIA agent Mr. Church (Bruce Willis, with a similarly expanded role). Church has another mission for Barney and his team, one that just might redeem them after the mess they made in the first film. They’re tasked with recovering a computer containing information about the location of a large quantity of plutonium. Accompanying the Expendables, at Church’s insistence, is Maggie Chan (Yu Nan), an operative of somewhat ill-defined specialties. Of course, there’s a criminal mastermind attempting to obtain this information. Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) leads a team of Satanists whose goal is to locate the plutonium and off-load it for large sums of money.
It’s not the brainiest story in the world, nor was it intended to be. As Barney, Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), Toll Road (Randy Couture), and newcomers Maggie and Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth) attempt to complete their mission while fending off Vilain, the action gets increasingly explosive. Van Damme makes the most of his screen time, chewing up the scenery something fierce as Vilain. Of the returning cast, Lundgren is the revelation. The surly, drug-abusing Gunner of the first film has been reformed. He’s now far more light-hearted, with Lundgren getting the biggest laughs. If you’ve noted the absence of Jet Li’s Yin Yang from the above list, that’s because his appearance amounts to little more than a cameo. Apparently due to scheduling conflicts, Li departs the film quite early. It’s unfortunate considering Li was generally underused the first time around as well.
Everyone gets at least one spotlight moment. Statham has a killer scene while posing as a priest, unleashing Lee’s knife-wielding skills. It’s good fun seeing Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis actually in action together this time (they shared one brief conversation in the first one). The big disappointment is Chuck Norris, whose cameo as lone-wolf mercenary Booker falls flat. With Norris’ legendary martial arts skills, you’d think a little hand-to-hand combat would’ve been a natural. But all we get during his very limited screen time is some standard-issue gunplay as Booker mows down extras. Luckily there’s little else to complain about. Both Hemsworth and Nan have effective moments, adding youth and feminine components to the team, respectively. Suspense isn’t exactly high as the team tracks Vilain, leading up to the inevitable showdown, but the formulaic plot is really beside the point.