“Expect the expected” could be the tagline to “The Expendables 2,” the loudest, shootin’-ist film of the summer. This sequel to Sylvester Stallone’s 2010 fanboy action epic finds a nearly identical cast doing nearly identical things. And while that may sound like a damning critique, it isn’t. Also in the vein of its predecessor, “The Expendables 2” overcomes a routine premise and paper-thin story with bloody, well-staged action and a playful indulgence of its cast’s iconography.
Whereas last time Stallone’s eponymous team liberated a Central American nation from a dictator, here they battle a rival mercenary (Jean-Claude Van Damme) — a knife-wielding, karate-kicking prick with the howling moniker of Jean Vilain. Vilain’s goal: steal five tons of plutonium from an abandoned Soviet storage facility. His purpose for this? That’s one question too many for the script, which cheerfully barrels through its set-pieces without much (read: any) thought to a tight narrative or logical consistency.
Stallone, who helmed the first film, stays on as a screenwriter but hands over directing duties to action picture workman Simon West. Many of the film’s quieter scenes are shot in dark areas that make one wonder if part of the lighting equipment got lost in the mail on its way to the Eastern European shooting locations, but that is the extent of West’s incompetence. On the whole, the director handles the abundant violence with above-average flair. Both of the set-pieces that bookend the story, one finding the team storming a Nepalese fortress with armored cars and the other an airport-set battle royale that joins all but one member of the ensemble for mayhem, are exhilaratingly loud and bloody. And a final fistfight between Stallone and Van Damme carries a surprising aesthetic resonance, its brutality packing a punch that has been sorely lacking from this summer’s blockbusters, including “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, and Terry Crews all reprise their roles, and are joined by series newcomers Liam Hemsworth and Yu Nan (Jet Li is also back, in what barely amounts to a cameo). Hemsworth and Nan’s presences add nothing to the proceedings but a convenient plot-point and a pretty face, respectively — both of which the film could have easily done without. By contrast, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, whose uncredited cameos from the first film are ramped up to factor prominently into the grand finale here, lend entertaining charisma to the proceedings. And even Chuck Norris drops in for some of the film’s biggest intentional laughs, poking fun at the quasi-reverence he received from the “Chuck Norris Facts”-meme.
Still, for all the film’s pleasures, one gets the sense that “The Expendables” series is best ended here. The oft-applied roller-coaster metaphor is appropriate: These movies offer a ride that is a blast, but given that it will always essentially be the same thing every time, each successive ride is bound to lose a portion of the initial thrill. If Stallone attempts what he did with “Rocky” and “Rambo” and milks the franchise through “The Expendables 5,” even his most dedicated admirers will likely become bored silly with it.