Like anyone who endured Con Air and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, I thought there was little director Simon West could teach me about the art of filmmaking. But never say never: West may be one of the people to blame for the saggy, rickety and occasionally winded geriatric action thriller The Expendables 2, but he nevertheless proves the lasting value of a strong first impression.
In what might just stand as the most chaotic opening sequence ever filmed, Expendables 2 careens out the gate at a reckless pace. Fade in to Nepal, as a hooded prisoner in a dark holding cell endures a merciless beating from sneering captors. It only takes a second or two to realize the stranger is in big trouble—and another few seconds to discover that the cavalry is on the way. Speeding over a hill on the horizon, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) is leading a militarized caravan on a rescue operation that is less Navy SEAL stealth than Hollywood shock and awe. The ensuing 10-minute sequence is a cacophony of macho madness, featuring rifles, sub machine guns, bazookas, helicopters, flying daggers, airborne motorcycles, shattered helicopters, makeshift torpedo/cannons, sputtering sea planes, brutal decapitations and about 100 gallons of fake blood. It’s one of those extended opening onslaughts that conjures memories of similar sequences in Blade 2, Casino Royale or even Raiders of the Lost Ark—a bombastic and inventive amuse-bouche that temporarily elevates the aftertaste of stale leftovers from the first Expendables two years ago.
Embracing a “more is better” strategy that seems to apply to everything from ammunition to casting calls, Expendables 2 has successfully supersized its ranks of over-the-hill combat heroes. At the center of the mercenary squad is Stallone, flanked once again by trusted number two Jason Statham, amateur scientist Dolph Lundgren, hot-tempered Terry Crews, and token Chinese extra Jet Li (who makes a quick exit from the proceedings), as well as newcomers Chuck Norris and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who make all-too-brief appearances. Also new to the slate are Liam Hemsworth as a young rising sniper who’s killed during his final mission by villain Jean-Claude Van Damme—a mission assigned to Stallone and company by a government agent (Bruce Willis, returning from his cameo in the original) with a serious grudge against Ross—and Yu Nan, a female Chinese codebreaker who cuts through the flirting, sexism and grunting machismo to prove that she has the mettle to handle the stress of the battlefield.
It’s ultimately the death of Hemsworth that propels the action. Ross demands vengeance for his fallen comrade, and so off the crew goes to Bulgaria, tracking a stolen computer to a vast underground mine where multiple tons of hidden plutonium are now being dug up to be transported to the black market. Through rural impoverished villages, deserted Soviet training bases that look like exact replicas of New York City, and straight down into the heart of the mine, the Expendables crew punches, slices and shoots its way through enemy lines.
Existing somewhere between action hero revue and gritty first-person-shooter fantasy, Expendables 2 may strike a goofier tone than its predecessor but it still finds the most traction when conjuring its stars’ grittier sides. The opening sequence, which spotlights a furrowed ensemble executing ferocious maneuvers, is exhilarating for its sheer excess. Envisioning just about every possible firearm, motorized vehicle and kill shot imaginable, this is genuinely badass bedlam. And more than just inventive in its staging and unhinged in its ferocity, the salvo manipulates technology in such a way that we can believe in this bunch of 60-year-olds using big, bad gadgets to unleash holy hell.
But the same cannot be said for the sequence that follows—or really for any other moment in the movie. In fact, one wonders if the budget was blown on scene one because nearly every other action set piece that follows lacks the originality or velocity of the prologue. The more these actors are challenged to engage physically with an unending pageant of nameless henchman, the more conventional, commonplace and clumsy the fight scenes become. Sure, each hero gets his moment in the ring—Statham is the most animated in his church knife fight, Sly is the most lumbering in his chain-wielding airport brawl—but the choreography becomes progressively less distinctive.
Much the same goes for the dialog that bookends these showdowns, as the men grunt about age, women, guns and regrets without divulging anything remotely revealing. Occasionally co-writers Richard Wink and Stallone succeed in breaking up the violence with humorous quirks: Chuck Norris goes full ninja, hilariously appearing and disappearing from shootouts at will, and Lundgren’s character fancies himself an aspiring mathematician and chemist though none of his calculations are ever correct. Van Damme throws himself most convincingly into the storyline, embodying an insidious villain who will insult you and steal your sword before he puts you in the ground.
After the likes of The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man, there’s something slightly refreshing about a summer blockbuster that relies a little less on computer-animated heroics than on big trucks, big guns and a round of beers to celebrate. This is a throwback with nostalgia to spare. But between the opening fireballs and the last call, The Expendables is mostly a series of misfires, banking on familiar faces and inside jokes but failing to accurately conjure what we came to love about the likes of Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis in the first place. It wasn’t just their physique or their fame that drew us in; Rambo rallied us in his fight against an unjust police force, the Terminator scared us silly with his unalterable kill-or-be-killed programming, John McClane wowed us with his ability to even up insurmountable odds.
These guys became icons because of their characters, and these stories. And while West alludes to some of those magical discoveries in his opening free-for-all, the remainder of this Expendables feels like little more than a bunch of bored movie stars winking at one another. By the time Arnold cracks his second unfunny “I’ll Be Back” reference, I felt conned. Spoof or not, a movie needs to think of something original for its heroes to do.