Oh, look, Sly – you did okay here. The first movie was a dog and, I mean, this one is too—but if that first one was a greying and humourless pit bull, this one’s more like a yappy schnauzer or a chubby corgi. All of this is to say, ‘The Expendables 2’ isn’t awful; it’s not appreciably “good” or even competent as a modern action story, but then, everything about this movie is old-school – from the cast to the gore factor. It’s par for course.

So yeah, I smiled a lot and the audience laughed and whooped and pointed at the screen during cornball cameos – and I think there’s something to be appreciated there.

Director Simon West (‘Con Air’, ‘The Mechanic’) leads Sylvester Stallone (‘Rocky’, ‘Judge Dredd’, ‘Demolition Man’) into enemy territory, dragging a cast of silverback action heroes from yesteryear. Joining Sly are main-role parts from Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture and a fresh-faced Liam Hemsworth. The band of heavily-armed men (or armed and heavy men) are sent in pursuit of stolen plutonium, yadda yadda, uprising, yadda yadda, liberating villages and killing people, explosions, something about an old debt, learning to love and embracing life. Look, the story isn’t exactly the draw-card here. It’s the canvas for the action and provides just enough context for the mayhem that you’ll only cock half an eye when silly things start happening.

There are plenty of hero-shots like this. In fact, I’m pretty sure a good 30% of The Expendables 2 is a series of slow-motion walking montages.

Heading up the evil band of evil men doing evil things for money is Jean-Claude Van Damme (‘Kickboxer’, ‘JVCD’). Van Damme and Stallone still carry themselves well. Van Damme has a fair menace to him; an evil kind of swagger that comes from his charm. A few lines of the face haven’t dulled his charisma. Speaking of charisma, ‘Buffy’ and ‘Angel’ star Charisma Carpenter crops up very briefly. Watch as I nod approvingly.

Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger also return; this time they play a marginally larger role. I still get a giddy thrill watching Arnie pumping round after round into some faceless grunt as he grits his teeth. However, the biggest cheers (and perhaps most genuine laughs) are reserved for Chuck Norris. Our friend Chuck, possibly the toughest man alive, signals start of the second half of The Expendables, triggering an important change in tone – from all-too-serious to just self-aware enough and therefore much more enjoyable.

That first half is a chore if you want anything more than stitched together one-liners (in fact, the whole movie is more-or-less just a series of snarky one-liners, sarcasm and retorts) and explosions. In all likelihood, you won’t care. You know what you’re in for here. Mostly, you get it. It’s only when Stallone starts making with the weird sentimentality that The Expendables really shows how paper-thin the emotional complexity is here.

There are deaths and meditations on love and life, spoken after watching Team Expendable mow down hundreds of soldiers with unreserved brutality. I don’t know—maybe it’s me – but it’s hard to buy into Stallone’s character, Barney Ross, suffering from throes of moral objectivity after that.

Arnie still looks like a badass when he’s raining molten death on people. This guy ran the state of California for several years, foiks. Remember that?

The ensemble cast here is really one giant gimmick. Knowing that there’s no way you’ll ever see as much of Arnold and Bruce and Chuck as you’d want to, it’s still a cornball delight to watch some of cinema’s greatest action heroes trading blows. Maybe that’s enough for you – I can understand that. It’s just always kind of a shame that a film with $100 million dollar budget still can’t peg a decent tale together, or work in some convincing dialogue – or even one-liners that make more sense than these do.

Of course, maybe the joke is on me; maybe The Expendables 2 is just so self-aware, so ‘meta’ even, that every dud line, dumb set-up and needless explosion is just one perfect recreation of every bad ‘80s action movie ever. Perhaps we’re pawns in an elaborate homage to excess and macho stupidity. It’s purposefully – even wilfully – bad.

Given that I can’t prove that Simon West isn’t actually that kind of wheels-within-wheels genius, he earns benefit of my doubt. I’m gonna call it: The Expendables 2 is so bad it’s almost good. Almost. Now please excuse me – I think I need to take long and cleansing shower and cry for a while.

2 Stars

Patrick Kolan

@PatchKolan