Sunday, August 19, 2012

Grumpier Old Men: THE EXPENDABLES 2

Instead of complaining that they just don’t make movies like they used to, Sylvester Stallone has gone ahead and made some like he used to. First came The Expendables, a surprise summer hit a couple years back that brought Stallone and a group of 80’s action stars back onto the big screen right next to a few relatively younger action icons for good measure. That was better than I thought it’d be, often earnestly straightforward, but it turns out that movie was just a feature-length warm up to get these old guys back in fighting shape. Now here’s The Expendables 2, every bit the aggressive, isolationist, simplistic, bloody, blockheaded action movie that its predecessor was, a determined movie that muscles its way through energetic action sequence after energetic action sequence. This time around, it lacks the surprise factor, but it’s tighter, funnier, and more self-aware. The explosions are bigger, the combat is louder, the choreography is more inventive, and the fun manages to outweigh the dumb.

In the fictional world of The Expendables, third-world countries are either saved or enslaved by aging mercenaries. This time a MacGuffin went down with a plane in the backwoods of Russia so Bruce Willis sends Stallone and his crew of Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, and Liam Hemsworth (the youngest of the bunch by twenty years), to retrieve it. Willis even convinces them to take along a woman (Nan Yu), the only character preventing the movie from becoming an all-male action revue. (She spends a lot of her screen time trying not to roll her eyes at these goofballs around her). The group better hurry and find that device so the evil villain Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) doesn’t find it first. So the script by Richard Wenk and Stallone himself is simplicity itself, a point-and-shoot search-and-find kind of movie that’s been done many times over.

What makes this version work is the way it goes all out with action that just goes on and on, finding greasy, bloody, brute-force slapstick in fun choreography and returns to the well of the quipping action one-liner so often it’s endearing. When the movie opens, the bad guys have captured a Chinese billionaire and the gang, grinning ear to ear, rolls over the horizon to the rescue in armored jeeps with messages like “Knock Knock” and “Bad Attitude” painted on the side. That detail made me smile, imagining these guys picking out stencils and laughing to themselves as they decorated their war machines. But anyways, not five minutes go by before Jet Li (in what is basically a cameo) runs out of ammo and beats down his attackers with a frying pan. This is a movie that’s just grabbing at anything near by and throwing it into the mix, but it manages to pull up short of spoofing itself. Somehow the whole thing never quite grows as crazy as it threatens to.

Simon West takes over for Stallone as director on this film, leaving the star more time to focus on enunciation. This sequel, unlike the rough-around-the-edges original, is a slick, professional film with shiny spectacle covered over in surface grit. West’s good with big, empty, R-rated blockbusters. He is, after all, the director of Con Air. He knows how to juggle multiple distinctive talents, giving them each fun little moments to do what they do best. That’s helpful since it’s hard to keep track of who the characters are. They’re guys with names like Lee, Gunner, Church, Troll, and Trench, but that hardly matters. They’re just generic tough guys gruffly bonding over combat exercises. What’s memorable about the characters are the personas behind them. By the end of the picture, Arnold Schwarzenegger has put in an appearance, Chuck Norris has walked through just long enough to tell a lame Chuck Norris joke, and dozens upon dozens of faceless Bad Guys are dead. There’s so much self-referential winking – “I’ll be back!” Willis yells, to which Schwarzenegger responds “Yippee-ki-yay.” – and machine gun rat-a-tat-tatting that it at times grows monotonous.

Still, I must say I enjoyed it. The action is well done, even suspenseful at times. When, for instance, one of Statham’s fistfights drifts closer and closer to a whirring helicopter blade, I was kind of worried for him. But the best part of it all is that there’s a sense that everyone involved was completely happy to be working on this big, dumb action movie. The picture is covered in oldies on the soundtrack, when it’s not filled with gunfire or explosions or mumbling, creating a party atmosphere. They’re having fun with this material, thin as it is, and that shines through. The best example is Jean-Claude Van Damme, who is hamming it up, having a great time as the villain, strutting around in a black trenchcoat, speaking heavily-accented, vaguely threatening nonsense, and glowering threateningly behind a pair of sunglasses that he delicately folds up and places on a table before his final fight scene in the movie. If you had told me even yesterday that this would be one of the most likable performances of the year, I might have doubted you. Oh, sure, there are lots of better performances this year, but few so plainly, appealingly, enjoyable. I knew I should theoretically want to see his character defeated, but more than a small part of me wanted to see him live to fight another day. 

All the while, the movie rockets forward with an unstoppable shoot-‘em-up energy. It’s the kind of movie where someone can kick a knife into a man’s chest and it’s not only goofy and intense in the same moment, it’s actually important to the story. (Well, sort of.) The whole thing’s so simple and eager to be an audience-pleaser that it mostly is. When it’s not bogged down in some of the dullest exposition you’re likely to hear, the movie is fast, explosive, and good enough. When it’s in motion, there’s fun to be had. The movie starts well and ends well with energetic set pieces and by the time it's finishing starting, it's time to start finishing.

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