Review: ‘The Expendables 2’ pumps up the mayhem and delivers real thrills

I was no fan of “The Expendables.”

In general, I feel like my generation has been made stupid by nostalgia.  We hold on to any terrible piece of crap from our childhoods simply because we recognize it from our childhoods.  I am often startled by the things that people profess love for, and the only explanation for much of it is because recognition has replaced any sort of demand for quality.  With “The Expendables,” people seemed willing to excuse a truly awful, uninteresting action nothing simply because of the cast, and I just couldn't hang with it.

I'm also not exactly the biggest Simon West fan in the world.  Just seeing the difference between the scripts for “Tomb Raider” and the film that West eventually released was enough to make me skeptical of his taste as a filmmaker.  I find myself uninspired by his work.  I think he's a competent shooter, and if that's all you need from a director, he's your guy.

For those reasons, I was not expecting much when I sat down to see “The Expendables 2,” and maybe my lowered expectations helped.  Or maybe it took the experience of making the first film to get everybody closer to the right place to make the second movie.  Whatever the case, “The Expendables 2” is big, goofy fun, bloody and silly and fairly non-stop.  It makes good use of the cast, it pulls no punches with the mayhem, and even when it tips too far into the “here's a reference to another movie you know” category, it's so gleefully pleased with itself that it seems hard to complain.

“The Expendables 2” opens with a rescue mission, and right away, it sets a tone that is preposterous and hyperviolent.  Much like Sylvester Stallone's “Rambo,” the last chapter in that long-running franchise, blood isn't just spilled… it's splattered.  Heads explode.  Every bullet hit results in a big red cloud of matter.  The entire sequence is staged with a mounting sense of scale, and every one of the actors gets a chance to shine with action specifically choreographed for their skill set.  There's a beat in the middle of the sequence, for example, where Jet Li finds himself face-to-face with some bad guys in a kitchen, and using just pots and pans, he beats the holy hell out of them.  It's a great reminder of just how good Jet Li can be when he's in a scene that allows him to play to his strengths.

Both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis get more screen time in this film instead of a quick cameo like in the first film, and more than anything, his work here convinces me that Schwarzenegger's return to movies is going to consist of a whole lot of winking and elbow nudges to the ribs.  “Hey, remember those movies I made in the '80s?  Yeah, me, too!”  It is egregious how many direct dialogue references he makes to other movies, and there's not a single moment where it seems like Arnold's even aware he's supposed to be playing a character.  It feels like we're watching Henry Winkler attempt to play Fonzie again, and it really worries me to think that this is what we have to look forward to as Schwarzenegger releases several movies over the next few years.  If you think it's hilarious each and every time the Oak says “I'll be back,” then you'll no doubt love his work here.  For me, it threatened to derail the film every time he opened his mouth.

No one else has that problem, though.  Jean Claude Van Damme, for example, plays the main villain in the film, and while there's no doubt they tailored the role for him (check out the spinning kick he does to drive a knife into a character's chest, for example), it's still a role.  He still manages to work in the context of the film without utterly destroying the “reality” of the film.  Chuck Norris shows up playing Chuck Norris, and he even drops a couple of “Chuck Norris Facts” jokes, but it works because of the light touch, and because it's between some great action beats.  Seeing how the film gets it right in a number of ways only makes it feel more and more like Schwarzenegger is the problem.  He was never a particularly great actor, instead content to be a movie star.  It feels to me like he's forgotten how to be part of an ensemble, and everyone else in the film seems to run rings around him.

Stallone and Statham are the backbone of the movie, and there's such an easy macho chemistry between them that I feel like this series can coast on charm as long as the scripts are streamlined and simple like this one.  Stallone and Richard Wenk are co-credited with the script, and I like how direct the structure is.  It has a nice sense of escalation, and by the last sequence, when pretty much everyone gets into the action, it feels like they've finally figured out exactly the right tone and formula to make the film work.  The appeal of a concept like this is seeing everyone in action together, and this film really lives up to that.  Dolph Lundgren and Terry Crews are both given more to do this time around, and they both score some big laughs simply by being natural and relaxed.  Scott Adkins, star of the “Undisputed” series, plays Van Damme's main henchman, and while there's not nearly enough of him in the film, he's got a few moments where he gets to show off just how badass he is.

It is not a particularly smart film, but by managing to not be an aggressively stupid film like the first one was, “The Expendables 2” delivers on the promise of a movie built around a group of action icons.  Handsomely shot by Shelly Johnson and energetically cut by Todd Miller, this is an action movie with some balls on it, and it may well be the most enjoyable thing Simon West has ever directed.  I still wouldn't call this a great movie, and there's no subtext at all. There's still plenty of room for improvement, too, because while this is better, it's still got plenty of flaws. My favorite action films are the ones where the action serves both character and theme, but I'm okay with a bit of lunatic carnage from time to time.  People who miss the action of the '80s are going to feel like they're in heaven when they see this, and even those who aren't fueled entirely by nostalgia may find a lot to like in the film's take-no-prisoners attitude.

“The Expendables 2” opens in theaters everywhere on Friday.