One thing that becomes crystal clear when watching Inferno, the feature-length John Herzfield documentary on the making of the first Expendables film, is that star, director and co-writer Sylvester Stallone is very, very serious about The Expendables. Regardless of what ultimately appeared on cinema screens in the summer of 2010, Stallone's intention was to make something special, a return to a cinematic experience in which stars are the draw, an action spectacle in which the protagonists are heroes and, most importantly, heroes of action.
This intent never quite translated into The Expendables and the film was ultimately oddly cold and flat and most disappointingly, entirely lacking in any well conceived or executed action.
The film, or at least the way the film was marketed, seemed to click with enough people and The Expendables went on to be a financial hit, leading to the green-lighting of a sequel, The Expendables 2.
For this second instalment Stallone is out of the directing chair but there is still the sense that the film is is his pet project and he has managed to persuade even more action stars to come along for the ride the second time around.
The film opens with The Expendables pretty much as they were in the first film, with the addition of sniper Billy 'The Kid' (Liam Hemsworth), and in an extended pre-title sequence we see the group of mercenaries blasting their way through a town and blowing away hundreds of what we are to assume are "bad guys". The Expendables are attempting to rescue a Chinese billionaire, cue the painful one-liner "That's what I call Chinese take-out", and they arrive in customized vehicles with gung-ho slogans emblazoned across them, things like 'Shock and Awe' and 'Knock, Knock'. The former is presumably a reference to the military doctrine and the latter simply a joke due to its placement on a battering ram.
Now, if you chuckled to yourself at the idea of a military battering ram having 'Knock, Knock' stencilled on the side of it then you may actually find some enjoyment in The Expendables 2, a film peppered with 'jokes' that are mostly pitched at that sort of level.
On a number of occasions the action takes a time-out in order for one of the characters to quip something that seems well placed to entertain the other characters/actors, even if it leaves most audience members groaning and slamming their heads into the seat in front. The most painfully unfunny 'comedic' quips are those that reference other films, films that feature the actors who are playing the characters making the jokes. So we have Arnie accompanied by quips about getting his ass "Terminated" - don't think too hard about the visual of what that could actually mean - and Chuck Norris popping up out of nowhere, only for his character to be described as a "lone wolf" and then make an actual "Chuck Norris Joke", and not a very good one at that. The effect of all this quipping and referencing is wearying and not all funny.
Even if these kind of asides were funny they certainly wouldn't fit in with a lot of the rest of the dialogue, which is often po-faced and far too serious, despite all the bombast and ludicrous action exploding either side of it.
Stallone has the most cringe-worthy stoic and faux-philosophical musings to spout in the film but the pauses in the story for Stallone to say something that attempts to be meaningful are not the only efforts to play this farce with a straight face. Death, cruelty and exploitation are all treated with some sort of attempt at respect in places but these moments are always bookended with daft action or misjudged humour. A key character's death, for instance, loses a little of its impact when it is preceded seconds before with a trademark roundhouse kick from JCVD and then a very awkward line reading of "I'm dying" from the victim of the kick.
The idea put forward by Stallone's character (Barney Ross) in his more sombre moments, and explicitly made clear in Inferno, is that the characters are on some kind of noble and heroic warrior's path, but there is a vast difference between that concept and what is conveyed through the story and action sequences.
The opening sequence exemplifies this issue, with the Expendables blasting their way to the finish line with a series of moves that most closely resemble an obsessed video-game player who knows where every single bad guy is before they appear and where every trick to the game is hidden.
None of it ever looks hard. And it sure as hell doesn't look heroic.
This sequence, and the many others that follow it - with the exception of the mess of a climax to the film - are at least rather impressive in places thanks to some ingenuity in the conception of the action and some reasonably solid execution. It is in this area that the film excels far beyond what the original had to offer but that is perhaps damning the film with faint praise.
Simon West, whose career began with the asinine but entertaining Nicholas Cage actioner Con Air, has a much better handle on this large scale action than Stallone had in The Expendables and this is ultimately the film's saving grace. A gleeful desire to blow up as much stuff as possible in the most ludicrous way pervades these action scenes and that's mostly in the film's favour, with its 'action' being the main selling point.
The action in the larger set pieces is often fluidly edited and has the satisfying sense of a series of dominoes falling down one after the other, exactly as they are supposed to. It doesn't exactly make the scenes seem dangerous or suspenseful but in terms of spectacle West does impress. West and cinematographer Shelly Johnson's also pay attention to framing the action for clarity and to enhance the experience in these larger set pieces, something that is occasionally lacking in recent action blockbusters.
In the 'smaller' scenes and in the aforementioned climax things fall apart though and the action is often as half-baked as it was in the first film. Shoot-outs rely on pummelling the audience with disconnected shots of guns firing and heads exploding with little in the way of any relationship between the shots. Geographical logic is also often entirely absent and this combined with a lack of consistent coherence in the editing leads to these scenes becoming monotonous and often very dull.
The hand-to-hand combat scenes in The Expendables 2 also come up lacking, despite the talents that action stars such as Jet Li, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Scott Adkins bring to proceedings. When Jet Li's movements look uncomfortable and unimpressive in a close-quartered space it is a clear indicator that something is amiss. Li's one action scene is plagued with edits that are either too long - lingering after a punch connects for an awkward period - or too short - missing crucial movements - and martial arts fans will undoubtedly find a lot to complain about. Later fights featuring JCVD and Adkins, who impressed greatly in the Undisputed films, fair even worse, with the latter's fight with Statham mostly obscured by bizarre camera placements and more inelegant edits.
The Expendables 2 is a Hollywood film that is entirely about looking inward, faded action stars coming out of semi-retirement for a big sequel to a film that was itself a depressing celebration of Hollywood mediocrity.
Hollywood has been having its ass constantly kicked in action cinema over the past twenty years by the impressive talents emerging in other countries and where poaching these talents has failed it has fallen back on old stars. The issue is that the stars in question (West included) were often not particularly good to begin with and this tired attempt to celebrate them whilst at the same time repeating their work is just a reminder of their failings and why they have since been eclipsed by greater talents.
A third Expendables film seems highly likely at this point but this particular Ouroboros needs slicing in half. And quickly.
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