The Expendables 2 acts as the almost perfect definition of the term “critic proof.” Such a large assembly of the biggest names in action needs no introduction or discussion of nuance, tropes, or obvious political inclinations. People just want and need to know a small handful of things. Does shit blow up? Yes. Does everyone get at least one good scene to showcase their talents? Yes. Is it better than the first film? Yes, and by quite a bit actually.
The elite mercenary force from the first film comprised of Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren (who’s back on the side of good this time out), Terry Crews, and Randy Couture are back with a new mission and a pair of new recruits. This time out they are hired by a really pissed off Church (Bruce Willis) to make amends for screwing him out of $50 million dollars. Their task should be an easy one: head to Eastern Europe, find a downed plane and open a safe that has a map of an abandoned Russian plutonium mine before it falls into the wrong hands. Along for the ride is the team’s youthful sniper (Liam Hemsworth) and a battle trained safecracking specialist (Nan Yu) with intimate knowledge of the material. This puts them in direct conflict with the hilariously and appropriately named Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme), the leader of a Satanically tattooed gang of thugs known as The Sangs, who will stop at nothing to get at the nuclear materials for sick fun and profit.
The handing off of directorial duties by Stallone (who still co-wrote the script for this film) to Simon West (Con Air) was a wise decision, with many of the choppy editing and lacklustre story beats from the first film all but vanishing here. The action overall feels more assured and tighter paced even if the budget looks like it was cut considerably to get everyone back on board again. In a film where the action is literally all that matters, it delivers more on audience expectation than the first film did. It gives the people what they want in almost every possible way, and it even manages a nice and somewhat shocking twist pretty early on that ultimately sets the main story in motion and ups the stakes. It might be as dumb as a box of hammers, but that’s what it was constructed to be from the outset, and at least this time the audience can actually see and focus on everything that’s going on.
Mostly everyone does that one thing they’re really good at, getting one big scene in the film to showcase that talent, but some people still outshine the rest. If there’s anyone who gets the short end of the stick, it’s Li who has nothing really to do beyond a single fight and it doesn’t help that he looks like the only one of the bunch that doesn’t want to be there. Hemsworth and Yu are nice additions to the overall crew, but they’re still pretty forgettable compared to their counterparts. The most improved of the bunch would easily be Lundgren who actually gets to have fun as a misguided, chemically imbalanced genius and show off some decent comedic chops. Chuck Norris pops up for a pair of scenes that are simply too surreal for words, and Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger reprise their minor cameos from the first film with larger roles here. They seem to both be having fun, but in his time away from the screen Schwarzenegger seems to have forgotten anything and everything about acting. At least he can still hold a big gun and shoot.
There’s nothing terribly original about the film and about halfway through it almost word for word rips off the plot of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but it’s still an improvement over the first instalment. It’s designed by savvy people gearing it towards a specific audience that likes this type of film, and there’s nothing really to knock about that. It is what it is, and if it’s the kind of film you think you’ll like, you probably will enjoy the braindead fun as much as I did.