Friday, August 24, 2012

The Expendables 2: More mindless mayhem

The Expendables 2 (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: R, for strong bloody violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.24.12

It’s time once again to buy stock in ordnance manufacturers; Sylvester Stallone and his geezer squad are back to wreak more havoc and shoot up fresh landscapes.

Determined to rescue a lone American trapped by gun-toting
mercenaries, our heroes — from left, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone),
Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) — blast
their way into a fortified compound, and then prepare to eliminate any
two-legged signs of resistance. It's just another day at the office for
these guys...
Really, even by the already crazed standards of Hollywood’s exaggerated action flicks, I’ve rarely seen so much gunfire. Or so many blood squibs spurting from the chests, limbs and heads of obligingly posed victims. Particularly the goons shot by long-range, high-power sniper rifle, whose heads explode in a spray of viscera.

It’s almost enough to harsh the laughably ludicrous vibe of this otherwise mindless live-action cartoon.

The Expendables 2 is even sillier than its 2010 predecessor, an AARP spin on The Seven Samurai, The Dirty Dozen and all sorts of other gang-of-losers-against-insurmountable-odds epics. Ironically enough, "sillier" means better, in this case; thanks to the lighter tone, this sequel is quite a bit more entertaining. The notion that Stallone and his old coot buddies still can raise hell, definitely raises smiles ... and, yeah, it's a kick to see so many familiar faces.

With tongue even more firmly in cheek, Stallone once again shares screenwriting credit, but this time hands the directing chores to Simon West, a veteran of similar high-octane action fare such as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, last year’s remake of The Mechanic and TV’s much-loved (if woefully short-lived) 2003 cop series, Keen Eddie.

The first Expendables at least made an effort to blend some actual character drama with its grim doings, with Dolph Lundgren’s Gunnar Jensen failing to play nice with the rest of the crew, most particularly Jet Li’s Yin Yang. Lundgren is sweetness and light this time — and has inherited a college-educated science background (!) — but Li makes little more than a token appearance in an audacious pre-credits rescue mission, which pretty much sets the tone for what follows.

Indeed, West errs slightly with this prologue; it’s far better staged than most of what follows. The folks who make these sorts of films really need to stop front-loading their best stuff; the rest of the film invariably feels anti-climactic.

But back to basics.

Any trace of squabbling has vanished, with Barney Ross (Stallone) and the rest of his crew — Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) and Toll Road (Randy Couture) — joking and tossing brewskies like seasoned best buds. They’ve also taken on a rookie, a talented sharpshooter dubbed Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth), who seems to fit right in with the gang.

Or maybe not. With everybody else trading quips in the neighborhood bar and watching Lee’s flirty girlfriend (Charisma Carpenter, blink and you’ll miss her), Billy takes Barney outside and confesses that the group’s lifestyle isn’t quite what he expected, and that he’d rather spend more time with his own sweetie. Barney understands, of course; this allows Stallone to look pensive, as he reflects on his own life badly lived.

At least, what passes for “pensive” in Stallone’s limited range. Said expression also could pass for Stallone’s attempt at grim, unhappy or merely dyspeptic. Fortunately, he isn’t here to emote, merely to shoot bad guys and blow stuff up.

The eternally sour Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) pops up long enough to snarl at Barney and offer a fresh assignment, involving the retrieval of a mysterious computer whatzis from a plane that crashed in the mountains of Eastern Europe. This mission also comes with a resourceful woman — Yu Nan, as Maggie — who insists, with an enigmatic smile, that the politely sexist Barney won’t need to worry about “babysitting” her.

Indeed, as we soon discover, Maggie is equally adept at covert ops and martial-arts mayhem.

Although our team successfully retrieves the gadget, they’re just as quickly ambushed and forced to surrender it to the vile Vilain (Jean-Clause Van Damme), who is — you guessed it — the villain of this piece. Vilain is assisted by the equally nasty Hector (Scott Adkins), who we know is Very Tough because he scowls all the time.

That’s the personality template with No. 2 henchmen in stories of this nature: They always glare, whereas the top baddies are allowed to behave with mock cordiality. Which Van Damme handles with his usual courtly savoir-faire.

Anyway, it turns out that the gadget actually is a map that leads to a huge, hidden cache of weapons-grade plutonium. Once this dangerous stuff is found, deep underground, Vilain and his goons kidnap all the able-bodied men from local Balkan villages, and force them to work themselves to death in the mine.

Mind you, these poor souls apparently die solely from fatigue, as opposed to the radiation poisoning we’d expect to afflict anybody who handles plutonium ... or even gets anywhere near it. Stuff and nonsense, apparently; details of that nature don’t figure into this tale. Apparently, the cylindrical containers neutralize the radiation. Uh-huh.

This script also handles time rather sloppily. With Barney and his crew hot on Vilain’s heels, it sure seems like that plutonium gets recovered really quickly ... almost as if the bad guys knew where the stuff was before they even got the computer map. Again, we simply can’t worry about stuff like that.

Aside from stung pride, Barney is additionally motivated by revenge for a heinous act Vilain committed during their first meeting. From that point forward, we pause only briefly between explosive skirmishes, which grant spectacularly bloody deaths to — it seems — every stuntman in Bulgaria (where most of this picture was filmed).

These battles are (briefly) separated by bits of comic relief, mostly relating to predictable jokes based on various characters’ names — “Christmas came late this year,” somebody complains to Lee, at one point — or a given actor’s prior credits. Thus, Chuck Norris’ “lone wolf” operative is, of course, a nod to his 1983 film Lone Wolf McQuade, while his character’s name, Booker, references the guy he played in an even earlier film, 1978’s Good Guys Wear Black.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Trench has a larger part this time out, and most of his lines riff moments from the various Terminator entries.

So yes, this is rather flimsy, lowest-common-denominator humor ... which is appropriate, given the comic book sensibilities at work.

That said, West and production designer Paul Cross have a good time with several set-pieces, most particularly a hell-for-leather melee inside Bulgaria’s Plovdiv Airport, which grants everybody a slice of the action. Even Willis’ Mr. Church grabs an automatic weapon and starts blazing away.

One-handed, of course, the way all the cool kids utilize such guns ... never mind issues such as recoil and kick-back.

Best friends Barney and Lee bicker a lot, and Stallone and Statham do reasonably well with these bits of light-hearted camaraderie. Crews has a good time with his character’s culinary skills, and Nan does a lot with irony, slow takes and deceptive smiles.

Van Damme makes a suitably oily scoundrel, while Hemsworth adds some actual narrative depth as the conflicted Billy. Couture isn’t given much to do — one Expendable too many, I guess — while Norris’ so-called acting continues to be wooden enough to warp. (Of course, even that is part of the deliberate silliness at work here.)

Schwarzenegger and Willis merely riff their outsized macho images.

Despite a plethora of shortcomings, however, this second outing with Stallone’s geezer gang qualifies as a solid guilty pleasure: the sort of mindless, camped-up pandemonium that goes down well on a fun-loving Friday night.

Dumb stuff and nonsense?

You betcha ... but not without a certain degree of goofy charm.

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