Friday, August 31, 2012

The Expendables 2

Alternate Title:  Ooo-Rah

One sentence synopsis:      A group of elite mercenaries must stop a psychopath from selling plutonium to terrorists.

Things Havoc liked:  One has to adjust one's expectations for a movie like this.

I felt that the original Expendables, which came out before I started this project, was a mixed movie in many ways. On one hand, it was a love-letter to the great Action films of the 80s and early 90s, the ludicrous extravaganzas with body counts in the four digits and an extremely loose affiliation with such notions as physics and plausibility that I worshiped as a kid and still look back on fondly today. On the other hand, the movie never really seemed to cut loose, miring itself in a "serious business" plot that was plainly recycled from the same era as these films, and burdened with needless cameos intended clearly to provide trailer shots without giving us what we wanted. The movie wasn't bad, indeed I enjoyed it, but I felt that it did not live up to the potential it held, holding back instead of going for the gold.

Having seen this new movie, I think I'm not the only one who diagnosed it that way.

The Expendables 2 is louder, stupider, bigger, funnier, and significantly more recognizable as the absurd experiment that this entire project was intended to be, and I for one could not be happier. It exceeds the previous film in almost every respect, giving us everything I was left wanting from the previous installment of the film, ditching the dour seriousness of the previous film for a plot so sharply drawn it might as well have been written with sharpee markers. Not content to give us the returning spectacle of Stalone (still incomprehensible), Statham (finally playing the asshole I always thought he should return to), Lungren (who becomes the subject of riotously funny in-jokes for aficionados of the genre), Li (sadly reduced to a cameo role, albeit a badass one), Couture and Crews (in tertiary roles), the movie now also adds in Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, upgraded from their 90-second cameos in the first movie into full-fledged supporting badasses, Chuck Norris (who gets to play an indescribably bad dude-with-no-name who periodically shows up to add hundreds to the body count), and, of course, the Muscles from Brussels himself, Jean-Claude Van Damme, playing the bad guy with so much scenery-chewing evilness that he manages to make Stalone look restrained and measured. None of the above should be taken as criticism

And yet, the movie's greatest strength is not actually its cast, but the tremendous wealth of knowledge about the making and portraying of action films that is on display in this movie. With a cast this thick and rich, representing practically the entire action movie genre from an entire decade, helmed of course by the Academy-Award-Winning writer and actor Sylvester Stallone (a fact I never tire of bringing up), it should come as no surprise that the movie is designed, shot, and edited together with an expertise that harkens back to the glory days of the action movie. You will find no shaky-cam, no frenetic video-game editing, no Michael Bay-inspired SFX overloads here. You will not see what we used to call "MTV-ification" blighting the shot-lengths of this nigh-operatic spectacle of violence. What you will see is glorious, awesome action sequences, one after the next, their pace flowing and ebbing in an expertly-choreographed rhythm. The vast majority of the effects and stunts are practical effects, a decision I always applaud, giving the film a gritty reality that contrasts nicely with the ludicrous ultraviolence being engaged in. The stunt work, even from the aging action stars, is top quality, perhaps less athletic than it might have been in these actors' heydays, but no less punishing for it. My favorite sequence of all is probably one of Statham's, involving as it does an orthodox incense censer and throwing knives, but there's frankly not one single action sequence that falls flat.

Things Havoc disliked:   Wow, is this movie stupid. It wasn't just the action sequences, the cast, and the choreography that was imported from the great 80s action movies of yore, it was the plot as well, wherein our hero(es) have to go up against what amounts to "The Grand People's Army of Evil". Hundreds (and hundreds) of mercenaries are employed by Jean-Claude Van Damme for the apparent purposes of both doing evil and being slaughtered in enormous numbers. There's a concept from Hong Kong action flicks of "mooks", defined as armed men whose role is to die in large quantities so as to showcase the skills of the hero(es). It's been a long while since I saw this many blatant mooks in a movie.

There are moments in this film where the movie tries to turn away from its working formula of "all action all the time" to more character-driven or (worse-yet) plot-driven elements, and these moments are easily the weakest in the film. Anyone who can explain to me what the role of Liam Hemsworth is in this film or what Jean Claude Van Damme's overall plan was is welcome to enlighten me, because the movie does not see fit to supply either of these facts to us. Meanwhile Yu Nan, the token woman in the group this time, is shunted so unceremoniously to the side that she doesn't even receive billing on the promotional materials (granted, there's a lot of people to get through here, but she doesn't appear at all). I don't object so much that these things are badly handled, that's par for the course. But why include them at all if you're not going to introduce anything interesting via them? As it stands, all these sequences serve as are padded interludes between action scenes.

Final thoughts:  But hell, it's a bit churlish to object to the fact that a movie that sets out to replicate a stupid 80s action movie resembles it in more ways than one. Expendables 2 was a hilarious, ludicrous, awesome film, filled with reverent (and irreverent) nods to an earlier time with movies that were equal parts farce and blood opera. Is it good enough to stand in the company of the classic titans of 80s camp action such as Terminator, Aliens, Hard Boiled, or Die Hard? Probably not. But it's still a damn good and incredibly fun action flick, the likes of which we should be so lucky as to see more of.

Final Score:  7/10

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