Discussing the merits of both Expendables films is much of a muchness. To use an analogy, it’s like comparing two brands of manure.
The packaging may be different on each but the core ingredients are the same. The key is the way in which the gardener (stay with me) cultivates said ingredients in order to stimulate growth.
Sylvester Stallone was the director in charge of cultivating on the first movie but the end result was a film that stank the place up and went nowhere. Simon West takes the helm for the second film and, amazingly, generates a few tentative shoots of excitement.
The first Expendables was, let’s be honest, little more than a glorified Friends Reunited bash with explosions, lazily coasting on the assumption that getting 80s action stars together on-screen would generate excitement. Yet at the same time, it weirdly attempted to establish a crude sense of character development, whether it was Jason Statham’s relationship woes or Dolph Lundgren’s wavering allegiances.
West sensibly waves goodbye to all such nonsense. In The Expendables 2, the actors are treated as little more than walking hunks of beef – and that is a very good thing. After all, in their heyday, these guys were hardly renowned for incisive character portrayals to rival the likes of Harold Pinter (although John Rambo and John McClane are of course wonderful).
Massive bangs intercut with men snarling one liners at each other – that’s what Expendables 2 promises and that’s what you get. Plot is, understandably, kept to a minimum: after one of their number is killed by Jean-Claude Van Damme’s amusingly nonchalant villain Vilain (geddit?), the Expendables regroup to get revenge and recover blueprints of a mine that holds the whereabouts of a plutonium stockpile.
They are Stallone, Statham, Lundgren, Jet Li (briefly), Terry Crews, Randy Couture and new additions Liam Hemsworth and Nan Yu. Another new face is Chuck Norris (whose entrance is one of the film’s wittier moments); returning from before are Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger in expanded roles, the latter looking as if he’s spent the last 10 years in a wind tunnel.
Right from the off, West’s direction is sturdier and more confident than what we saw in the first movie, recalling his glory days on the kitsch action classic Con Air. Beginning with a classic plane-taking-off-in-the-knick-of-time sequence and increasing in volume from there, the set-pieces are brilliantly marshalled, and each star gets his (or her) moment in the spotlight.
It really comes together (or blows apart) at the end, an extended airport shootout finally delivering on the tantalising promise of the first movie: what would it be like if a bunch of geriatric action heroes came together to blow shit up? The result puts the guilty in guilty pleasure. The decision to pit generational members against each other (Stallone vs Van Damme in a punch-up) also entertains.
Unlike the first, this is no marketing gimmick in search of a movie. The Expendables 2 knows exactly how to deliver the goods – for better or worse.