Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables was a sloppy, corny movie that never felt less than genuine; like a teenager's poetry, it was clunky and derivative, but also heartfelt—or, more accurately, gut-felt, considering its focus on a certain type of lone, tough-guy, no-tears sadness. Its world—embodied in its standout scene, a gorgeously rambling Mickey Rourke monologue—was romantic but pessimistic, ridiculous but also dead-serious. It wasn't so much an action movie as an ensemble piece (or, at the very least, an attempt at an ensemble piece) about the emotional lives of a bunch of cartoon badasses.
The Expendables 2 is, in many ways, a "better-made" action movie: handsome, more cohesive, better balanced and paced. The jokes are still lame, the special effects are still sub-par, and Arnold Schwarzenegger's role still consists entirely of looking shriveled and reciting bad self-referential asides (his non-chemistry with Stallone suggests an exhausted vaudeville duo doing a decades-old routine for booze money)—but at least the film has a palpable momentum, proceeding at a quick clip and laying out and completing goals along the way. In lieu of the first film's goofy meandering from tangent to tangent, there's a rapid succession of plot points: a downed Chinese aircraft leads to a map which leads to villain (actually named "Vilain," and played by a predictably underused Jean-Claude Van Damme) who leads to several too-short set-pieces which lead to a Chuck Norris cameo which leads to a quick final showdown. The movie is lean and consistent—and that, surprisingly enough, is its major flaw.
Taking over directorial duties from Stallone, Simon West—who debuted with the Bruckheimer blockbuster par excellence Con Air (1997) but has since settled into a career as capable (albeit not terribly interesting) action journeyman—does solid work. Visually, he's a more classical director than Stallone, with a good sense for how to stage action in a widescreen frame (despite the fact that he's directed many action movies, Stallone is more of a drama director, and his action scenes tend to be a tad incoherent). The opening number—a hyper-violent rescue operation that involves modified trucks and airboats—is smartly-crafted, though not especially memorable (regardless of his eye for framing, West lacks the punchy kinetic sensibility of contemporaries like John Hyams or Joe Carnahan). It's solid work—and that's about it. The charm of The Expendables, though, lay in how laid-back it felt, casually moving from conscious self-parody to straight-up gory action to meathead poetry and back. Take that away, and what you're left with is a generic action flick where aging stars send up their on- and off-screen personas.