Notebook Reviews: Simon West's "The Expendables 2"

Take away _The Expendables_' casual earnestness, and what you're left with is a generic action flick.
The Expendables 2

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. 

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Got it. First film sucked, second film sucks in a less charming way.
The sequel’s major strength over #1 is that the hand-to-hand fight scenes are comprehensible. Jet Li is still underused, but at least he isn’t criminally wasted as in the first one. And Jason Statham’s two big fights are pretty good (though not up to the best ones from the Cranks and Transporters…). Van Damme is def. underused, as is Scott Adkins (though it was nice that he at least got to do a few good high kicks).
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Everyone is criminally wasted in the first one. Not enough, ahem, balls to go around.
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He had that one interesting monologue that was a bit overrated, and that’s it.
I thought it was one of the best scenes in American movies that year, personally. Enough reason to see the movie certainly.
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I know you did. I remember you raved about it. For me, I thought the scene was problematic in its handling of ethnicity.
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Dude no, Danny is right. How was the scene problematic. The character felt that way, but the way the film is shot clearly positions him as a shell, a worn out husk. He calls them “Serb bad boys”, but that’s the character, a paid mercenary no less, talking, not the sequence itself. I think the difference is clear enough to be obvious.

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