The boys are back in town, and they’ve brought guns: lots of guns. Yet they also back some laughs and a healthy sense of self in their arsenal, making for one of the most enjoyable action outings in years.
The idea behind The Expendables was genius in its simplicity. Led by Rambo himself, veteran action stars from the 1980s and 1990s were gathered together for the ultimate piece of fan-service, the largest collaboration of its kind since the opening of Planet Hollywood. You know their names: Stallone, Lundgren, Van Damme, Willis, Schwarzenegger. Between them, the jungles and deserts of the world would never be safe for the megalomaniacal despots or direct-to-video villains. These days, it seems that almost anybody can be an action hero, from former child star Christian Bale to Jude Law. Not content to let this less than manly behaviour slide, the original badasses return to bring pain to a whole new generation of henchmen. The first film was an old-school action extravaganza that knew its market and played to those strengths, yet sometimes sacrificed self-effacing laughs for bigger explosions. With The Expendables 2, writer/director Stallone knows his target audience a little bit more, and plays evenly to the fans and ironic viewers alike.
Led by Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), the mercenary team known as The Expendables are sent to Nepal with new recruit/sniper Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth) to rescue a Chinese businessman. When they return, CIA operative Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) approaches them with a mission, claiming that they still owe him one for the events of the first film. Reluctantly saddled with technical expert Maggie (Yu Nan), their simple mission of picking up the contents of a safe inside of a downed plane goes south when the supercriminal Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) gets involved. This time, it’s personal.
If the original film could be faulted for a sometimes scattered story, sandwiching in a love sub-plot for Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) and the baffling presence of Mickey Rourke, The Expendables 2 is all about stripping it back to basics and more importantly, giving fans what they want. From the bombastic and superfluously explosive opening through to the inevitable showdown of a conclusion, Stallone and Richard Wenk’s basic screenplay rarely disappoints. The action set-pieces are flawlessly executed, including a particularly impressive sequence inside a period recreation of New York by way of the Soviets. Indeed, this sets the tone for the film, which in turn models itself on the best (and worst) of the 80s and 90s, taking ridiculously overblown action, cranking it up to eleven and winking at the audience in the process.
Where The Expendables 2 mostly succeeds is in this self-awareness, synthesising the last few years of pop-cultural discussion and web-based memes and effortlessly tipping their hats to them in the process. The highly publicised cameo of Chuck Norris, a cause for applause on its own, directly references the Chuck Norris Facts Internet meme, and Norris is in on the joke. Of course, there are no such things as Chuck Norris jokes, only Chuck Norris facts. Additionally, Chuck Norris once made a joke, and ten people died laughing. Yet The Expendables 2 should not be mistaken for simply being a plethora of gags, although there are countless references made to the catchphrases of the various stars right throughout the film. This is not a parody, and what Stallone and director Simon West has done instead is build a better mousetrap, combining all of the tropes we have laughed at over the years into something that is actually more than the sum of its parts.
The real joy of the film comes in seeing familiar faces back in the limelight, and the cause for the most elation is the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger. With the exception of his cameo in the first film, he has been absent from our screens for the better part of a decade, and the film is at its most comfortable when it is playing to his reputation. Arnie slides back into the fray without blinking, his taken-for-granted presence being one of the better running gags of The Expendables 2. In fact, if we don’t see a spin-off with Arnie and Bruce Willis as an action odd couple, then there is no justice in the world. Hitting the ground running, the franchise proves that age shall not weary them, especially with the wonders of modern cosmetic surgery. The boys keep it light until it gets dark: then they go pitch black.
The Expendables is released in Australia on 30 August 2012 from Roadshow Films.