All brawn, still not much fun ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

All brawn, still not much fun

The Expendables 2
My rating:

I wasn't too keen on The Expendables two years ago. There were four ensemble action movies that year, and I felt that one was clearly the weakest of them all; the least clever, the least fun, and the least funny (also the most in need of a sense of humour). And for a movie predicated on putting together a supergroup of '80s action movie icons, it cheated big time with never-beens like (MMA champion) Randy Couture and (NFL player and deodorant spokesman) Terry Crews. Yet it's the only one that gets a sequel, so shows how much I know. I guess the nostalgia value of seeing old-school action heroes from the '80s really does sell tickets worldwide, though its charms were somewhat lost on me.

And they're still not working.

The mercenary team led by Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and comprising Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Yin Yang (Jet Li), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), Toll Road (Randy Couture), Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren) and new member Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth) are forced into a new mission by CIA operative Church (Bruce Willis). The job involves retrieving an item from a safe in a crashed plane in Eastern Europe - and also comes with another new member Maggie Chan (Yu Nan) as the safecracker. But after obtaining the Macguffin, they are ambushed by Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) who leads his own private army called the Sangs. Vilain takes the item - which turns out to be blueprints of an abandoned mine in which is hidden five tons of weapons-grade plutonium - and kills one of the team. Swearing revenge, Ross and the Expendables must now track down Vilain and stop him - and along the way, they'll get a little help from fellow veteran mercenaries Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Booker (Chuck Norris).

In certain ways, this sequel is an improvement on it predecessor. Instead of having Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis in a mere cameo, this time they're in a proper action scene - and throws in Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme to boot. It's more aware of its cheesy appeal; there are references to "I'll be back" and "Yippee-ki-yay", and Norris recites a Chuck Norris Fact. (Also, "Vilain".) Crews and Couture have more presence this time, making it feel like a proper ensemble instead of a Sylvester Stallone-Jason Statham buddy movie like the first one was. Simon West is a more competent director of action movies than Stallone (or most likely his 2nd-unit director), and the action scenes are better composed and edited. There are even a couple of funny lines of dialogue. But none of this made much of an impression on me, nor persuaded me to give it a higher rating.

See, maybe I just don't get the whole '80s action thing. I actually missed out on a lot of those movies, particularly those with Norris and Van Damme, who were always more low-rent than Schwarzenegger and Stallone. (And I don't think I've even watched Rambo III all the way. Have it on DVD, tried it once, fell asleep.) So pulling them out of retirement and putting them all together doesn't really do anything for me; in fact, all it does is highlight how little appeal they have besides kicking ass on camera. They're dull. The titular team, supposedly a tightly-knit band of fighting men, have little chemistry with each other. Every time they're not in an action scene, they all just seem really awkward. And in the case of the 72-year-old Norris, we're meant to believe he's an awesome badass when he barely even throws a punch.

Perhaps it's not that they don't have any real screen presence - because they certainly don't in this movie - but that they would if the movie found ways to play up their natural personalities. Or maybe if the screenplay gave them some. Dolph Lundgren gets to be the comic relief - a role for which, unfortunately, he is eminently unsuited - and that's the kind of thing that suffices to distinguish one macho lunkhead from another in this movie. These guys just aren't much fun to be around, even when they're kicking ass and mowing down hundreds of faceless bad guys. I mentioned Red, another movie with a similar senior-citizen-action-heroes premise, and that one was so much more fun - because John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Brian Cox and Richard Dreyfuss are much better actors who can liven up even a cheesy action movie that should be beneath their talents.

And so the problems with the original remain - namely, not knowing how to be as much fun as it should be. It doesn't know whether to be a straight-faced throwback to ultraviolent '80s action flicks (no it shouldn't) or a more winking, deliberately cheesy homage-cum-parody of same (yes, that's more like it). Stallone - 'cos it's clearly him driving this franchise, even if he isn't directing this time - seems like he's leaning more towards the former, whereas the humourous self-referential elements seem more like afterthoughts. At times, this film asks to be taken seriously, such as the aforementioned death of a member of the team and the funeral scene that follows. Which is clearly meant to be all sad and tragic, but is more likely to evoke boredom at best, derisive laughter at worst. We didn't come to this movie for pathos, Stallone - we came to cheer and whoop and laugh, and if you can't make us laugh with you then we'll laugh at you.

Still, it's as well-made as an action film can be. The action sequences have a bit more creativity to them than in the last one, and there is a thrill in watching Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis side by side going all God Mode on a bunch of goons. But watching Chuck Norris walk out of smoke in slo-mo to a steel guitar soundtrack does nothing for me. A climactic Stallone-Van Damme fight scene... meh. (The Statham-Scott Adkins fight was more fun.) Lundgren making cracks about his real-life academic credentials... could've been fun, but it's Lundgren making them, and he's just no comedian. And though I doubt more of his presence would've made much difference, Jet Li is summarily and inexplicably written out of the movie after the opening action scene. Maybe he realised, like I did, that all this series has going for it is its premise, but it never really does anything with it.

NEXT REVIEW: Premium Rush
Expectations: yay Joseph Gordon-Levitt... and yay David Koepp?


Joshua Mingo said...

I really like this. I think you've got a very foldable, and down to earth style of writing. I think your ability to place this movie in with its history was good.

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