Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Expendables 2

For F*** Magazine, Singapore


56Movie Review                                                                                                                     15/8/12

THE EXPENDABLES 2
2012

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Jet Li, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Liam Hemsworth, Yu Nan, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris

Directed by: Simon West

            Slowly but surely, Hollywood seems to be learning the power of nostalgia, the appeal of the ‘George Lucas Throwback’ over stale production line multiplex fodder. Just as the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films were homages to the science fiction and pulp adventures of yore on which Lucas was raised, so are several recent releases. Super 8 was a love letter to the likes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Goonies and E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. Rock of Ages embraced the kitsch and exuberance of musical films such as Grease and Footloose. And, of course, The Expendables was a macho salute to 80s-early 90s action flicks such as the Rambo movies, Commando, Hard Target and their ilk. While many were left somewhat unimpressed, it definitely left a taste for more of the same old-school wham bang fun, and opened to door to a sequel and the hope that more somewhat-forgotten action icons would be back to join Stallone’s motley crew.

            The boys are back in town: team leader Barney Ross (Stallone), knife-loving tough Brit sidekick Lee Christmas (Statham), expert martial artist Yin Yang (Li), Gunner Jensen, the brutish former traitor made good (Lundgren), heavy munitions specialist Hale Caesar (Crews) and demolitions guru Toll Road (Couture). They are joined by Billy the Kid (Hemsworth), a fresh-faced ex-military sniper whom Barney has taken a shine to,  as well as Chinese agent Maggie Chan (Yu), on loan to the crew by their CIA employer Mr Church (Willis). They’re pitted against a treacherous rival mercenary leader with the aptronym Jean Vilain (Van Damme), keen to get his hands on a long-forgotten stockpile of pure plutonium rods. Thankfully the Expendables have allies “Lone Wolf” Booker (Norris) and Trench (Schwarzenegger) to get them out of the occasional jam.

           This film is something of an improvement over the first, which was more a proof-of-concept than anything else. It was Stallone telling audiences “hey, I still have the clout to pull all my old pals together”, but it really wasn’t a lot more beyond that. Here, there are more explosive action sequences, more banter and bickering amongst the team and more enemy soldiers to splatter with high-caliber rounds. Directing duties have been passed from Sylvester Stallone to Simon West of Con Air and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider fame. The guy clearly knows his way around an action scene, and these are generally quite a hoot to watch. The opening sequence which has the team blasting their way into an enemy stronghold in Nepal on an assignment to rescue a kidnapped Chinese billionaire sets the tone pretty well, with high speed chases, huge fireballs and flying bullets galore.

            However, films like these ultimately do not lend themselves well to plots or storylines beyond the most rudimentary, and it is made amply clear that the narrative is not of primary concern. It’s almost painfully straightforward in the way it’s told, with Jean Vilain’s motivations typical of baddies in genre pictures. His atrocities towards a mining village are shown and there’s chatter about the impact the weaponising of that much plutonium will have, but somehow the threat doesn’t take root, the stakes and magnitude of the danger never truly felt. There’s some amusing back-and-forth between the guys and their love-hate-love relationship is a nice undercurrent, but some one-liners do feel awfully forced – at one point, Schwarzenegger and Willis reference The Terminator, Die Hard and Rambo all within ten seconds. Eventually, the nostalgia-tinted goggles need to come off, and then it’s evident that while this is a good film, it is fairly unremarkable beyond its action hero clout.

            This brings us to the ensemble cast. Stallone and everyone else returning  from the first film is only more enjoyable to watch, Lundgren in particular – although Gunner betrayed the team in the first film, all seems to be forgiven and he is made out to be the hulking dunderhead, whose secret past involves getting a degree in chemical engineering from MIT on a Fulbright scholarship and becoming a bouncer, mirroring Lundgren’s own real-life experiences (he’s a graduate in chemical engineering from Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology and Australia’s University of Sydney who became a model, bouncer and later bodyguard to singer/actress Grace Jones).

 It is great to see Jean-Claude Van Damme back on the big screen and it’s somehow even more satisfying to see him as the scenery-chewing baddie that our heroes have to deal with, and adding to the evilness is martial artist Scott Adkins as Vilain’s ruthless lieutenant. The film has lots of fun with its upgraded cameos from Willis and Schwarzenegger, and Chuck Norris’ appearances are sure to get many excited, the fact that he was pushing for a PG-13 rating in place of the more fitting R notwithstanding. The film seems half clued-in on the fact the internet memes of Norris’ superhuman prowess were probably intended to be half-ironic, and Norris as Booker (a nod to his character of the same name in Good Guys Wear Black) gets to recount one such tale, involving a king cobra. Thankfully, it’s not too overplayed.

            Newcomers Liam Hemsworth and Yu Nan made everyone at least a little wary, and rest assured that Hemsworth’s role is considerably smaller than the promotional material makes it out to be, and he is nowhere as out-of-place among the action movie stalwarts as he could have felt, his Billy the Kid injecting a sense of tenderness to the proceedings, someone Barney sees almost as a surrogate son. However, Yu Nan fares much worse. She is proficient in the English language, having appeared in Speed Racer several years prior and Dolph Lundgren’s own low-budget action flick Diamond Dogs, but the inclusion of her character just seems so clumsy and crowbarred-in. She comes off as a little too smug for her own good and seems even less skilled as an actor than some of her action hero costars, and that’s saying something. If the filmmakers wanted a Chinese character in the bulk of the film, they should have increased Jet Li’s part; he merely appears for the opening and then is missing-in-action for the rest of the movie. That’s a crying shame given how cool his brutal hand-to-hand combat scene is. They also missed the opportunity to have a truly memorable female member of the team – surely the likes of Sigourney Weaver, Linda Hamilton or Michelle Yeoh would have been better fits, no?

            At any rate, if you’re a genre fan, you’ll find plenty in The Expendables 2 to like. It’s a trip down memory lane fuelled by bravado, octane and lead, and fulfills its purpose of being a throwback to the glory days of its stars better than the first one did. It’s just that kind of movie, intellectually featherweight, brawny entertainment, only packaged better and presented slicker. It’s a bit of a shame that all this was at the expense of a meatier, more satisfying story, though.

SUMMARY: It’s the guys you love, back and kicking more behind than ever - while it’s a notch or two up from its predecessor, there’s still the feeling that the best men for the job could have been a little better at it.

RATING: 3.5 OUT OF 5 STARS

Jedd Jong

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