Saturday, February 15, 2014

DVD Review: The Expendables 2

I wrote my original DVD Review of the first The Expendables (2010) film on the eve of the theatrical release of The Expendables 2 (2012). Obviously, the second film has been available on DVD for quite some time and The Expendables 3 won't be released in the theaters until next August. The opportunity to rent The Expendables 2 at my local public library presented itself and so I took advantage of it, hoping I wouldn't regret my decision.

Actually, I almost passed up this DVD. I've avoided similar opportunities in the past simply because I wasn't all that enthralled with the first film. I figured, like most sequels, that the second film would be a downgraded version of the first with lots of violence and gore, but little else, capitalizing on what its targeted fan-base loves most.

I wasn't wrong, but that's why I think this movie is better than its predecessor. It doesn't pretend to be something it's not.

The first film was trying to find a soul for itself, something beyond the sheer gratuitous violence that is characterized in most of its frames. It almost succeeded but that "almost" painfully accentuated that what was attempted had ultimately failed. In this sequel, Stallone stuck to what works for this franchise. Don't deal too much with the characters as human beings or try to examine their histories or motives. Just stick to the mission and watch the body count climb.

There's one exception of course, "Billy the Kid" (Liam Hemsworth) a young ex-Army sniper who joined the team because of the promise of quick and abundant cash which he needed to marry his French girlfriend. He was given a sympathetic back story and a likable personality because his brutal death at the hands of the main bad guy Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme), is what motivates most of the action in the film.

If you've already seen this movie (and I'll tell you even if you haven't), you know after the opening sequence where the team rescues a Chinese millionaire as well as Barney Ross's (Sylvester Stallone) mercenary rival Trench Mauser (Arnold Schwarzennegger) in Nepal, CIA Agent Church (Bruce Willis) "convinces" Ross to undertake what was supposed to be a "milk run" mission in Albania to retrieve a piece of undescribed tech from an downed aircraft. Church sends along agent Maggie Chan (Yu Nan) as the expert who will retrieve the tech for return to the CIA.

Ross, as always, is unhappy with having a female involved, probably because of his history of getting all the women around him killed due to his violent occupation, but he acts more hurt than angry. It's always interesting watching Stallone attempt to act as if his characters have a "sensitive side." It's usually the part in his films where I want to scream, "Just kill somebody, already!"

One flight to Albania later, the tech is retrieved but Billy's captured by Vilain and his gang of mercs. The Expendables have no choice but to hand over the computer (more on that in a minute) to save Billy's life. Here, Vilain establishes himself as a villain by killing Billy anyway and then he and his gang of thugs quickly escape in a helicopter (too bad Trench wasn't there to yell, "To the choppah!"

Maggie belatedly reveals to Ross that the device Vilain has reveals the location of five tons of refined plutonium hidden by the former Soviet Union. The Expendables manage to follow the signal of the device but only get so far on their own.

Ambushed after spending the night in an abandoned Soviet military base across the border in Bulgaria, the third "special guest" after Schwarzenegger and Willis appears. Ross's mysterious friend Booker (Chuck Norris) appears out of nowhere to annihilate the gang attacking the Expendables, including their tank, in just a matter of seconds. Then, after a few cute quips, this "Lone Wolf" disappears again, but not before giving Ross and company the location of a village of allies to help them find and stop Vilain's gang known as "the Sangs."

The Sangs have been raiding the village to use all of the men and boys as slave labor to dig up the plutonium. The Expendables make quick and violent work of the Sangs who again raid the village for more slaves, and then find Vilain and the rest of his crew at the cave, just in time for the bad guys to all escape with the plutonium and to trap the Expendables and the former slaves in a cave-in triggered by explosions.

You find out a few things about Gunner Jensen and the actor who plays him, Dolph Lundgren. To quote Wikipedia:
Volatile member of the team, undone by years of combat stress and alcohol abuse. Lundgren's personal history (including his chemical engineering degree) were incorporated into the character's story by Stallone.
Jensen tries to make a bomb to free the Expendables but predictably, it's a dud. Fortunately, Trench and Church arrive with a digging machine at this point in the story, and the gang chase the Sangs to a local airport. Joined again by Booker, there's an all out battle where the Sangs are wiped out, Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) is given the honor of dispatching Hector (Scott Adkins), Vilain's right-hand man who you learn to hate almost as much as Vilain, and Ross goes up against Vilain himself mano-a-mano to get revenge for Billy's death (and who cares about stopping an international terrorist from getting out of the country with five tons of weapons-grade plutonium?).

The film is watchable, surprisingly so since it's also really predictable. It's fun because of the appearances by Schwarzenegger, Willis, and Norris, each mugging for the camera and saying each other's "tag lines" from their other movies. Besides the kick ass violence, it's why anyone would watch this film. It's like one long gag or series of punch lines. If you like a lot of blood, gunfire, and explosions, this is your kind of entertainment.

The Expendables franchise is also sort of a "good guy Stallone" project which I have to admire:
Sylvester Stallone explained that his casting was looking particularly for actors who had not experienced recent hits: "I like using people that had a moment and then maybe have fallen on some hard times and give them another shot. I like those kinds of guys. Someone did it for me and I like to see if I can do it for them." -from
Ross tries to be the best "good guy" as leader of the Expendables, given the fact that the team is made up primarily of dysfunctional mercs who would never be able to live "normal lives" like most of their movie audience. Stallone is the mirror image in terms of being a "good guy" by opening opportunities to actors who otherwise might not have the ability to advance or even sustain their careers.

Don't look for too much reality in this movie or any others like it. Watching the huge battle at the airport, I caught myself wondering where airport security, the police, or even the Army were hiding. In real life, a major gun battle between a team of mercs and terrorists with a cargo of plutonium hanging in the balance would have gotten someone's attention. At least the passengers and other civilians in the terminal had the good sense to run rather than just stand there and get shot down.

Norris's character appears, disappears, and reappears like a ghost. He has no back story, there is no explanation for his presence, and his ability to take on and defeat impossible odds is very much in line with what has become known as Chuck Norris facts.

At the beginning of the film when the Expendables rescue Trench, it is presumed that Trench was there in a failed attempt to rescue the Chinese hostage. Trench even mentions that his own team were hanging back, but when the Expendables, Trench, and the hostage all escape in a rain of bombs and bullets, we see no evidence that any of Trench's force is around or ever had been.

At one point in the film, Maggie tries to get close to Ross, and this is Ross's cue to explain why he keeps women at a distance. It's an attempt to introduce some of Ross's humanity into the narrative (and I guess you can only blow up so much stuff in an 103 minute film) but the scene just fills space until the next battle begins. As I said, the movie works precisely because it has no soul or depth. It's just what you want and expect: action and gags.

Near the beginning of the film, Yin Yang (Jet Li) has to bail out of Ross's plane with the former hostage to return him to his home (Li had a scheduling conflict and could only be present for the filming of the opening sequence). At one point, he and Jensen trade barbs and Yang says that if Jensen misses him, he can find some other minority to torment. Apparently, this doesn't translate into Chinese women, because later in the movie, Jensen clumsily attempts to flirt with Maggie (unless you count that as torment, too).

At the climax of the film, Ross confronts Vilain to get his revenge for Billy's death. Vilain is unarmed except for the huge and ugly knife he previously took from Ross. Ross has firearms, but he lets Vilain's "fight like men or sheep" speech get to him. In real life, tossing your guns aside to fight a homicidal maniac hand to hand as a matter of pride is dumb. Even though this is good guy (anti-hero) vs. bad guy, there's no guarantee that you are going to win. If Ross wanted to humiliate Vilain as well as kill him, he could have just said "Bullshit" to the "men or sheep" business, and started out by blowing off both of Vilain's kneecaps. Then, until you run low on ammo, keep shooting this jerk in various non-lethal areas of the body to maximize pain and then, when done, put one between his eyes to make sure he'll never come back for the third film.

Sadly, in attacking the cave, Ross chooses to sacrifice his Grumman HU-16 Albatross. Such a beautiful and classic aircraft. It was probably the thing I liked the most in the first two films. To make up for being such a shmuck during most of the film, Church gives Ross a replacement: an Antonov An-2 biplane. Not as classic to be sure, but I'm interested to see how it'll figure into the third movie. Yeah, I'll probably watch it...but not until it comes out on