There’s a burger joint in Atlanta, Georgia known as Vortex. It serves things that will kill you dead. The “Triple Coronary Bypass burger in particular is a gargantuan monument to all things unhealthy. Two half-pound sirloin patties sandwiched between three grilled cheese sandwiches instead of buns, then topped off with mayo, eight slices of cheese, ten slices of bacon, and a few fried eggs for good measure. It is bad for you. The Expendables 2 could rightly be described the exact same way. Sylvester Stallone and Vortex’s paeans to junk are both overloaded with cheese, meat, and greasiness. They also both happen to be delicious.
The Expendables 2’s secret sauce is that it knows full well that it’s bad for you, and revels in it. In 2010’s The Expendables, Sylvester Stallone’s action movie dream team suffered from a script that took itself entirely too seriously. Double crosses, drug cartels, Dolph Lundgren turning from good, to bad, then back to good — all the ingredients were there but rather than maintain a spirit of Kraft-made goodness, Stallone bogged the picture down with unearned, bizarre sentimentality. Why is there a teary-eyed soliloquy about war from a dreadlocked Mickey Rourke here? Why show me Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger only to take them away? What the hell kind of GI Joe play set is this?
Considering that The Expendables grossed $274 million worldwide, Stallone and company were under no obligation to fix the formula, but fix it they did. The Expendables 2 is 103 minutes of choreographed violence as comedy and juvenile wish-fulfilment (provided the juvenile wish was made by a 10-year-old in 1990).
Barney Ross’ (Stallone) crew from the first movie is back and much better utilized this time out. Terry Crews’ Hale Caesar and Randy Couture’s Toll Road see their screen time expanded with more enjoyably groan-inducing one-liners; Jason Statham’s Lee Christmas receives less focus while still getting some solid knife fights in; Jet Li’s Yin Yang is only on board for the opening assault on a Nepalese militia camp, but that’s plenty of time for the 49-year-old wushu artist to hit plenty of nameless soldiers with frying pans.
Speaking of, that attack cements The Expendables 2 as the best GI Joe movie yet made. The absurdly named characters pilot custom-made vehicles with names like “Bad Attitude” and “Knock Knock” that describe what they do. I half expected Destro to pop out, but played by Joss Ackland for maximum ‘80s villain effect.
Lundgren’s Gunner Jensen especially shines, embodying the tonal shift from the first movie to now. Where he was a vicious murderer the first time out, now he’s a doofy vicious murder who snores and is, like the real Lundgren, a Fullbright scholar with a background in chemical engineering. One second he’s copying down Albert Einstein’s Unified Theory on a napkin, the next he’s blowing his nose into it. Then he’s shooting 50 people.
Rourke is the only one who’s out, replaced by Chinese star Yu Nan’s Maggie, and Liam Hemsworth’s (The Hunger Games, The Last Song) Billy the Kidd. Maggie sets The Expendables 2 easy to digest revenge plot in motion. CIA spook Church (Bruce Willis) sends the Expendables to Albania with Maggie in tow to retrieve the super secret contents of a crashed airplane. The mission goes awry when the evil, Satan-worshipping cartel, the Sangs, show up. Leader Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Vilain—yes, that’s right, the Muscles from Brussels plays a bud guy named Vilain—shows up, steals the goods, and death ensues.
It’s a decisive moment. The Expendables hold a brief funeral for a fallen friend and vow revenge, pursuing the Sangs into the former-Soviet countryside for some of the ol’ ultra violence. Stallone’s unintentionally hilarious eulogy—“Why is it the ones that deserve to die that go on living?” Ugh.—threatens to plunge back into the first movie’s weird melancholy. Up to that point, it’s been scenes like having Jet Li jump out of a plain before Statham says, “That’s real Chinese take out!” Stallone and Richard Wenk’s script sticks the landing though, doubling down on schtick and saving some melodrama for big showdowns.
Director Simon West (The Mechanic, Con Air), who takes over directing duties from Stallone, does a yeoman’s job as well, setting up action scenes that are grotesquely violent while remaining intelligible. Expendables 2 rightly calls back to an era of action filmmaking where scenes weren’t diced into millisecond bits of shaky cam footage, and the flow of set piece after set piece isn’t exhausting as a result.
Like all decadent meals though, you start to feel a little sick by the end. The last 20 minutes of the movie is, to put it mildly, overindulgent with Schwarzenegger, Willis, and Chuck Norris joining the Expendables for an Albanian airport shootout. The burger would be bad enough for you with just buns, but the Triple Bypass needs those grilled cheese sandwiches to make it extra special. Expendables 2’s equivalent is Schwarzenegger and Willis driving a doorless smartcar through an airport quoting Terminator and Die Hard lines at one another.
That’s fine though. Nothing wrong with a little overindulgence. The Expendables 2 is gluttonous, yes, but that’s the point. Few movies are as honest about their hedonism, and in that regard alone, Stallone’s follow up is a success.