There are three words that handily sum up the “why not?” attitude that drives and defines “The Expendables 2”: “male pattern badness.”
For starters, it’s an awful pun (and I say this as something of an expert). Either screenwriter Richard Wenk or co-writer/star Sylvester Stallone thought it was genuinely clever or merely clever-sounding enough to include. It’s a nonsensical phrase that nonetheless reflects the pattern of this sequel -- each of the many manly men onscreen acts bad with a gun and even worse once armed with dialogue.
With that said, this ultra-violent follow-up (directed by Simon West of “Con Air” fame) gives the audience what it wants in full force, which is more than could be said for Stallone’s original assembly of countless action icons like himself. This time, the ranks of the mercenaries known as the Expendables (which still include Jason Statham, Jet Li, Terry Crews, Randy Couture and Dolph Lundgren) have lost morose Mickey Rourke while gaining Liam Hemsworth’s sniper kid and Nan Yu’s intelligence operative.
She’s been added to the team at the insistence of CIA Agent Church (Bruce Willis, sharing more screen time alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger), who wants Barney (Stallone) and his men to retrieve a cryptic doodad from deep in the heart of Eastern Europe. As it turns out, they aren’t the only ones who want this device; Jean Vilain (villainous Jean-Claude Van Damme, naturally) wants it for himself and doesn’t hesitate to kill the least essential member of the Expendables to do it.
What follows is a revenge mission that incorporates a generic plutonium-minded plot and curiously mimics the village rescue of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” only with the added cornball sentimentality of a classic WWII drama and interracial innuendo galore. From the opening assault on a Nepalese village onward, West proves to be a slightly steadier hand at the action than Stallone was, with less egregious digital blood splatter replaced by a generally gung-ho spirit that occasionally slips into the utterly incomprehensible. (The less said of constantly grainy close-ups and back-home speeches, the better.)
As the token female addition to the team, Yu is suitably awful at dialogue exchanges, leaving one to wonder if the more effortlessly charming Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Q, Zhang Ziyi or Lucy Liu had to pass before she got the part. To be fair, she’s no more mumble-mouthed than the leads. It’s tempting to say that, out of the entire cast, Lundgren makes the most egregious transformation between films from pouty turncoat into comic relief (mocking his own real-life experience as a Fulbright Scholar, for example), but here, everyone serves as the comic relief.
For better and worse, hardly a moment goes by without someone making a winking reference to their own former glory (especially Schwarzenegger). It's the kind of movie where Chuck Norris shows up to embrace his very own meme. It’s the kind of movie in which Statham dons a priest’s garb and pronounces someone “man and knife” before stabbing them. It’s the kind of movie where a henchman gets shot while going through an airport scanner. Like I said, it’s “why not?” filmmaking at its loudest, thriving on familiarity above all else.
At its worst, the film doubles as the very sight of nostalgia collapsing in on itself. This is what dementia should eventually look like for any child of the ‘80s, as iconic actors begin spouting one another’s catchphrases while other badasses arrive to theme music from films they were never in. When someone rhetorically asks, “Who’s next, Rambo?”, one might begin wondering whether or not these actors’ own movies actually exist in the world of these characters.
But don’t. Don’t wonder. Don’t think. It’s only with that mindset that “The Expendables 2” is enjoyable, and not merely sad.