There’s something satisfyingly anesthetizing about watching a well-done action movie. Requirements for a good plot, believable acting or intelligible dialogue are dramatically lowered when the violence and physicality are presented just right. The Expendables 2 is a pulpy actioner that is almost as mindless as they come, but a cerebral experience shouldn’t be the draw here. Audiences should see this film to watch action legends do what they do best: show off gigantic muscles, shoot bad guys and spout eye-rolling one-liners while ripping out the villain’s spleen with their bare hands.
The token plot is really just a formality. Church (Bruce Willis) calls in a debt he’s been holding over Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), forcing Barney to commit his team to a new mission. This time it’s to recover a piece of technology that will pinpoint the location of weapons grade plutonium. Joining the team are newcomers sniper Bill the Kid (Liam Hemsworth) and special agent Maggie (Nan Yu) as well as old competitor Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Unfortunately, the evil Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) wants the plutonium for himself, and he will stop at nothing, including murdering children, to get it.
Ultimately, the story doesn’t really matter. The Expendables 2 is not meant to be taken seriously, with character names like Hale Caesar, Yin Yang and Toll Road. The bad guy’s name is Vilain, for crying out loud. Instead, this film exists almost solely as a wistful look back at Hollywood’s action heyday when leading men really were larger than life, and seeing their films was an event. Watching Schwarzenegger and Willis tear the doors off a Smart Car and then perform a drive-by down an airport terminal is the kind of over-the-top experience that contemporary audiences just don’t get to experience much.
Sure, most of the action isn’t practical. Launching a motorcycle at an attack chopper seems like the least likely way to destroy it, but damn it if it didn’t look cool. The bad guys also suffer from the cliché poor judgment that runs rampant in action movies. When Vilain has The Expendables dead to rights, rather than slaughter them like sheep, he instead lets them live, out of some kind of code or professional courtesy. Did he think that Barney and his crew wouldn’t pursue him to try and stop him from getting the plutonium? The evil henchmen are no better. They’ve never heard of cover and opt to catch bullets with every part of their bodies instead.
The amazing part is how great all of the aging leads look. If it weren’t for the heavy bags under their eyes and their weathered skin, most of the older guys would be right at home leading their own action films. Stallone looks especially in great shape, and it’s downright inspiring whenever the camera traces a bulging vein up his forearm. Unfortunately, the quality of the footage doesn’t always look as good. It’s unclear if the problem lies in the film or the theater showing this particular screening, but some shots looked unacceptably grainy, like a low-resolution YouTube video. Other times, the camera seemed to be out of focus, as if to soften some of the close-up shots for the older actors. Ironically, the struggling quality probably helped the experience overall since it aided the believability of much of the CGI – or disguised it altogether.
The action was much better this time around, compared to its predecessor. This is thanks in large part to the ramping up of gore. Shots from a high-powered rifle decapitate victims. Viscera coats windshields in a thick, goopy mess. Blood sprays from arteries in dark arcs across the environment. It’s all deliciously brutal, but just fake-looking enough – despite vastly upgraded CGI squibs – so that audiences don’t turn squeamish. It’s a shame, however, that some of the kill lines are mumbled to oblivion inside muscular jaws since uttering something smarmy while someone dies is part and parcel of the experience.
The Expendables 2 is a fun ride, but like a ride it’s predictable. Even so, seeing the big drops and loop-the-loops on a rollercoaster don’t help mitigate those thrills when riders get to them. The same can be said with The Expendables 2. Just stop thinking about it, hold on and enjoy the ride.