These guys are only slightly older than the buildings behind them.

The Expendables was a lame movie. It’s earnest attempt to validate its naive, outdated sense of “tough guy” fell completely flat. The people who unironically enjoyed these old men trying to get some hurrah out of a concept they should have exploited 20+ years ago are weird people and I don’t want to know them. Even with irony on your side, the first (in what is probably the most bizarre franchise since theme park rides started becoming movies) one was tough to get through. They tried to make it all emotional. They tried giving Sly a love interest 30 years too young. They had exactly one decent action sequence and it happened an hour after you were already bored with the movie’s gimmick and sole reason for being: to get these big time heroes together.

I don’t know how I feel about it exactly, but I can say that The Expendables 2 rectifies the above. It eschews all but the cheesiest and most simple of emotional arcs. It delivers on the promise of the concept. This is a movie where only Jeff Speakman and Steven Segal are missing. It has literally everyone else it could have short of Billy Blanks. And I am almost exactly the target audience for this. The only thing I lack in that regard is a sense of the redemptive spirit of these old, decrepit fucks trying to recapture their glory days. Aside from that, I grew up on these guys and I have love both genuine and ironic for the kind of movies (and antics) that they buttered their bread on all those years ago.

So while you may be one of the people who forgave the first one its flaws, I was one who wanted it to deliver on its promise. Now Sly, working through Simon West (which is somehow perfect), has done so. If you’re like me, all you really need to know is that Expendables 2 actually gives all its aged action heroes time to shine while also getting downright meta about their respective careers. This all coalesces into an almost unbelievable cartoon and a great cinematic gift for the right kind of tortured, twisted mind.

I mean this is definitely somebody’s thing. I’m just not sure if it’s my thing. I guess it is.

This time around, the team is all up in China’s biz. The opening mission involves rescuing a rich Chinese guy. They also rescue Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Then they get recruited by Church (Bruce Willis) to recover a data package from a downed Chinese plane. So for whatever reason, China is all up in this movie (including cast newcomer Nan Yu, victim of much regressive male posturing in this movie) even though it takes place in Eastern Europe (mostly). The only new member of the team is Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth) who Barnie (Sylvester Stallone) takes a liking to. Of course they telegraph poor Billy’s death from like minute one and that death becomes the emotional impetus for the rest of the action, which is ostensibly about stopping nuclear proliferation courtesy of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s movie-stealing turn as the villainous Vilain. During their activities in Europe, the Expendables rely on some lone hero swagger from Chuck Norris, playing a guy named Booker who is a legend in this weird aging action hero metaverse, and from Trench and Church who actually get to do something in this movie. Other than standing around teasing us, that is.

You basically can’t make this shit up. It’s all an excuse for blue collar action spectacle anyways and it works for that just fine. Many of the stunts are bit fake-looking, but oddly they tend to be the ones done by guys like Couture, Terry Crews, or Jason Statham… all of whom are still capable of doing this shit without major steroids or stunt-doubles. In fact, Stallone looks good in all his stunts and Willis and Schwarzenegger shooting guys is fine too.

One thing I did notice, though, was some weird fuzzing in the image especially during dialogue bits. I’m not sure if it was just the projector or whatever at the Galaxy theater I saw it in (AVX so seems doubtful) or some bizarre (appropriate) porn-style soft focus to make these guys look less Jurassic. I have no idea, man, but it was weird.

Norris has not aged. He is also hip enough to tell him jokes.

Even though it sucked, the first movie maintained a cohesive sense of itself as taking place in a fictional universe of its own. The Expendables 2 has more fun with itself and is utterly self-aware. It’s so self-aware that all the big extended cameos feel like the kind of jokes you see in comedies or spoof/parody movies where there’s a “hey, that guy” moment in every ten. Weirdly, it also completely undermines the tough guy trappings of the whole Expendables mystique. The skulls and choppers and fucking berets are sillier here and this time the movies knows this is silly. It knows that Stallone on an 8 foot motorcycle is hilarious and so his pen is absurdly and tackily dressed up as said motorcycle, so much so that another character draws attention to the faux-badass obsession with skulls and other badass morbid shit.

Where the self-awareness gets truly admirable, though, is in just how meta this movie is willing to go. Remember Lundgren’s loutish character Gunnar? Well this time he’s basically just a narc’d out version of Lundgren himself. Jokes and references are made about Gunnar being a chemical engineer and intellectual heavy, which is true of real-life Lundgren. It’s just weird but fits somehow with the still-there jokes about Couture’s fucking ears. There are entire conversations in this movie where I’m not sure if plot and characterization are the currency or some kind of weird meditation on these “actors'” lives. The cartop chat between Barnie and Booker is a great example. I had no idea if this was a thinly veiled “state of our lives and legacies” sort of thing or an attempt at a believable bonding moment between two He-man characters.

There’s an existential comedy buried somewhere under that jalopy.

The self-referential humor reaches new, smile-dragging heights of trying too hard when Arnie and Willis are brought in for the big finale. As Arnie cycles through jokes about his own career and everyone else’s and Norris inexplicably shows up again for the hell of it, the absurdity barrier is shattered and you’re just left with the tangled pieces of a reality where this movie actually happens.

The closest I’ve ever felt to Ledger’s take on the Joker was in watching this movie.

Van Damme’s villain is named Vilain because subtlety is for people born after 1996.

Earlier I mentioned that Van Damme steals the movie. Well, let me correct myself. He would steal the movie if he were in it more. I can’t believe I’m typing this, but the one thing The Expendables 2 should have done more with these old fucks is have more JCVD. He is just delicious in this movie. If this is one of those greasy platters of every kind of gross body-destroying pub food you’ve ever heard of, he is the Freedom Fries on which everything else rests. And he manages this with 3 scenes, barely 5 lines of dialogue, and only two CG-assisted trademark spin kicks. I don’t know why I enjoyed him so much in this movie. I don’t know why, God help me.

His copilot of evil is played by Scott Adkins doing his ridiculous Russian accent. Adkins is an interesting inclusion because he’s one of the few guys left who does what all these old men got famous doing. Adkins still makes B-level action movies with preposterous plots, sexy womenz, and covert racism re: the mysterious orient (see Ninja which is > Ninja Assassin in every way except Naomie Harris).

It seems like every character in the movie deserves a paragraph of talking about them but really, fuck that. The only way you’re going to feel short-changed is if you’re a huge Crews/Couture/Li fan as all three of these guys have barely anything to do in the movie. Jet Li gets out after the first action sequence, actually, so there’s also that.

Since Expendables 3 is inevitable, let’s hope they bring this guy back!

Pretty much all that needs to be said about this movie is that it’s better than the first one. Because such a thing is criticism-proof in almost every way that matters, I’ve spent whatever other time discussing elements that I thought were interesting, bizarre, or hilarious. Your mileage? She will vary.

I’m pleased and horrified to live in a world where the Expendables franchise is not only possible but a reality. I guess you should be to?