The Expendables 2 (2012)

Posted on January 29, 2014

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I did not like The Expendables. I thought it was manipulative, heartless, and derivative. So I did not have high hopes for The Expendables 2.

By the way – I am trying something different this week. Instead of taking whatever images show up in my image searches, I am only using ones that are free to share and use. Hopefully that will end the weird missing images problem I occasionally see in these posts.

Synopsis

Because of the way the first movie resolved, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) owes Mr. Church (Bruce Willis) a favor. Mr. Church calls in that favor. He wants Ross to take his crew…

  • Lee Christmas (Jason Statham, former Olympian)
  • Yin Yang (Jet Li, Wushu champion)
  • Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren, Fulbright scholar and chemist)
  • Hale Caesar (Terry Crews, NFL player)
  • Toll Road (Randy Couture, MMA champion)
  • Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth, who lost out on playing Thor to his older brother and who got written out of the first Expendables movie)

…and recover a McGuffin from a crashed airplane in Bulgaria. Church saddles the crew with a CIA operative named Maggie (Nan Yu).

Unfortunately, Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) wants the McGuffin, too. Mayhem! Explosions! Whee!

Short Version

I was pleasantly surprised. It’s easily better than the first movie.

Long Version

Okay, let me get some things out of the way right off.

  • Vilain is not a homonym for the English word “villain.” It refers to the poet Verlaine (pronounced “Vilain”), and is the set-up for a joke. Paul Verlaine had a passionate affair with Arthur Rimbaud, whose name is pronounced “Rambo.” You know, like that character Stallone played a couple of times. See what they did there?
  • Although Stallone wrote this movie, he did not direct or produce. I think that’s a good thing. My experience has been that when one person stars, writes, directs, and produces his (or her) own movie, the movie suffers. Good for Mr. Stallone that he was able to delegate some control.

Saving the Cat

“Saving the cat” is an expression referring to some act written in to a script to win the audience over to the side of the main characters.

The Expendables are mercenaries. That should be a black mark against the characters, but their charm and camaraderie make up for that.

Stallone did a lot of additional work to establish the characters as likeable immediately. The movie opens with Barney and Lee as prisoners in Nepal. So they are fallible human beings. Turns out they are there to rescue a doctor, and in the process they also rescue Barney’s old rival, Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger).

Their friends bust them out, so we know that people care about them enough to risk their lives.

There’s a derivative bit of business with Barney joking about his finger being loaded and then a sniper, Billy, shooting whoever Barney points at. We’ve seen it before, but this movie pulls it off with enough charm and wit that we can forgive that.

Then we get a scene back home, and we know immediately that Billy is going to die. He makes the cliched speech to Barney about quitting the group. That’s just the kiss of death. You can see an example in To Live and Die in LA. It’s such a cliche that The Simpsons parodied it in a mock trailer for a Rainier Wolfcastle movie. Wolfcastle, of course, being the Simpsons’ version of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

We see how loyal Lee is to Lacy (Charisma Carpenter) even though she may be cheating on him again.

There’s no mumbling with Mickey Rourke or anything like the first movie. They just establish characters and relationships right off.

Theme

Stop laughing! There actually is a theme in this movie, and that theme is loyalty. Billy talks about it openly, when he says that he doesn’t want the team to think he’s running out on them. He’s loyal to them. I just mentioned Lee and his loyalty to Lacy.

We see a lot about loyalty in the film. Various characters aid the team, and their loyalties come from different reasons. Trench owes Barney after the rescue in Nepal. Booker (Chuck Norris, whose character’s name is a reference to the character he played in Good Guys Wear Black) feels loyalty to Barney because of a shared past, a shared occupation, and a shared nationality. Barney earns Maggie’s loyalty by doing the right thing.

Set-up

The set-up for this movie is easy, and fast. Barney made a moral decision in the last movie that left Mr. Church in a bad position. The team goes on Church’s mission, and the mission goes wrong.

Now, this might be a good place for the movie to catch up with character exposition, but it doesn’t. Except for Billy, who we know is going to die, and Lee, who we know is hopelessly in love with Lacey, we have no idea what these guys desire or fear.

Fortunately, they are mercenaries, and a fear of death is so primal that we are willing to take it as read.

If you’re expecting the kind of drama that comes from greatest desires conflicting with greatest fears, you’re watching the wrong movie.

Action

This is what you came for, right?

The initial action in Nepal shows that the Expendables are elite operators who take a creative approach to their work. It is meant to illustrate character, and it does so with energy.

After that, it falls apart.

The Quiet Man holds back on the action until the end of the movie, when all the drama reaches a critical point and a fight is the only way to cathartic release. As I mentioned last week, that drawn-out moment of violence is about that catharsis, and not about who will win. As a result, there is genuine suspense during it. John Wayne probably won’t lose, because he’s John Wayne, but it could happen.

The Expendables 2 uses action as a way to avoid dramatic story moments. The death of Billy the Kid might have established that death was a real risk for any member of the team. Because he was written out of the first film, he’s not a big enough part of the team to establish that. Yes, his death gives the team a vengeance motive, but it doesn’t make the rest of them vulnerable.

So the next two bits of action, an ambush at an old airfield and a rescue in an old mine, are action for action’s sake. Stallone writes the Expendables into a corner twice, putting them in hopeless situations, and we don’t care either time. We know they’re going to live, because the movie isn’t over. This is exactly why my mind wanders during action scenes. I’ve seen them all before. Heck, I lived a tiny sliver of them as a tank platoon leader during the First Gulf War. If you haven’t hooked me with the characters, and some risk to them, then I don’t care.

The first deus ex machina is a little interesting, because we have no idea how the Expendables will get out of the situation. Once the deus ex machina happens, in the person of “Lone Wolf” Booker, all they’ve done is ruin any future suspense, and make an opportunity for some Chuck Norris jokes. I would much rather have seen the Expendables pull some A-Team improvisation.

There’s a story about the Philippine resistance against the Imperial Japanese occupation during World War II. The Philippine islands were the only territory invaded by Japan that was never considered pacified by the invaders. The story goes that was because the Philippine resistance would fight with anything they had – bare hands, sticks, or rocks. They would catch a Japanese soldier alone, kill him, and take his weapons. Then they would use those weapons to kill more soldiers, get more weapons and ammunition, and so on.

The Allies did everything they could to supply the resistance, but the story speaks to a true “never say die” spirit.

I bring up that story because that is how the Expendables should have gotten out of the village ambush. They should have hidden, ambushed individual members of Vilain’s gang, and worked their way out. The last part of the movie should have been that. Expendables should have been wounded, and held out like the last stand at the Alamo. They should have been defending the village and the mine with their last breath, holding off Vilain until Church showed up with Trench.

Instead, they admitted the possibility of outside help reaching the team, and that undermined any suspense for any future fights.

They might have rescued the movie when the team got trapped in the mine. If Gunner had pulled himself out of his weird, drug-addled, madness long enough to use his degrees in Chemisty and Chemical Engineering (in real life, Dolf Lundgren really does have advanced degrees in chemistry) to save the team.

If he had done that, we would not have known how following fights could end. It would have restored some suspense.

I do appreciate that Jean-Claude Van Damme re-scripted the final fight between Vilain and Barney. I’m glad that Stallone, and director Simon West, were open to it. Van Damme was right. After sitting through all the rest of the movie, we expect to see a big showdown between those two characters.

The difference between that fight and the big fight in The Quiet Man is that we know Stallone is going to win. There’s no suspense. Nothing is at stake. Getting revenge for Billy fulfills the loyalty theme of the movie. Barney can’t lose the fight or it undermines the theme.

Conclusion

I firmly believe the first movie was greenlit on the concept of the cast. I believe that gimmick worked, and accounted for the respectable profit that it turned. Mind you, $20 million US is respectable in real-world terms, but in Hollywood terms it would generally not be enough to greenlight a sequel.

The Expendables 2 came out in August, and still hadn’t turned a profit by November (a month longer than it took its predecessor to turn that $20 mill profit). That’s too bad because it’s got a lot more heart than the first film, and is far less manipulative and derivative. It’s genuinely fun to watch…if you don’t analyze it as closely as I have here.

For better or worse, the backers had already greenlit a third film by the time this one came out, so we get to see if The Expendables 3 can improve over this one, the way this one did over the first movie.

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Posted in: Movies