Some Country For Old Men: The Expendables 2 Reviewed

Our resident action hero Stuart Wright catches up with the returning mature mercenaries, whose latest adventure opens in UK cinemas tomorrow

If you think you might get a kick out of seeing 1978’s The Wild Geese on steroids then welcome to The Expendables 2. It’s bigger and much better written than the original.

Roughly speaking, we have the same aging cast of former action heroes spruced up with contemporary names. Sylvester Stallone (66) is Barney Ross. He runs the crack team of mercenaries who can do the kind of political work for the USA that would break the Geneva Convention. His second-in-command is Lee Christmas, played by Jason Statham (44). They bitch and moan at each other under the guise of odd couple banter. Sometimes it’s funny; mostly it’s just about funny enough. It at least tells us the pair are human when they’re not brandishing big guns. The macho subtext is that it’s the love between two men going into battle that gays wouldn’t understand. They are the stars of the show and the rest of the crew make up the numbers in terms of screen time.

It’s the cinematic equivalent of the headliners on a heritage rock tour – say Status Quo. The other cast members are the Nazareth or Wishbone Ash of the action genre. Whereby when you put them together they far outweigh their individual appeal, but no one really comes to see them specifically. Like its predecessor some of the actors are on every mission whereas others make fleeting and/or surprise appearances.

Jet Li (49) – as Yin Yang – is on-screen long enough for a rather strange, xenophobic standing joke about short Asians that Dolph Lundgren’s (54) reformed Swedish meatball persona Gunner Jensen bridges from the first instalment. Whereas the latter used to be a bitter, washed-up post-traumatic veteran of too many battles, narcotics and booze, he is now one of the boys. Slurping from an Expendables-branded hip flask, thanks to some clunky exposition he’s also now in possession of an engineering PhD from MIT. The foreshadowed payoff is much better than you could imagine.

The award for best character name goes to Hale Caesar, played by former American footballer Terry Crews (44). His witty words of wisdom regularly conflict with the awesome-sounding Toll Road: a moniker that is only slightly more ridiculous than the actor’s ‘real’ handle Randy Couture (49). This bulldog of a man is a former mixed martial arts world champion and icon of the sport – so only snigger on the quiet. The young ‘un, and newbie of the Expendables is, wait for it, Billy The Kid (Liam Hemsworth, 22).

The film opens somewhere in Nepal. Enter Stallone and co to save the day. They blitz the place using trucks with aggressive nicknames à la Vietnam War helmet artwork. Such as the one with an extended, steel I-beam ramrod sticking out the front of the grill, which is called ‘Knock Knock’. Or the improvised fighting vehicle with a machine gun set up on the back, christened ‘Shock & Awe’. This spectacular extended sequence has explosions, jeopardy and close calls but nothing to do with the plot. In script terms it simply illustrates the Expendables’ ordinary world. They are mercenaries. They are the good guys. They get the job done.

After all that excitement they’re back in the USA, unscathed, in a downtown dive bar knocking back cold ones. It’s like they’ve clocked off from the factory for the weekend. Outside, chrome-plated Harley-Davidsons provide a ring of imagined blue-collar bling to the occasion. The Expendables are simple folk. None of them have smart phones. You doubt in their backstory they’ve ever checked emails, tweeted or updated Facebook. They are men of few words. A smile and a wisecrack is all you need to survive in their company.

Life couldn’t be simpler until CIA agent Mr Church (Bruce Willis, 57) steps forward. They owe him a favour. Even worse, he insists that they take a woman along as part of the deal. Enter Chinese acting sensation Yu Nan (33), who stars as the assured, tech-savvy Maggie. A cynic might notice that she also brings with her the opportunity to sell the movie into China.

On the way to this simplest of missions the group lay their comic book characters bare. Statham and Stallone jostle for the cheesiest gag in the cockpit. In the hold, Lundgren plays with a Rubik’s Cube while trying to catch the eye of Yu Nan using the seduction techniques of an adolescent. Couture, against type, reads a paperback. Whereas, more to type, Crews cleans a cut-throat razor (with Caesar engraved along its blade) and Hemsworth strips a pistol apart, so we can be sure they are ready for the fight. Soon after they land they retrieve the package and then run in to raving lunatic Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme, 51) and his band of evil cronies. The package is stolen and someone good dies. For Stallone and his crew things have now escalated to the realms of the personal. Retribution is the only cure.

Taking his lead from Luc Besson’s Taken, writer Richard Wenk (The Mechanic, 16 Blocks) gives Stallone the immortal call to arms: "Track ’em. Find ’em. Kill ’em." And so begins a wonderful rollercoaster of a revenge movie where returning the impoverished land to its people and saving the world are almost secondary to our heroes’ motivation to kill every bad guy in sight.

With Simon West (Con Air) taking over the director’s chair from Stallone, each sequence booms bigger and bigger as the Expendables gain on JCVD. The writing is stronger for the sequel too, aided by Wenk increasing the variety of locations that can be used for set pieces. In the first film the fictional island of Vilena limited the storytelling action to a portside town and fortified castle. Plus, too much happened in the United States. In contrast, this time there is a real sense of momentum as the gang overcome obstacles and then move on – always with a sense that they are a bit nearer to their ultimate goal. Special mention must go to Statham for his use of knuckledusters and his knife wielding in church: thunderous and balletic respectively.

A few bad guy curveballs and spirited locals temporarily thwart the Expendables’ efforts before the inevitable showdown that reduces all big guns and explosions to hand-to-hand combat. The already frenetic battles are further spiced up by appearances from Ross’ sometime rival Trench and old cohort Booker, respectively played by Arnold Schwarzenegger (65) and Chuck Norris (72).

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