When I saw The Expendables a couple of years ago, the giddy audience was pretty pumped up on the idea of seeing 80s/90s action heroes running around shooting things. There were whoops and cheers during the opening credits when the requisite names appeared, and even spontaneous applause during the film’s most nudge-nudge, wink-wink moments.
I didn’t like the film much, but I understood at least some of the interest in it. I wasn’t entirely apathetic to its intermittent charms, and found it passably entertaining in its own way. In the screening for The Expendables 2, as far as I could tell, a similarly boisterous audience quickly found itself hushed into submission, chuckling awkwardly with a sort of dismayed reverence, as though the combined power of their good will would somehow inject a sparkle of life into the expiring beast they beheld withering before them.
It’s genuinely difficult to say how much of The Expendables 2 is bad on purpose, and how much is just bad. But whatever the ratio of ‘real’ bad to ‘fake’ bad is, is irrelevant, because it’s bad enough that, whether they intended it or not, it simply doesn’t matter.
The film reunites the titular squadron of death dealing killers from the first film, a gang of unsympathetic, grunting maniacs fronted by Sylvester Stallone, who directed the first one but has left that duty to Simon West (Con Air) this time around. He’s joined by best buddy Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) and a few other core members including Terry Crews, Randy Couture and Dolph Lundgren. Jet-Li, who was fairly prominent in the first one, shows up for just enough time for the short person gag to be wrung out again, before wisely jumping out of a plane and vanishing from the film. But don’t worry, he’s quickly replaced by Maggie (Yu Nan) (“A woman?” growls Stallone), who doesn’t immediately fit into the group, but then later does when it transpires that not only is she quite happy to participate in mass killings, but is also quite proficient at torture.
Had trouble understanding what Bane was saying in The Dark Knight Rises? Well, trying to make head or tail of what the cast of this film are saying makes listening to Batman’s masked nemesis feel like attending an elocution lesson at Buckingham Palace. It doesn’t help that their voices are usually drowned out in hails of gunfire, but to be honest most of what they’re saying boils down to congratulatory exclamations like “AWW YEAH!” and “WOOO” when they’ve just done something violent to somebody, so I don’t think we’re missing much. Incidentally, this trend exacerbates the film’s frankly juvenile and morally bankrupt attitude to violence; an attitude that would have rendered the film genuinely offensive if it wasn’t so utterly brainless. On the rare occasions when things quieten down, attempts at humour are laughable (not in a good way), the characterisation is mind numbing and there are one or two impassioned speeches that I can only hope are intended as jokes.
But most of that is variously to be expected of the sequel to The Expendables, I suppose; what’s less explicable is how they’ve managed to make a film that cost $100m look so cheap. There’s some obvious model work in here that distracts from the action, and some ropey CGI, but at times the editing is all over the place. The soundtrack, meanwhile, is another element that just defies categorisation: is it satirising the action genre and on-screen violence, or it is just stupid? It’s so difficult to tell.
In the spirit of the first film, there are a fair few cameo appearances. Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who shared a ludicrous scene in the first film, are back for a bit longer this time, gleefully recycling jokes about their careers in a faintly depressing way. At least Willis has recently been reminding us that he can act – in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom – but Arnie, fresh from his years as Governor of California, is, I’m afraid to say, more wooden here than he’s ever been. It doesn’t bode well for Kim Ji-woon’s forthcoming English language debut Last Stand, which stars him, or for any of the other projects he has lined up. The cameos will perhaps be satisfying for those willing to be supremely kind to the film, but given the general laziness of the project, they come across as forced, crass and, worst of all, embarrassing.
If there is to be a third entry in this franchise, in which the older cast members will no doubt look even more tired than they do here, then it will have a job trying to live up to this one. The Expendables, like an expensive and malfunctioning division of the armed forces, need to have their funding withdrawn, and be allowed to retire peacefully.