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Review: Jean-Claude Van Damme Shines In The Moronically Irresistible Entertainment Of ‘Expendables 2’

Reviews
by Todd Gilchrist
August 14, 2012 8:00 AM
20 Comments
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Expendables 2

The Expendables 2” is one of the very few films that gets better as it gets dumber. Serviceably directed, horribly written and barely acted at all except for a standout performance by (of all people) Jean-Claude Van Damme, it mostly delivers in the way that the original failed to, which is by enabling action stars to charm their way through an incredibly hackneyed and conventional storyline. Nevertheless an irresistibly fun alternative to the so-called grown-up fare that has attempted to replace the escapism of '80s and ‘90s blockbusters, “The Expendables 2” offers a welcome roundup of action stars who simultaneously – and satisfyingly – celebrate and send up their former glories.

Jean Claude Van Damme, Expendables 2
Sylvester Stallone returns as Barney Ross, the leader of a ragtag bunch of mercenaries who have settled into a comfortable routine of traveling to far off destinations, meeting people from exotic cultures, and killing them for money. After redeeming himself at the end of the first film, Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren) pines for romance while dispensing racist jokes to former partner Yin Yang (Jet Li); Toll Road (Randy Couture) and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) crack wise with one another and provide heavy artillery; and Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) struggles to come to terms with the fact that he’s starting to be outpaced by ambitious upstarts like sharpshooter The Kid (Liam Hemsworth).

After successfully rescuing Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from a militant sect, Barney and co. look forward to some well-deserved r&r. But when employer Church (Bruce Willis) adds Maggie (Nan Yu) to their team and blackmails them into retrieving a map, they find themselves battling against a terrifying new adversary: Jean Vilain (Van Damme), who plans to unleash several dozens tons of plutonium upon the world.

Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Terry Crews, Nan Yu and Randy Couture in The Expendables 2

The great thing about “The Expendables” is that as a concept it feels like the fulfillment of decades of fantasy-football showdowns/team-ups – what would happen if Marion Cobretti went up against John Matrix, for example, or even just what might theoretically have occurred had Stallone and Schwarzenegger been able to find a project big enough to contain their heyday egos. (It certainly helps these films that the pedigree of virtually everyone involved has fallen somewhat from the peak of their success.) But the first film was a case study in “better on paper than in practice” thinking -- even with most of the highest-profile ‘80s and ‘90s action stars sharing the screen, it suffered from a lackluster story that barely gave everyone enough to do, much less allowed them to have the kind of fun that audiences anticipated. And the absences – including Van Damme and Chuck Norris, who make notable appearances here – felt oddly distracting, even if in someone like Van Damme’s case, he was simply occupied with something else, not deliberately excluded.

While early reports suggest that an “Expendables 3might also include Nicolas Cage, Wesley Snipes and Clint Eastwood, the second film feels close to complete, at least for nostalgia purposes. (Eastwood, like, say, Harrison Ford, always felt more like a dramatic actor who did action--to me, anyway.) Willis and Schwarzenegger actually participate in the mayhem this time around, and every one of the stars is given a hero moment or some sort of reminder of their particular skills (which means yes, Van Damme gets to unleash that roundhouse kick of his). But more importantly, the movie as a whole acknowledges the age of the characters – and the people who play them – and even sends up their iconic pasts and current personas. Stallone continues to work as hard as an aspiring action star half his age, but the multigenerational aspect of the story – embodied by old-timers like himself, advancing-age stars like Statham, and newcomers like Hemsworth – adds a certain kind of perspective that at once makes its ensemble larger than life and remarkably, relatably human.

Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham and Terry Crews in The Expendables 2

But the writing as a whole is pretty terrible; while a film like this one doesn’t need to be more than a serviceable showcase for its stars’ personalities, it should be marginally competent in terms of basic dialogue and plotting, and there are big, important scenes that drag on without escalation, or even conversations in them that could charitably be described as engaging. Although the absurdity of the set pieces – including the juggernaut-like opening where Barney and his team basically level a remote military stronghold with minimum opposition and maximum destruction – is fairly hilarious, what’s in between them drags, and worse yet, it doesn’t need to; there are real topics of conversation introduced amidst the testosterone-fueled camaraderie, but none of them are ever examined with any substance, or even wrapped up in a satisfactory way.

And yet, the performers are clearly having so much fun that such artistic considerations seem almost beside the point. Where in the first film Statham was sort of the anchor that held the rest of his predecessors in place, here he’s little more than part of the team, and his insecurities about Hemsworth (not to mention the imposing physicality of Vilain henchman Hector, played by Scott Adkins) offer a welcome rejoinder to his general cinematic invincibility. Couture is sort of a nonentity in the film – at best he’s enjoying being part of the team – but Crews offers some welcome levity, and continues to demonstrate that he’s an actor who might have been merely a cartoonish tough guy (or even just a cartoon) but has carved a niche for himself as a versatile and fun performer to watch.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Expendables 2

Lundgren and Norris, meanwhile, effectively lampoon their off-screen identities, Lundgren referencing his masters’ degree in chemical engineering and Norris essentially goofing on his legendary mythos (“I was once bitten by a king cobra… but after four long days, it finally died”). And Schwarzenegger and Willis demonstrate an unexpected sort of esprit de corps by throwing in Stallone and the rest of the actors for an action set piece that makes Michael Bay’s destructive impulses feel positively understated. But Van Damme is the film’s real MVP, adding flourishes to his dialogue that are obviously improvised, and which breathe life into what might otherwise be rote hero-villain exchanges. Not only does he retain every bit of the physical dexterity that he demonstrated in his youth, but he has noticeably improved as an actor, and proves here that he deserves to be more than a straight-to-DVD star.

Whether or not a third film ever happens, “The Expendables 2” feels like the sort of stupidly great sequel that would be produced (or perhaps overproduced) in the 1980s: more stars, more action, and less imagination – “Die Hard 2” if it had followed “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” perhaps. Needless to say it feels counterintuitive to think that a movie with less artistic ambition would surpass one with more, but this sequel more or less rights the wrongs of its predecessor and sets the stage for a franchise that could be the best sort of totally unnecessary, and yet inexplicably enduring fan-fiction fun. And ultimately, the film pales in comparison to more competently executed fare such as this spring’s “The Raid,” which streamlined existing action conventions and gave them a new visceral edge. But as a film that even passingly acknowledges the disposability of stars in a genre whose artistic merits are considered negligible (if they’re considered at all), “The Expendables 2” is indispensable entertainment. [B-]

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20 Comments

  • Tommy | February 2, 2013 12:34 AMReply

    VD In Expendables 3 as Claude Vilain, Jean Vilain's twin brother!. Why, "Secret Rivals 1 & 2". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secret_Rivals_2

    Let the Votes Step In & let the Evil Brother RISE.

  • Eric Leslie Leatherman | November 20, 2012 10:34 PMReply

    Apparently Van Damme will return in Expendables 3 as "Claude Vilian", the twin brother to his Expendables 2 counterpart. I actually think it will be interesting because I'm hoping he'll serve as a new addition to the crew or at least aid them. I just litterally finished the movie it was awesome!!!

  • Abolfaz shokr zadeh(ABI FRANKI) | August 21, 2012 2:54 AMReply

    for :john cloed van dam
    Hi Are the good? I'm very friend from childhood was looking at the Fylmhatvn. I found the love of the sport and the world as I I want to see you closer I'm Iranian Call 09148513054 And 09144026704

  • Abolfaz shokr zadeh(ABI FRANKI) | August 21, 2012 2:51 AMReply

    Hi
    Are the good?
    I'm very friend from childhood was looking at the Fylmhatvn.
    I found the love of the sport and the world as I

    I want to see you closer
    I'm Iranian
    Call 09148513054
    And 09144026704

  • Kevin | August 19, 2012 11:06 AMReply

    Yes the humor was the best part for sure and if it did not have it then dont know if I would of liked it as much. Loved the movie and it had tears in my eyes on some parts I was laughing so hard. It is cool to see the action heroes get to do movies like this. Van Damme was better than I thought he would be with all the issues that he has had.

  • leone | August 17, 2012 10:39 AMReply

    They sould call Cynthia Rothrock for the third one.

  • Sveta | August 17, 2012 5:43 AMReply

    The self-deprecating humor of it was the best part! and all the winks to classic action movies the stars were in. so much fun - guilt-free )))

  • Stephen S. | August 16, 2012 5:00 AMReply

    I LOVE the comments about Van Damme in this review! So can't wait to see this movie. Especially excited to see the big screen comebacks of both Van Damme and Schwarzenegger, two childhood heroes of mine! :)

  • Jonah | August 15, 2012 8:30 PMReply

    Liam Hemsworth's character's name is actually "Billy the Kid," not just "The Kid." They made that very clear during a climatic scene.

  • Colin | August 14, 2012 4:23 PMReply

    Thanks for giving away lines to the movie

    *SPOILER ALERT?!?!?*

  • Rohan | August 14, 2012 11:15 AMReply

    HollywoodReporter.com's review of the film is positive. So, who to believe now. This review or theirs? - You know for the sake of these stars and a good action flick, we will check this film out anyways.

  • Todd Gilchrist | August 14, 2012 3:21 PM

    Not sure what you mean, Rohan -- this isn't meant to be a pan. An acknowledgment of its weaknesses but a defense -- a celebration -- of what it does really, really well.

  • Joe | August 14, 2012 11:29 AM

    Rohan this review is positive enough for me. looking forward to it.

  • ed hughes | August 14, 2012 10:29 AMReply

    who would give money to Arnold? He is a faile governor, commuted the sentence of a murderer, and cheated on his pregnant wife with the maid. He is a dispecable human being!

  • jamie | August 25, 2012 4:39 AM

    me... me... me.... cheers to arnie...

  • Jesse | August 14, 2012 12:03 PM

    I would. Love the man. Big part of my childhood.

  • Mr Anonymous | August 14, 2012 9:07 AMReply

    Any comment on the amount of violence, blood and swearing in the movie?

  • AS | August 14, 2012 8:55 AMReply

    As long as it's more violent and bloody than the first one, I'll be happy.

  • AS | August 14, 2012 3:36 PM

    Word

  • TT | August 14, 2012 11:51 AM

    Amen to that! The more mindless violence there is the better! I just love to hear the bones crunching, necks snapping and the commies screaming in pain :)

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