By Chaz Lipp

Let’s start with the bottom line: The Expendables 2 improves upon its predecessor in every way. As much as I enjoyed the 2010 original, that film sagged under the weight of muddled storytelling. And aside from a mid-film monologue by Mickey Rourke, it was emotionally distant. Sylvester Stallone handed over the sequel’s directorial duties to Simon West (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Con Air), though he stayed on as co-screenwriter (with Richard Wenk). Clocking in at a sleek one hour and 42 minutes, The Expendables 2has more action, more emotional depth, and yes, more Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis than the original did. It’s a blast of pure action escapism that never takes itself too seriously.

The plot is refreshingly simple and briskly paced. Once again the Expendables are led by Barney Ross (Stallone) but this time around they have a new member, a military-trained sniper known as Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth). Having a much younger member involved allows for some well-timed humor at the expense of the aging team. After the team conducts a daring rescue of a Chinese businessman, CIA agent Mr. Church (Willis) calls upon Barney with a special job. He’s still pissed about the way Barney and company screwed him over (see the first film), now he wants the team to do something for him. A plane went down over Albania, inside it was a safe containing information about a mine with a substantial amount of plutonium. He wants the safe cracked and its contents returned to him.
As part of the assignment, Church sends a highly trained female agent, Maggie (Yu Nan), to accompany the team. Barney is none too thrilled about the prospect of “babysitting” a woman, but Church assures them Maggie can pull her own weight. Of course, the blueprints wind up in the wrong hands, in this case the predictably named Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme). Vilain stands to make a great deal of money from the sale of the plutonium and it’s up the Expendables to stop him. Yes, it’s all a bit predictable and there are a few holes and more than a few implausibilities (as Booker, the “lone wolf,” Chuck Norris has an unlikely knack for turning up precisely at the right place as the right time). Even so, the camaraderie among the cast is more relaxed this time out.
Of the new cast members, Nan provides a welcome new dynamic to the formerly all-boys’ club. As Maggie, she displays a quiet intelligence that gradually wins over the skeptical men. Van Damme digs into his villainous role with relish. Don’t expect much out of Norris, whose very presence was apparently all the filmmakers believed necessary. Anyone can walk around with a big gun, so it would’ve been nice to see Norris bust out some karate moves.
Of the returning cast, the big surprise is Dolph Lundgren. His character, Gunnar Jensen, was a strung out madman in the first movie. Here, Lundgren winds up with some of the funniest moments, whether he’s ineptly flirting with Maggie or trying to improvise a bomb out of phosphate rock. Disappointingly, Jet Li’s Yin Yang bids the team an abrupt farewell after the opening rescue, but not before a memorable fight scene. Toll Road (Randy Couture) and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) don’t get any scene-stealing moments, though Toll remains defensive as ever about his cauliflower ear. Stallone and Jason Statham, as Barney’s right-hand man and knife expert Lee Christmas, continue to exhibit comfortable chemistry. I hope that for The Expendables 3maybe we learn a little more about Barney’s backstory, which heretofore has been very vague.
In the end, The Expendables 2 isn’t anywhere near a true classic of the genre, but I don’t think Stallone, West, and the gang were really aiming for that. An old-fashioned, bloody shoot ‘em up is what they deliver. After the 2010 original, I’m not sure why anyone would expect more than that. The meta-jokes border on pure parody, but they’re funny regardless. The Expendables 2 is a rare sequel in that it seems to have been designed to address the problems of the original. The first one made a lot of money, but it also left a lot of people disappointed. This one’s a real crowd pleaser and I can’t wait to see what they cook up for the next installment.
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Chaz Lipp

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