A Confederacy of Lunkheads
(Contains plot spoilers. And a misrepresentation, for hopefully comic effect, of the Belgian accent.)
Time for yet another edition of our regular strand, Oh God, Not Another One. And perhaps never was that title so well-deserved, as we turn our attention to Simon West's unfathomable The Expendables 2. A friend of mine knows someone who's a proper film critic, and managed to wangle a free ticket to the press screening. 'Ambivalent' is perhaps not the word to describe his response: 'The worst film ever made,' he declared. 'Must be better than the first one, surely,' I protested. 'Oh yes,' he agreed, leaving me a bit confused, but unshaken in my keenness to see it.
Anyone who is not a fairly hard-core Trekkie may be surprised to learn that plans were at one point afoot for Eddie Murphy, then at the height of his popularity, to play a major role in Star Trek IV (he was pencilled in to play the character who ended up as Captain Kirk's love interest – there's an image that'll stick with you). However, the suits at Paramount vetoed the idea – why release a Star Trek movie with Eddie Murphy in it, when they could release a Star Trek movie and an Eddie Murphy movie and thus double their potential success? I suppose the Expendables films deserve some credit for doing a similar thing, only in reverse – with Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Chuck Norris and the rest of them all appearing in one film at the same time, it makes them much easier to avoid than if they were all in separate individual projects. The only flaw in the logic of this is that many of these people don't actually have viable theatrical careers anymore, having long since moved on to the great DTDVD bin in the sky.
Hey ho. After some jolly opening slaughter, which at least includes Jet Li fighting half a dozen people in a kitchen (pretty much his only contribution to the film), our mercenary heroes head home. The slaughter itself is well-staged, even if it includes the first of many groansome in-jokes, and went on so long I began to wonder if the film was going to have any kind of plot or character development at all. It does, and we are presented with the sight of half-a-dozen extremely burly men crammed into the same frame trying to exchange wisecracks in the basso-profundo growl which is the vocal register of nearly everyone in the movie. (Ooh, tell a lie: Charisma Carpenter's in this bit, too, but she only has about three lines.) This bit is mainly to introduce us to Billy, the youngest and freshest-faced of the Expendables. He is played by Liam Hemsworth (yes, one of the Thor triplets). It is made quite clear that everyone else loves Billy (in a very platonic way, of course), and lead Expendable Barney (Stallone) applauds his decision to quit the soldier-of-fortune line to spend more time with his lovely girlfriend. But even for mercenaries, contractual obligations apply and Billy is happy to work out his notice period.
Yes, the film stresses, the youngest and most popular guy on the team, who wasn't even in the first one, is going to leave to be with his sweetheart – all he has to do is survive to the end of the month. The film-makers don't actually superimpose a bullseye on Hemsworth's chest at this point, or have him followed around by someone dressed in a robe and carrying a scythe, but the effect is very much the same. Anyway, at this point Bruce Willis pops up as employer/irritant Church and gives the guys a mission – to retrieve an important McGuffin that's been lost in a plane crash in Albania. 'It will be a piece of cake,' he assures Stallone, which is of course Action Movie-ese for 'difficult, time-consuming and protractedly violent'.
Off they fly to Albania where they indeed retrieve the McGuffin with the help of a new Expendable, Maggie (Yu Nan). But wait! Who is this emerging through the fog to menace our heroes but the villain? The villain's name is Jean Vilain (thoughtful writing here, I think you'll agree), and he is portrayed by – oh dear Lord – Jean-Claude Van Damme. He admires Stallone's fixation with skull-themed ornaments, then reveals he himself has a tattoo of a goat. 'Ze gert is mah symburl,' Mr Vilain explains. 'It eez the pet of Satarn.' While Stallone and his boys are digesting that, van Damme clears off with the McGuffin, pausing only to – and you'll never believe this – gratuitously murder Hemsworth. Bwahahahaha!
Well, our heroes tenderly lay their fallen comrade to rest (technically they just bung a load of rocks on top of him, but hey), and Stallone lets rip with some philosophical breast-beating. 'Why is that that we, who don't wanna live, who don't deserve to live, are alive, while that young guy, the only one of us who wanted to live, who deserved to live, is dead?' he howls – actually I don't think Stallone's mouth opens wide enough to allow him to howl, but he has a good try. The rest of the Expendables look on in silence, quite possibly thinking that, actually, they do want and deserve to live, but not wanting to spoil their boss' big moment.
Anyway, they swear vengeance on Vilain for murdering their friend, which to me only suggests that they haven't thought this whole 'Expendable' concept through properly, and things continue in a roughly similar vein until the climax finally arrives. Just to give you a taste, it features Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis driving a smart car through an airport terminal shooting machine-guns out of the doors and snapping each others' catch-phrases, while elsewhere Stallone and Van Damme prepare to do battle in a manner that seems oddly suggestive. 'Air yuh goeeng to man urp?' taunts Van Damme. 'I'll man you up,' ripostes Stallone, delivering this frankly dubious threat with an impressively straight face. Soon they are up close and personal, grappling sweatily.
Okay, okay. On one level The Expendables 2 is nothing but a knuckle-dragging, generic action movie, with very little to distinguish it in terms of plot and characterisation. There is nothing new in either of these areas, and what it does have to offer here is barely competent – it is at least more coherent than the average direct-to-DVD action movie, and the bigger budget is apparent, but that's all. It's also notable for a queasy sentimentality of a kind I've noticed in some of Simon West's other films – Stallone's speech over Hemsworth's grave is the most notable instance, but this film is all about the camaraderie and machismo of guys hanging out, expressing their feelings by basically insulting each other all the time. Front and centre is a peculiar bromance between Stallone and Jason Statham, which the two performers can't quite make convincing, but the movie's riddled with this stuff. It clashes enormously with the hey-you'll-like-this-one cheesiness of the jokes which also occur throughout.
But then again, whether an action movie gets a theatrical release or goes DTDVD depends more on the stature of the leading man than the actual quality of the narrative, and the sine qua non of an Expendables movie has nothing to do with the story but the gimmicky assemblage of as many superannuated Certified Action Legends as Stallone can find the phone numbers of. Mickey Rourke hasn't come back, and Jet Li bails out early on (literally), but replacing them are Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris (who doesn't appear to even be attempting to act) – Willis and Schwarzenegger have (oh dear) beefed up parts this time around as well.
Now, I've nothing against the idea of making a film which is effectively Destroy All Monsters with ageing action movie heroes, because it has the potential to be fun. My main problem with the first Expendables was that hardly any of that potential got realised – with all these guys in the same film, I want to see them doing their personal schticks – or, even better taking each other on – not just ploughing through dozens of stuntmen in mass fight scenes. The fight between Dolph Lundgren and Jet Li excepted, there was nothing like that in the first one – this one is a little bit better. Lundgren, bizarrely, makes an impression as the comic relief, Jason Statham gets a couple of good individual fights (including one where, dressed as a priest, he gets to say 'I now pronounce you man and knife' and then crack someone in the nuts with his thurible), and the final boss battle between Stallone and Van Damme is, truth be told, really quite good, especially for a fight between two men with a combined age of 117. The guys behind me in the theatre were cheering, in an only partially-ironic manner, every time Van Damme did his trademark mid-air-spinny-kick thing.
I suspect this may explain the success of the Expendables films – the crowd at the showing I attended was mostly made up of Men Of A Certain Age, specifically that age which meant they would have been teenagers (or a little bit older) when most of the stars of this film were in their prime, and as close to being credible as they ever got (the big exception is, of course, Statham, who's still at the top of his game and bankability). They (and I) didn't go to see The Expendables 2 wanting to see a clever plot, or subtlety, or innovation – we went to see all these iconic faces up on the screen together! Cheesy jokes! Ridiculous dialogue and action! Big-name rumbles! It's an exercise in paying homage as much as it is going to see a movie. Certainly I can't imagine any other movie daring to get away with some of the plotting in this one – it seems to be okay for characters to appear and disappear almost at random, provided they're played by someone who was popular in 1987.
By any conventional standard, The Expendables 2 is an atrocious farrago: absurd, tonally all over the place, with a ridiculous, half-baked plot, and with an ensemble of many of the worst actors ever to appear before a movie camera (and, before you say anything, Jason Statham's in it too). But the sheer presence of those particular non-thespians, en masse, transports it into a strange new dimension where all the usual critical criteria don't seem to be in effect. It still isn't any good, but at the same time it manages to be rather entertaining, and I suspect it's going to make serious money. The only question is who on Earth they're going to get to appear in the third installment. Apparently, Nicolas Cage, Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford, Steven Seagal and Clint Eastwood are all in talks. Seagal and Eastwood? In the same movie? I'm sorry, I think I have to go and lie down.