MINOR (MAJOR - ed.) SPOILERS!
There were early internet rumours suggesting The Expendables 2 would wuss out of an R Rating in favour of a PG-13 certificate. Thankfully, this proved untrue. With Arnie and Bruce returning to the cast in meatier roles, and Jean-Claude Van Damme cast, The Expendables 2 promised to be bigger, better and bloodier than ever. It’s hard to argue they didn’t live up to it.
Arnie is given his grand return to the screen in an electric action opening, where the Expendables are finishing up their latest mission. Barney Ross (Stallone), Lee Christmas (Statham), Gunnar (Lundgren), and co are joined by fresh-faced army sniper Billy ‘The Kid’ (Hemsworth) in blowing stuff up and shooting people in the face (I think they were rescuing a billionaire of something).
Upon their return, Bruce Willis’ Mr Church sends them off on a mission to ‘make them even’ - recovering the contents of a safe from a downed plane in Bulgaria, where they will also be joined by sexy Chinese agent Maggie, much to the snarls of Sly. All this after Billy confides in Barney that being an Expendable isn’t really for him and this will be his last run out. I don’t see anything that could go frightfully wrong…
Disaster! They're ambushed by none other than Jean-Claude Van Damme (he’s called ‘Vilain’!) and his sinister party of rival mercenaries. The safe contents are blueprints for a plutonium storage mine, and Vilain has some dastardly plan to sell it all. If that wouldn’t piss Sly off enough, he nicks his beloved official Expendables knife and kills Billy (roundhouse kicking the knife into his chest. Genius!). Of course Sly isn’t going to let this slide, so he ignores Church’s command and vows to hunt down ‘Vilain’ and extract his revenge.
Van Damme absolutely shines, strutting around the mine wearing his swag sunglasses and designer coat; the hallmarks of a criminal mastermind if there ever was one.
When it tries to go deep and emotional, it’s hilarious. When Sly opens up about Billy’s death it's difficult to tell if this is meant to be heartfelt or not. Add in the moment where Billy's girlfriend is given his belongings and looks at the enclosed photograph of him... its borderline spoof.
Of course such trivial matters as ‘characterisation’ and ‘plot’ play second fiddle to the cast revelling in the glory days of their careers. There are dialogue nods to Arnie’s back catalogue especially (play the “I’ll Be Back” drinking game), including a delightful swapping of catchphrases between Arnie and Bruce during a shootout, which is as good as it sounds.
It has to be said, there is a LOT of filler. We get to ‘know’ Billy because he spends five minutes recounting his life story to everyone. But the Expendables gang love a bit of banter between laying waste to Van Damme’s henchmen, mostly making fun of Randy Couture’s ears (who is basically a prop after all). Gunnar muffles something about not having much luck with the ladies, staking a claim to rival Bane for this summer’s most incomprehensible speech.
With his name and face plastered over all the pre-publicity, it’s a bit bizarre Jet Li only gets about five minutes screen time, which pretty much epitomises the ‘thanks for turning out’ mantra. It’s difficult to juggle such ensembles, even in this post-Avengers era, and it’s this element that’s obviously the main selling point.
Of course you all noticed Chuck Norris’ name on the poster too, and his cameos are a testament to a man who has officially evolved beyond parody of himself. “Is it true you were bitten by a Cobra?” asks Sly. “Yes, but after five days of agonising pain… the Cobra died.”
The climax of the film tries its best to recapture the high octane levels of the beginning. Sly and Van Damme have their final showdown as all hell breaks loose in an Eastern European airport, with Bruce Willis and Arnie shooting baddies from inside a Smart car a particular highlight.
It really is wonderfully ridiculous entertainment, and genuinely great fun. There’s probably room for one more great action set piece, but we’ll let them off because they’re knocking on a bit… As Sly says himself in a big juicy metaphor: “That thing belongs in a museum”, “We all do” quips a beaming Arnie. Brilliant.