The Expendables weren't just ephemeral and one-note, they were about as obviously one-note as it gets: lots of '80s action stars, having hit the age where getting money any which way they can sounds just great, are finally all appearing in the same motion picture, and that's how we got the best ensemble cast of 1988, albeit in 2010: Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzennegger (the last two in small roles, admittedly), alongside newer faces Jet Li and Jason Statham, as well as what-the-hell choices Terry Crews and Randy Couture, as a shame-faced admission that there hasn't be a single important new action star this century besides Statham. There's really not much else besides that: look at all these people gathered up in one place! Whee! And the Whee factor having been pretty much spent all on that one scene where Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis appear together (though never all in the same shot), the very idea of The Expendables 2 makes altogether no fucking sense.
But The Expendables 2 exists anyway, and it justifies itself the only way it can: slightly larger cameos for Schwarzenegger and Willis (and all three stars are on camera at once, multiple times, so as to give you a bit more of your money's worth), a new cameo from Chuck Norris and a villain role for Jean-Claude Van Damme (the only actor who seems to understand the absurdity of the whole production and camps it up accordingly, which isn't surprising in the wake of JCVD), which I believe uses up all of the major action stars of that generation, unless Stallone can convince Steven Seagal to put in an appearance in the eventual Expenadables 3, which he shan't, because Seagal famously has no sense of humor about himself, and is also way the hell fat now. To increase the younger, "hold on, you're not really an action star" side of the cast, Liam Hemsworth has jumped on for the most thankless role imaginable, and I like to amuse myself by imagining that the producers legitimately got him and brother Chris (who'd be at least marginally more appropriate for this project) confused.
Other than that, the film is a virtual carbon copy of the first movie, with an ever-so-slightly less xenophobic tint (the villains are white people in Asia, not Latin people in Latin America), distinctly better action sequences (especially the climactic fight between Stallone and Van Damme), and a screenplay by Stallone & Richard Wenk so unrelentingly stupid that it ought to violate some human rights treaty or another just to screen it in public. I have not, after a great deal of consideration, decided what the worst line of dialogue in this film is, but I know that it is also the worst line of dialogue I've heard in a movie in 2012. Stallone's mumbled elegy, "Why is it the ones who deserve to live, that want to live the most, die, and the ones that don't deserve to live, keep on going?" would certainly be up there, along with every single line that trades on one of Schwarzenegger's classic utterances ("I'll be back" is trotted out multiple times, and he's the butt of a "terminated" joke). And the maddening character and story illogic is almost as bad as the dialogue, particularly the way that the movie goes out of its way to convince us that Hemsworth's character, a young kid who is with the Expendables (that's the name of Stallone's mercenary team, as you may or may not remember or care) just for a time, is the hottest shit new fighter that any of them have seen, so that when he gets killed by Van Damme kick-boxing a knife into his chest - a moment that I think serves to cleanly decide whether you land in the "this is so awesome" or "this is so fucking dumb" camp about the movie as a whole - we feel sorry about it and want to see him get revenged.
It doesn't take; nothing that happens in the film, emotionally, takes, though there is thankfully less of it than there was in the first movie. Within two scenes of Hemsworth's demise, it's impossible to remember or care that he ever existed (though I will say this, I never enjoyed the movie more than when I consciously elected to read the Stallone/Statham/Hemsworth dynamic as an old man showing his new, young lover off in front of his ex); the momentum of the story isn't built that way. Like its predecessor, it's an action movie of the old school; and that school dictates that the heroes go after the bad guys because they are heroes and bad guys, that you can drop Stallone in any place in the world and where he heads, that is where the small army with rocket launchers will be.
Its purity is admirable, in a way, as is the film's earnest commitment to a its R-rating (though not as unusual as they were even just a few years ago, R-rated action movies are still unusual enough to merit praise just for the sake of following through; also because I, for one, have more respect for a movie that acknowledges blood and suffering than a movie that tidily pretends that killing a human is a sanitary affair). It's brutish and crude, but honest, if that's worth anything. It would be worth a whole hell of a lot more if the thing weren't so uncompromisingly retrograde and stupid; even back in the '80s themselves, Stallone was the one making the unbearably moronic films like Cobra, the Rambos, or the later Rockys, a far cry from Schwarzenegger's sturdy action mechanisms, or the thuggish physical poetry of a Van Damme picture. And The Expendables 2 is every inch a Stallone picture, with the ensemble element of the first film considerably muted (my boy Statham only gets one major scene, with the criminally awful pun, "I now pronounce you... man and knife", and otherwise just stands around shouting sour quips at Stallone; Li only sticks around for the opening sequence; Lundgren never engages in what we might comfortably describe as "action"), and the emphasis on Stallone's emotional journey [sic] rendering him very much the film's protagonist, where he was just the main character in the preceding movie. A thin distinction, but an important one.
So anyways, it's dumb as hell, and there are lots of guns fired and things going boom, and Simon West, taking over directorial duties from Stallone, is at least better at staging action sequences, though the film is still over-edited to its intense disadvantage, with virtually every large-scale fight sequence (including a really big one near the end that is clearly meant to be a showtopper) rendered virtually incomprehensible at anything deeper than a "who's firing the gun now?" level. The gags are hatefully sophomoric - Bruce Willis's immortal "Yippee-ki-yay" line from Die Hard is brought in to showcase just how severe the difference between witty action one-liners and stupid laugh lines actually is, and it burns like fire to see such a classic moment savaged so badly - and the characters have lost even the one note that they had last time; it's like a half-note now. It's not a very good action movie, which makes sense, given that it's the sequel to a not-very-good action movie; robbed of the novelty that made its predecessor at least inventive in its badness, all that's left is the stupidity, the bad jokes, and the violent action, noisy and messy without being overly creative or even "awesome" enough to be more than an assault on the senses and on the dignity of all the 10-year-old boys who came up with a much, much cooler version of this same idea 25 years ago.