What did the '80s do to deserve "The Expendables 2?"
The sequel to the surprise 2010 hit, available this week on Blu-ray and DVD, once more reunites some of the Reagan era's biggest action stars, even throwing in Chuck Norris and extended heavy lifting for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis.
What's missing is the storytellng muscle that made that era's action films worth our admiration. Yes, Sylvester Stallone and co. look as fit as ever, and it's always good to see the good guys prevail sans moral hand wringing. It's still a film coasting solely on nostalgia, unable to create new memories to complement existing ones.
Sylvester Stallone returns as Barney, the unofficial leader of a rag-tag army for hire. They're given a new mission by the mysterious Mr. Church (Willis) which ends up getting one of their teammates killed by a thug named Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme).
Yes, that's his name.
Now, it's time for revenge, and few mercenary groups are better equipped at meting out justice than this AARP-approved squad.
The body count in the latest "Expendables" is obscenely high, yet the stakes remain minuscule. We're treated to endless shots of the crew firing automatic weapons in tough guy poses and watch waves of generic bad guys expire in flashes of fake blood.
Every round finds its mark, while their opponents must be aiming at the clouds to miss with such consistency.
The screenplay, co-written by Stallone, discredits the era it wants to salute. The banter between the "expendables" is painful to endure, and even the attempts at pun-filled kiss-off lines misfire. When Stallone barks, "rest in pieces" after his crew incinerates a man with bullets, it's tempting to throw your VHS copy of "Over the Top" in the trash. The same can be said of Schwarzenegger, who once more is forced to recite more variations on the "I'll be ba-ack" line.
The cast offers such colorful potential it takes real effort to squander it. Terry Crews' biceps alone deserve a better script. The former NFL star can be a hoot in comedies like "White Chicks," but his sense of humor gets pinned here.
Van Damme's Vilain is hardly a bravura turn, but given how little support everyone receives it's a minor miracle he registers as strongly as he does. Throw him into a better action movie and watch him find a second career as a Euro-baddie.
We do get a whiff of romance between Barney and Nan Yu, the actress who plays the film's only female character of note. The perfunctory nature of their flirtation feels like something that could easily be trimmed without any negative effects.
Statham, playing the affable Christmas, delivers a few gracefully cruel action sequences to remind us he still has a career in solo action films. And to be fair, the film's final mano a mano battle is short but pugnacious, proving these old timers can still deliver punishment, '80s style.
Action veteran Simon West ("Con Air") stages the mayhem with a calculated eye, but our heroes never appear to be in any sort of danger. And West's knack for composition may ramp up the cool factor, but it can't boost the generic story or wafer-thin characters.
One of the film's final jokes says plenty about the franchise at this stage. The movie introduces an antiquated airplane, meant to carry our weary warriors.
"That thing belongs in a museum," Barney says.
"Don't we all," Schwarzenegger's character croaks.
Not necessarily. Action heroes, believe it or not, can age gracefully. Just ask Clint Eastwood courtesy of "Gran Torino," or Mr. Expendable himself. Stallone defied all odds by bringing back his signature role in 2006's excellent "Rocky Balboa."
The Blu-ray extras include a behind-the-scenes featurettes, a gag reel, deleted scenes and an audio commentary track with West.
In "Gods of War," Stallone says he envisioned the first film as a franchise starter right off the bat. The actor, shown poring over a heavily edited, dog-eared script (just imagine the original dialogue!), says the sequel offers a more consistent tone than the original.
In "Big Guns: Bigger Heroes," cultural observers put the '80s action movies in historical context, giving President Ronald Reagan direct credit for the dawn of Stallone, Norris, Schwarzenegger and Willis. It's a fascinating segment, a must for anyone who lived through the era or simply pines for its pro-American bent.
Stallone not only typified the genre, but his gritty performance as Vietnam veteran John Rambo in "First Blood" set the stage for his muscle-bound peers. Stallone's willingness to do some of his own stunts helped him connect with audiences. The actor broke four ribs during one stunt sequence, says "First Blood" director Ted Kotcheff.
"He had real guts. The audience smelled that," Kotcheff says.
It was Reagan's guts on the global stage that audiences saw reflected on movie screens nationwide, and why an "Expendables" franchise exists in the first place.