21 August 2012

First Impressions: The Expendables 2

Well folks, it's time to review the last truly Blockbuster Film of the Summer. Well, it wanted to be a blockbuster. Well, actually it wanted to a blockbuster in the 80s. It actually probably made enough cheddar to succeed in that regard, to be fair. We're talking about The Expendables 2 (2012), the sequel to a terrible 2010 film that very much succeeds where its predecessor failed. Kind of. Keep reading, plenty of SPOILERS ahead (that is, if you even consider The Expendables 2 to be perishable):

The Expendables (2010) was supposed to be the end-all ultimate iconic team-up movie (way ahead of The Avengers [2012]...) - full of epic 80s violence, memorable cameos, and ruthless action. It wasn't really any of these. The violence was bloody but uninteresting, the cameos were memorable but insignificant, and the action was present but uninspired. I was ready for this to be a disaster, but it failed to become the only thing it was trying to be.

The sequel rectified much of this. The action still wasn't breathtaking and the CGI was still awful, but there were some genuinely cool moments sprinkled in between a lot of guys shooting guns. That's something I don't think Stallone quite understands. A lot of guys shooting guns at each other isn't interesting. There are tons of long action scenes in The Expendables 2 that become boring because nothing is actually happening - no plot or relationships are advanced. Relationships are the key to investment in action scenes. Even McBain knows that. Actually - watch that little McBain vid again - notice how similar it is to The Expendables 2? The only character who we're actually pushed to relate to dies and the rest is devoted to the muscular but dumb hero's efforts to avenge him against a much cleverer villain with a vague evil plan and no actual persona vendetta. The Simpsons are now able to parody pop culture twenty years before it happens, or maybe this is just more indicative to how regressive The Expendables 2 tries to be.

There were some good parts, though, right? Yes, let's talk about JCVD. Jean-Claude Van Damme single-handedly saves this film, which isn't really what I'd expect going in. It's like he's the only dude who understands the joke that these movies really are. Let's talk about that for a second:

These films have really only been Stallone's outlet to relive some of his action glory days. The only way to generate interest above a typical action film, then, is to gather up every super action star and cram them in the same film. The first film was a little hokey with this. Yeah, Arnie and Bruce showed up, but who cares. The big stars were Rocky, Statham, Jet Li, and Dolph Lundgren. Statham and Li already made War (2007), which was a terrible movie, and so it's more like a Rocky / Drago fight with sidekicks. Not what we promised.

The Expendables 2 adds Chuck Norris and JCVD while putting guns in the hands of Arnie and Willis to actually deliver on Stallone's promise of uniting every great action hero (We need Seagal, more on that later). The way the film carries itself, though, it's more a team-up of these actor's collective myths than anything else. Chuck Norris is a great example. His myth is interwoven into this film beautifully. He shows up mysteriously, kills everything inexplicably, makes a joke, offers indispensable advice, and vanishes. It's exactly as much Norris as necessary, because the film actually acknowledges that having him around for the whole time would just be unfair. His myth comes in and blows up tanks, not the man. It's integrated into the story in a pretty cool way.

In the late 1940s, Chuck Norris visited a remote convent
in Tuscany, where he made love to every nun cloistered there.
Their sons would later make up the 1972 Miami Dolphins,
the only NFL team to complete a perfect undefeated season.
Chuck Norris' legend itself is this weird pop culture mix. It's this really cool mix of Bill Brasky-style hypermasculine exaggeration and a simple Walker Texas Ranger Lever that propelled Norris into the minds of millions of young, Internet-adled comedians. Somehow this got churned up with Vin Diesel Facts and presto - we know have the Most Legendary of all the Legendary Legends. And of course, now the joke style is one of the most successful ad campaigns in recent memory. The best thing about Chuck Norris, I think, is how no one dares upset him. Even writing this, I fear that I'm going to open a desk drawer and a Beard will come out and punch me. No one even dares think for a second that Chuck Norris might NOT be the Ultimate Legend or Epitome of Masculine Ruggedness. I'm not sure any part of pop culture has ever been less debatable.

So The Expendables 2 puts that in itself. In its own way it does this with every other character. The Myth of Jet Li is that he can Kung Fu six guys at once and kill them with frying pans. So he does that. The Myth of Stallone is that he slurs his words, weirdly hits on women, and is full of big unrepentant muscles. So he does that. After a certain point in the film, Arnold and Bruce actually reach a point where all they are able to do is shoot guns and repeat their own and each others' catch phrases. Bruce even tells Arnie at one point to stop saying "I'm back." The Expendables 2 is all about celebrating the myths of all these iconic action heroes by cramming them all in a single film.

It's interesting, then, to see what Stallone and JCVD do with this thesis. Stallone is completely reverent, this is, after all, his own Legacy as well - much more so for having his name tied to this stuff as much as it had been tied to Rocky and Rambo (and Staying Alive (1983)? eh? eh?). He is ridiculously self-serious and tries really hard to perform well in a very shitty movie. Everyone else kind of follows his lead, and word on the set of the first Expendables was always that Stallone was god.

JCVD doesn't give a shit. It's very clear by now that the Muscles from Brussels has a fairly accurate understanding of his own career and how ridiculous it was and is. Honestly, all these overly macho 80s and 90s action films were so over-the-top, and more often than not served as blatant overcompensation pieces, how can you not make fun of how goofy they are? In 2008 Jean-Claude starred as himself in JCVD, which was a very refreshing role that turned this kind of weirdly untouchable mythology on its head. He's carried that mythology into The Expendables 2, not they mythology he had built up during his action career. In this way he's very different from everyone else in the cast, and as a result, stands out as by far the most captivating character. He's the only one having fun in an insane movie full of other actors treating the misperceived importance of their legacy very seriously. I mean, he plays a dude named Vilain for crying out loud.

"...and to a lesser extent, the Van Dammes!"
This differentiation comes to a head literally in the film's final fight sequence between JCVD and Sly. It's basically an inverse of the conflict that divides Jerry and Newman on Seinfeld - Jerry has said his character was always meant to hate Newman because was coming on to Jerry's own show to upset him (this discourse is evidence from the fact that Newman is a dramatist who seeks to increase the seriousness of Jerry's comedic show through intensely dark monologues). JCVD works in opposite to make an affront to Stallone's vision. At the same time, more proper than first installment, Stallone's nemesis needed to be an icon, and Van Damme's mythology is always apart from the rest. He's perfect. He offers this silly, goofy character in a movie that's supposed to be really dark and intense. When he takes his sunglasses off and reveals how ugly his eyes really are, that's the final straw. Stallone must kill him. Since this is his movie, he does. It's symbolic of Sly exterminating any remnant of fun in this film.

We can run through the other characters pretty quickly here. Arnold's Hawaiian shirt was weird and unaddressed. He apparently shot all his scenes in four days. My guess is he just showed up while on vacation without going to wardrobe. This film should have served as a nice primer for Bruce's role in G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2012), but now it will only serve G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013).

It's good to see Statham doing what he needs to do, which is some actual combat with fists and knives. All the upper tier guys (Bruce, Arnold, Sly, Chuck, and JCVD) can do is shoot guns (tho JCVD worked in three scissor kicks across two scenes - impressive). We need him and the two seconds worth of Jet Li footage in this film to actually knock some people around. What was the deal with Jet Li in this film? Did he not want to be in it, so he just signed up for the first scene? Replacing him with another Asian, but a woman who can't act was atrocious.

Let's talk about her, the weakest point of the film. Chinese actress Yu Nan is clearly a terrible actor, and she stood out as such in a movie featuring these dudes. I appreciate the effort to grab a female expendable - but there are so many great options to choose from. How about Lucy Liu? Oh right, she's too busy doing what looks like a much better film from the RZA. There are actually far too many possible lists out there for a Female Expendables - here's a Google Search for you. There's also the fact that this tends to be if not misogynistic, then at least a movie completely disinterested in any Women's Issues of any kind.

Speak softly
As for the rest, as expected, Crews and especially Couture don't really belong in this movie other than to show off some jacked guys who are actually kind of believable mercenaries. They don't have myths, though. We also have Thor's brother (not Loki - the dude from The Hunger Games [2012]), who has some cool sniping scenes (really sick of the thing where the main character makes a gun hand motion and then the sniper takes them out - that's in every movie - See also: Crank [2006]), but also doesn't add anything to the myth preservation motif of the film.

Dolph Lundgren's character is somehow now an MIT dropout chemical engineer? Why is Lundgren even in this movie? Yeah, he's got Rocky IV (1985) and the ability to smell crime, but is he really on par with the other geezers like Arnold and JCVD here? My guess is no, but he also said yes when Sly asked him. He is entertaining here, though.

Finally, with any movie like this, we end the same as we did the first - who do we need to see in a sequel? The obvious one is Seagal, if he can tear himself away from being a fake cop (he would be right at home in Stallone's aura of self-seriousness). Who else, though? The shortlist obviously includes Hulk Hogan to increase the crazy old wrestler function, Danny Trejo to increase the ugly foreigner aspects, Carl Weathers to be the ironic black guy that Terry Crews should have been, and of course, Shaq. Because Shaq Fu (1994) needs closure. I really can't wait to see how shitty The Expendables 3 (2014) turns out to be.

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