By Dan Marse-Kapr
Let me begin by saying two things about myself: (1) I’m a straight man. (2) I’m a feminist.
I understand that this is not the sort of thing one usually announces at the beginning of a movie review. But the genre of hyper-violent action-packed mega-blockbusters has often been treated as reflecting the essence of what heterosexual manliness is all about—which is odd, because to describe the genre accurately, you have to use phrases like “men with bulging ripply muscles whose tattered shirts eventually fall off” with a completely straight face.
Anyway, in spite of my feminism, I am a sucker for violent, big-budget action movies featuring cops who play by their own rules and other such nonsense. These movies are a guilty pleasure for me, because even though I think their ideas about “masculinity” are laughable, I can’t stop enjoying them. I enjoyed Taken. I enjoy the Die Hard movies (except for Die Hard 2: Die Harder and Die Hard 5: That Much Suspension of Disbelief Is Impossible). I enjoy when Daniel Craig lumbers around as a secret agent (with or without the Rifftrax treatment). And I am a shameless fan of most pre-Rush Hour 2 Jackie Chan movies (especially Supercop).
Of course, I have my limits. I was horrified by 2006’s Crank, what with its blatant glorification of rape. And for all I care, Michael Bay and Shia LaBeouf can go straight to hell (preferably in an ironic display of awesome pyrotechnics). Nevertheless, when I noticed that The Expendables 2 had FINALLY become available for instant streaming on Netflix, it took less than two seconds for me to start the movie.
I didn’t expect a solid storyline, so I wasn’t disappointed when there was none. People don’t watch movies like these if they’re interested in a good story. They watch movies like these because they want to see what it looks like when Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis join Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham for a showdown with Jean-Claude Van Damme, with a dash of Chuck Norris thrown in for good measure.
In addition to the above-named stars, the movie features Jet Li, Terry Crews, Dolph Lundgren, and Randy Couture, who reprise their roles from the first movie. It also features some newcomers to the franchise (besides Van Damme and Norris): Scott Adkins, who has appeared with Van Damme in several films, and Chris Hemsworth’s brother, whom I prefer to call “Skinny Thor.”
Getting all these actors together presumably used up most of the film’s budget, which must be why the special effects are, at times, only a notch above what you would find in a SyFy original feature. In other words, there’s a lot of blood in this movie, but it looks pretty cartoonish.
The impressive cast list is also probably a major reason for why the plot is so terrible. It’s not just that there’s no room for character development (since there needs to be decent screen time for each of the film’s bazillion main characters). But if the central purpose of your movie is to unite as many big-name action stars onscreen as possible, you’re going to run into the problem of juggling a dozen or so extremely busy schedules. This is why Schwarzenegger had such a small role in the first film; it is presumably why Norris has such a small role here. And the end result is a story that is wonderfully absurd.
For instance, there is a scene where Norris shows up out of nowhere and saves the protagonists by single-handedly destroying a large team of heavily armed villains. Bear in mind, this is a character who has not previously been mentioned at any point. At first, you want to scream “DEUS EX MACHINA!” but then it becomes clear that the action scene was probably developed purely as a way of getting Norris into the movie in the first place. After saving all the good guys, Stallone invites him to join them in their mission, but he declines the offer solely on the grounds that “I work alone.” It’s okay though, he does show up at the end of the movie, and even stands next to Schwarzenegger for a moment (although it is hilariously clear that he was never on set with Willis).
But it’s okay, because not only does Chuck Norris kill lots of people, but he also makes a Chuck Norris joke. THAT’S WHY WE NEED HIM IN THE MOVIE, OKAY?
Speaking of corny jokes, Schwarzenegger and Willis have fun exchanging each other’s most famous catchphrase, which I enjoyed, even if it did only magnify the insanity of the whole film. There’s even a Rambo joke! (GET IT???)
Let’s go back to the subject of feminism for a moment. Feminist critics of film and television have developed something called the Bechdel test, a test meant to measure gender bias in the media (although it doesn’t always work). In any case, in order to pass the Bechdel test, a film must (1) have at least two female characters (2) who speak to each other (3) about something other than a man. (You’d be surprised at how many movies fail.)
Now obviously, The Expendables 2 does not pass the Bechdel test. There is, after all, only one significant female character in the movie, and she implausibly falls in love with the mumbling Stallone, due to a mutual appreciation for motorcycles (and, I assume, a shared hatred for the English language). But it’s interesting to note that there are many conversations between the major male characters where most or all of what they talk about is their relationships with women. If there were ever such a thing as a reverse-Bechdel test, The Expendables 2 fails in a blaze of glory. I’m not sure if that’s progress, but it would certainly make for a good drinking game.
Another idea for a drinking game would be a shot for every time a bad guy misses when trying to shoot a good guy at close range in an open space. However, this one could lead to severe alcohol poisoning, so be careful.
The opening action scene of the movie is strange for a number of reasons, but it contains one detail that, in my opinion, sums up the entire rationale behind movies like this. Schwarzenegger is feeling a bit emasculated in front of all of his guy friends. He is understandably embarrassed, and feeling vulnerable. So it’s not surprising that the first thing he does, upon regaining any of his power, is to angrily demand that someone hand him a huge gun. There’s a part of me that wants to say, “This movie is brilliant!” But truthfully, I’m not convinced that the people who created this scene understood its full irony.
That’s what you can expect to get out of The Expendables 2—a limited degree of goofy self-awareness mixed with a decent measure of cluelessness. The end result is a cocktail of corny (and sometimes offensive) dialogue, an abundance of over-the-top explosions, and a plot that consists of 98% recycled material.
But it’s all worth it to see Chuck Norris assisting the Planet Hollywood guys.
Or at least, I’m assuming that’s what he told them as he held them all at gunpoint and forced them to include him in the film.
About the author:
Dan once discovered a portal into his own mind behind a filing cabinet in a New York City office building, and now resides in a realm where everyone looks like him and can only say “Marse-Kapr.” (It is, in fact, the only known realm where no one has problems pronouncing that name.) His favorite films include Adaptation, Life Is Beautiful, A Night at the Opera, The Truman Show, and Unforgiven.