Who knew that adding Jean-Claude Van Damme to a movie helps improve it? Well, okay, any action movie fan worth his salt knew this. But he’s wallowed for so long in direct-to-video hell, it’s sometimes easy to forget. The likes of Lundgren, Van Damme, and Seagal are not just a victim of poorer scripts (the scripts don’t have to be Oscar worthy, just a little bit intelligent, a little bit witty), but advancing years and changing times. Like most of the big action stars of the eighties and nineties, theirs feels like an era long since passed, fondly remembered through misty eyes.
They’re misty because you’re wincing at the memory of your favourite action stars punching someone in the throat. Probably before kicking them into a meat grinder.
The Expendables 2, like The Expendables before it, attempts to recapture that action hero goodness. The first one wasn’t that great, despite seeming like a recipe for success. What could be better than seeing a bunch of old and new action stars in one film? It must be, like, ten times the excitement, right? Wrong. And The Expendables 2 suffers from the same problems, albeit to a lesser extent.
The team, the Expendables themselves, still don’t seem to gel as a unit. They’re still saddled with a lumbering script full of weird one liners and strange team banter that doesn’t feel entirely natural. They fare better than the first film, because they now have the familiarity from that movie to draw on. We know there’s a history with these guys, because we saw them kicking arse in The Expendables.
But there’s still an evident lack of passion in the eyes of some of the older stars. Arnie, save for an amusing incident with a car door, comes off worst. It must be tough for him. He left the world of movies at his peak to seek new challenges in the world of politics. His return to film has a resigned feel to it, like he’s taking a step backwards in his career. He comments about how they all belong in a museum, and rather than being funny, it has a hint of sadness to it. He’s a guy who’s survived a beat down with an eight foot tall alien, and ripped a phone box out of the ground with the bad guy still in it. Now he just looks a bit tired.
In his new film, The Last Stand (out early next year), he plays a failed cop with a shot at proving his mettle again, and that feeling of sadness, of looking a bit shattered, might be a benefit. In the context of The Expendables 2, it doesn’t really work. The one liners are as creaky as Arnie’s aching joints.
Some of the stars do okay with what they’re given. Dolph Lundgren is as good as he was last time, and Jet Li shines in a brief scrap using some frying pans. But the real revelation is Jean-Claude Van Damme. From the very first moment he appears out of the mist with his hired goons, he steals the show. He’s handed lines of dialogue as clunky as the worst of them, but is clearly relishing playing a bad guy. The film really benefits from having a memorable villain, something that was missing from The Expendables. It’s a shame then, that Van Damme doesn’t get enough screen time.
The Expendables films seem content to just use our fond memories of action movie stars rather than the actual movies they starred in. The Expendables 2 is violent, but it’s violence for the sake of violence. Plot takes a back seat so that a procession of ageing stars can march on-screen, fire some guns and march off again. It’s a film that says, “Look! Here’s Chuck Norris! He done that film you saw!” as if just having Chuck Norris walk down a street out of nowhere is enough.
Don’t get me a wrong, it’s a small improvement on The Expendables, mostly because of Van Damme. They’re getting there, slowly. The third instalment (and there will be a third) could do with hiring a script writer to craft a good, genuinely witty story (maybe Shane Black?). Keep the violence. It’s needed. But if it’s interweaved with a story that seems to be content with nothing more than ticking boxes on a list of who’s who in the action movie genre, what’s the point?