The requirements for a good sequel are fairly clear. The audience wants more of the same, but they also want something different. A change of tone, a progression of the characters, a raise in stake, or whatever transformation a filmmaker can make while still giving the audience the same feeling they had watching the original movie.
In that regard, The Expendables 2 may be considered a good sequel. It ups the personal stakes for the characters, and through cameos and supporting experiences raises the 1980s action flick nostalgia that buoyed the first Expendables. If the viewer lacks an appreciation for big, muscular, hyper-masculine action cinema, they will not enjoy the film. In comparison to 2010s action cinema generally, it is not a particularly accomplished film. As a sequel, however, it is good. As a sequel to The Expendables it is actually a fairly stunning improvement.
The mercenary team known as the Expendables – Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Yin Yang (Jet Li), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), Toll Road (Randy Couture), Gunner Jenson (Dolph Lundgren), and Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth) – are tasked with entering Albania and recovering a classified item from a crashed CIA aeroplane. Once there they are ambushed by terrorists, led by criminal Jean Villain (Jean-Claude Van Damme), and are forced to fight back to retrieve the item before it can be used.
The Expendables 2, to borrow a quote from a Grant Morrison comic book, ‘does what it says on the tin and isn’t afraid to get laughed at’. The film features Jean-Claude Van Damme as a villain named Jean Villain. Everyone involved in the production knows exactly what they are making. They all understand the tone, the embracing of the ridiculous, and the overwhelming affection it has for a time when popular cinema could involve a group of muscular men shooting up a room with machine guns. The Expendables was an earnest attempt to build a nostalgic love letter to a particular style of cinema. The Expendables 2 is the actual love letter to that style. It catches the viewer with a look. The viewer knows. The film knows. They share an understanding. It is a sweet spot that The Expendables did not quite work out, and that The Expendables 3 failed to rediscover. I am not a fan of the term ‘guilty pleasure’, but I do appreciate the term ‘dumb fun’.
This would not all work as easily as it does were it not for Stallone and Statham’s banter. They acted as the heart and soul of the first film, and they repeat the task in the second. It is interesting to note that Statham is not of the generation of his co-stars, but he instinctively knows the terrain. He fits in perfectly, and with apparent ease. He repeats the feat three years later in Furious 7 and within one film has successfully flipped his character from villain to much-loved hero without the audience thinking to ponder it. The transformation of the Fast and Furious saga from car racing movies to over-the-top action blockbusters owes a partial debt to The Expendables. What they do here is increasingly adopted there. Jean-Claude Van Damme does genuinely satisfying work here as well. It is, I believe, his only major turn as a villain and he embraces every opportunity that comes with the role.
The action is solidly achieved and easy on the eye, thanks to the work of director Simon West (Con Air, Tomb Raider). It successfully gives the film a broader visual scope and sense of scale compared to the original – which was directed by Stallone. The film’s mid-section oddly settles down to resemble a World War II thriller, with a few too many bombed-out European streets and middle-aged men wearing flat caps, but it’s an aesthetic that the cast and designers work well. The climax may grow a little too over-the-top in terms of in-jokes and references, but one can hardly begrudge the team for throwing the kitchen sink into such an already over-stocked film. The ultimate point is The Expendables 2 really commits, and acquits itself admirably – in all of its nostalgic, over-the-top, preposterously silly glory.