In the world of constantly evolving trends there's a very fine line between retro and sad. Tweed jackets? Retro. Leather trousers? Sad. Old episodes of Quantum Leap? Retro. Old episodes of Blockbusters? Sad. It's worth mentioning because this is a line that The Expendables 2 walks with reckless abandon both to its credit and detriment.
Sylvester Stallone once again leads his motley crew of mercenaries into the fray, this time with revenge on their mind. See, ridiculously named former Eastern Bloc arms dealer/warlord Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) was cheeky enough to bump off one of the team and is trying to use an old Soviet plutonium stash to upset the balance of global power. True to form, Sly and the lads (accompanied by token ass-kicking lady Nan Yu) use this as an excuse to kill enough nameless henchman to populate a fairly large town.
Surprisingly enough, despite the paper thin story and stock characters, there's plenty to like about this second instalment of the franchise. Indeed, The Expendables 2 hits a lot of the targets that the first one missed. Director Simon West (the hand behind action classic Con-Air) is wise enough to steer the film away from any modicum of the serious introspection that derailed the first film and has created an out-and-out switch-your-brain-off explosion-fest. There's not a hint of pretentiousness about The Expendables 2, the film simply puts its arm around the viewer and says "Hey friend, I'm basically 100 minutes of guns and bombs, so let's just kick back and relax, right?". And the result is strangely satisfying.
Everyone, of course, will be talking about the new additions. Van Damme is a good choice for antagonist, his chilly Coors-fuelled emotionlessness perfect for the amoral character be portrays. Schwarzenegger is his amiable self, the mighty Arnholt being one of a very few select group of performers for whom acting talent, or lack thereof, holds no worries. The real scene stealer though is Sir Chuck of Norris, a man already brought to almost Godlike status by Internet "facts", the bearded wonder is used perfectly as a mysterious lone wolf, able to take out a street full of baddies without batting an eyelid, or possibly BY batting an eyelid.
Despite all these cute bits of kitsch however, at some poin, I must put my cynic hat on and judge The Expendables 2 on its filmmaking merits and it is, unfortunately, found wanting. The script is clunky and though the actions sequences are worthy of merit, there's not much there that veterans of the genre won't have seen before. The performances, whilst likeable enough, lack any emotional resonance, particularly Stallone who has developed a syndrome where every time he attempts something serious and heartfelt, he instantly becomes hilarious.
In one particularly cringe-worthy moment, an attempted sensitive rationalising of the pointlessness of war had the audience rolling in the aisles. Finally, the film takes the "wink wink, nudge nudge" element a little too far, the number of Terminator references surrounding Schwarzenegger from the outset stretches the gag to breaking point.
In an odd way, the Expendables 2 acquits itself through its own low standards. There's almost nothing to recommend here other than trashy joie d'vivre, but that's very nearly enough on its own.
Overall Verdict: A so-bad-it's-good tribute to the so-bad-its-good action films of yesteryear. Check your cynicism at the door and you'll end up having a jolly, if not particularly sophisticated time.
Reviewer: Alex Hall