Redundant, bombastic and cheekily self-aware, “The Expendables 2” is also savvy enough to supply its own auto-critique. “Male-pattern badness,” in the words of Bruce Willis, whose own smooth-shaven pate lends the joke an extra curl of irony. With Willis, Sylvester Stallone and roughly a dozen B-through-Z-movie icons returning for sequel duty, plus Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris for good measure, this muscle-bound meathead extravaganza is a sometimes blissfully cretinous endeavor, delivering the maximum firepower and zero brainpower its target audience expects. Surprisingly junkier-looking than its hit predecessor, the Lionsgate release should still land in the same commercial ballpark.
Having directed himself and his brawny ensemble with more energy than coherence in 2010’s “The Expendables,” Stallone turns over the helming reins to Simon West, well prepared for this gig based on his past experience shepherding burning planes (“Con Air”) and Jason Statham (“The Mechanic”). On a visual level, West seems to have taken the idea of “down-and-dirty” rather too literally; from its initial blowout to its climactic slugfest, this is one ugly tank of a movie, shot in murky shades of brown, gray and yellow that suggest the actors were afflicted by an outbreak of jaundice.
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As scripted by Stallone and Richard Wenk, the pic isn’t much better to listen to. What it does offer, in spades, is the sort of self-referential humor that labors at every turn to make clear that the actors — chiefly Arnold Schwarzenegger, who doesn’t give a performance here so much as a recitation of “Terminator” references — are in on the joke, the idea being that all the good-natured winking and ribbing will somehow translate into viewer enjoyment. And from time to time, with all the reliability of the gang’s creaky old seaplane, it does.
After a fairly exciting and completely irrelevant 15-minute opening salvo in Nepal, ringleader Barney Ross (Stallone) and his hardened crew bid a hasty farewell to their token Chinese member, Yin Yang (Jet Li, in and out), only to inherit another, Maggie (Yu Nan), a skilled codebreaker who joins them in their next mission. Alas, said mission costs them one of their best and brightest, a sensitive young sniper (Liam Hemsworth) mercilessly slain by a crime kingpin so villainous, he’s actually named Vilain (Van Damme).
Clearly, it’s payback time. Or at least, it will be once the pic dispenses with a few draggy character-building scenes and painful one-liners, as when Swedish meathead Gunner (Dolph Lundgren) fixes Maggie with a meaningful stare and murmurs, “I’d really die for some Chinese.” This is followed by an ostensibly more chivalrous bit of male-female interaction in which Barney warns Maggie to keep her emotional distance, lest she, too, become a victim. Maggie, we’re told, is good with a knife, but her weapon of choice here is the contemptuous smirk, the assumption being that the bold gesture of adding a woman to the cast precludes the need to give her anything interesting to do.
Far deadlier are newcomer Booker (Norris), a lone-ranger assassin whose dynamic entrance occasions a cheesy blast of Ennio Morricone, and Barney’s trusty No. 2, Lee Christmas (Statham), who can be counted on to turn an airplane propeller into a handy decapitation device. As for the other men on the team, they all emerge from the experience with little more than scrapes and bruises, spraying their nemeses with almost as many catchphrases as bullets. “I got this!” grunts Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) right before firing off a few thousand rounds, allowing the actor to distinguish himself a bit from his virtually interchangeable co-stars Scott Adkins and Randy Couture.
In their closing bout, Stallone and Van Damme come to resemble two swinging sides of beef — both tough, leathery and flayed almost beyond recognition, but not quite. Recognition, indeed, is the chief and perhaps sole pleasure this picture is selling: It’s the ostensible thrill of seeing all these action-movie avatars trying to outmuscle each other onscreen, never mind how many lapses in logic and pointless plot contortions were necessary to bring them together in the first place.
Pic generates some unique production value from its mostly Bulgarian locations, and the hyper-violent action sequences more than earn their R rating, though their impact is disappointingly mitigated by the quick, haphazard editing and a grimy visual scheme that turns blood the color of mud. The high volume of deafening explosions necessitated a great deal of distractingly post-dubbed dialogue, also forced to compete with a hemorrhaging score and an insistently nostalgic soundtrack of ’60s and ’70s tunes.