Tuesday, September 25, 2018


The thinking—if that’s the word—behind The Expendables 2 (2012) seems to be: “We’re over-the-hill action stars who can no longer slam our bulging carcasses around a movie set the way we used to, so let’s play this for laughs.”

The problem with the cast (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, Bruce Willis, and Randy Couture) is that their self-referential, tongue-in-cheek shenanigans, which are supposed to be amusing, fall totally flat, while their earnest attempts at macho action (shooting and hand-to-hand combat) are pedestrian and embarrassingly tired. These lunkheads are too old and corpulent to be doing what they’re doing: they stand with their feet cemented in place and swivel their hips left and right, like plastic action figures. They hit dozens upon dozens of bad guys in the chest and face with a barrage of expensive ammo. The action figures in interactive video games are more believable than these movie “legends.”

The two guys who actually are physically fit—the scruffy Statham and a cardboard henchman named Scott Adkins—don’t exactly elevate the level of action-movie discourse, either. Adkins remembers every so often to deliver his lines with that phony Slavic accent that movie publicists love. What is it with cornball Russian villains in action movies? Adkins is a carbon copy of previous carbon copies, from Ivan Drago (Rocky IV) to Sergeant Yushin (Rambo) to Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash (Iron Man 2), and he doesn’t make an impression at all, even when his skull is pulverized by a propeller.

Action savior. Jet Li
The only person who brings any class to this noisy imbecility is the prodigiously gifted Jet Li, who executes his one fight scene with panache, timing, and genuine wit. Li seems to be in a different movie (actually, he was in a different movie at the time, the beautiful Flying Swords of Dragon Gate). He’s a deft acrobat, like the great silent movie clowns, as he casually smacks each opponent in turn with a cooking utensil; just as you expect him to hammer the one remaining opponent, Li gives him a quick jab with the palm of his hand to send him toppling, and then shrugs and wriggles his nose. Li is a martial arts Chaplin besting Mack Swain in The Gold Rush (1925). Everything about Li is elevated above the surrounding slop, and he gives moviegoers something back for the time they’ve invested.

The stock actors of Westerns in the 1940s and ’50s—John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Ward Bond, Jim Davis, and so on—stayed too long in the saddle. They kept churning out witless star turns in Westerns into the 1960s and ’70s, trying to maintain their own outsized myths while their faces sagged and their girths widened, hauling themselves up on horseback with the finesse of walruses. The Expendables 2 exemplifies a superannuated genre. Like those Westerns filled with stars who were well past their sell dates, it has all the charisma of a cattlemen’s convention. I hate to see Jet Li associated with something like this, not because he unbalances the movie with his talent but because, by saving a movie with no other redeeming value, he’s used sacrificially.

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