Which film could one point to as the progenitor of The Expendables? Considering the blood-spattered, shoot-‘em-up nature of the plot, played out by a gang of grizzled veterans, you may be tempted to go back to Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. But that would be a mistake, for The Expendables has no truck with that film’s weary, end-of-days existentialism.
A more relevant ancestor is Space Cowboys, where Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner — former hot-shot pilots, all — yanked themselves out of retirement and shot into space in order to save the world from a rogue satellite. The story was nothing new — old actors, essentially, in a new bottle — but it was uncorked with a pleasing kind of professionalism calculated to make us feel, about the film, that they don’t make ‘em like they used to. The sentiment applied equally to the members of the cast. Looking at these pros go about their business, we thought: “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.”
It was only a matter of time before a similar bunch of old-timers were rounded up for a similar kind of amped-up B-movie. Simon West’s The Expendables 2, like its predecessor, is meant for a certain generation of movie audiences who grew up with action films (and who hero-worshipped the muscle-mountain heroes of those films) before the genre got hijacked by green-screen special effects, when it was still possible to see grounded men go at each other with fists, knives and guns.
If you feel a buzz of pleasure when Sylvester Stallone slips on knuckledusters, you know you’re in the right movie. Add to the mix Dolph Lundgren, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, along with contenders to the throne like Jet Li and Jason Statham, and there’s enough testosterone to put hair on the screen’s chest. Even Chuck Norris makes an appearance, calling himself a lone wolf. Some of us will silently recall the movie where he played McQuade.
The Expendables 2 is simply a reunion of this old-boys gang (the youngest of the crew, the smooth-faced Liam Hemsworth, is dispatched pretty soon, probably because he has no wrinkles). It’s also a reunion of the audience with these stars and the lines that endeared them to us in less complicated times, when action-film heroes romped across screen without an iota of angst. Early on, Schwarzenegger borrows a heavy weapon from a mercenary reluctant to give it up. The latter is forced to, and he says, “If I don’t get this back, your ass is terminated.”
The plot has something to do with stolen plutonium, but do we really care? Stallone issues the team’s mission statement: “Track ‘em. Find ‘em. Kill ‘em.” And that they do, with much — as the film puts it — “male pattern badness.” There’s amusing banter along the way, as when Stallone accuses a comrade of having an ego the size of a dinosaur. He should know. This film is his Jurassic Park, proof that old-fashioned thrills will never become extinct.