Nomination for the year’s cutest bromantic couple: Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham, who sport matching berets and brass knuckles in The Expendables 2. They’re a dangerously darling duo.
They have competition. Amongst the many beefy buddies in this steroidal sequel, there are Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis getting very close and cuddly in a Smart car.
These brawny boy-men mean business, of course, but it’s mostly funny business. The sole reason for Schwarzenegger’s expanded presence, now that he’s returned from politics to movies full-time, is to crack wise with his famous one-liners (“I’m back!”).
But they all take turns playing the clown — and for the most part, it’s fun to watch them at it, even if the body count is distressingly high.
Stallone’s Expendables have all reached the age where they’re as likely to reach for the Botox as for the testosterone supplements, and they’re not trying very hard to hide it.
Especially since the success of their first film proved the enduring popularity of action heroes in their 50s and 60s, all the more so when you cram so much muscle into a single movie.
The pumped-up pack has a couple of noteworthy additions (Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris) and subtractions (Mickey Rourke and Steve Austin), plus enlarged cameos (Schwarzenegger and Willis) and returning mainstays (Stallone, Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Terry Crews and Randy Couture).
There’s also the obligatory tough girl, the code-breaking and neck-snapping hottie Maggie (Yu Nan), who becomes an important part of various male missions but is still expected to wait outside the tree fort.
Stallone’s Expendables ringleader Barney pays her what passes for a compliment in this universe, after she proves herself an ace at linguistics, bomb defusing and martial arts: “Is there anything you don’t know?”
The plot? You’re kidding, right?
But it can be summed up in Barney’s answer to his slicing sidekick Lee Christmas (Statham), when he’s asked, “What’s the plan?”
Barney snarls: “Track ’em. Find ’em. Kill ’em.”
There’s plenty of this, especially the killing part (decapitations are a favourite method) and motivations are two-fold: saving the world and payback.
The villain du jour, who actually is named Vilain, has Van Damme hoarding a big stash of weapons-grade plutonium (like there’s any other kind?) while also seriously annoying the Expendables with his dastardly deeds.
It’s like watching a hog wallow at a fall fair: all mud, blood and squealing. And it’s set to the most incongruous pop soundtrack ever, with tunes The Young Rascals’ Groovin’ making mass slaughter seem like a great way to while away a Sunday afternoon.
Simon West (Con Air), working with a script by Stallone and Richard Wenk, directs with efficiency but with more blunt force than panache. It begins with a Nepal fortress rescue that is built around battering rams, machine guns and cheesy one-liners.
West is fully in on the joke, though, and he does allow Stallone, who directed the first film, to concentrate on what passes for acting. Stallone is not a guy you want to confuse.
Quirks, they have a few, which makes these Expendables so endearing. Barney loves skull symbols, even putting them on his designer ballpoint pen. Henpecked Lee has a cellphone that quacks whenever his lady calls, and he’s apparently the only guy getting any serious female attention.
Jet Li’s Yin Yang is handy with pots and pans, when his gun fails. And Chuck Norris arrives to the sound of Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western theme and with a funny story about a cobra. Weird how Norris has started to look like Tim Allen in his old age.
At no point does anybody take any of this seriously, even when the inevitable showdown occurs between Stallone and Van Damme, a matchup long hoped for by fans of the genre.
It was evidently more of a workout for their stuntmen, judging by how much of it was shot in near darkness. This will become more of a necessity as the franchise continues — Expendables 3 is already in the works — along with the relentless aging process.
I can imagine a future Expendables shot entirely in the dark, with only the sounds of guns and grunts to guide us. All least we’ll know they’re all smiling.
Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.