Director: Simon West; Screenwriter: Richard Wenk, Sylvester Stallone; Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris; Running time: 102 mins; Certificate: 15
Loud and dumb but great fun, The Expendables 2 is an explosive crowdpleaser that vastly improves on its poor predecessor. Although he lets us know it at every available opportunity, Arnie is definitely back. This allays any fears that he'd come equipped with a new, age-appropriate catchphrase of "Oww, my back!"
The much-vaunted big names are cleverly deployed, often shamelessly lampooning their screen personas to entertaining effect, while director Simon West harnesses the pulsating action and gigantic laughs in fine style.
Unlike the original, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis are given more than brief cameos and the movie benefits hugely. When they join forces with Sylvester Stallone it's fair to say that they don't stand around discussing Planet Hollywood's menu and profit margins. Stomping around with their phallic-symbol weaponry in hand, they are clearly enjoying themselves, and this translates into a good time for the viewers too.
The plot is wafer-thin, of course, involving Jean Claude Van Damme's hilariously sadistic baddie nicking some kind of lethal device from the clutches of Stallone's testosterone-pumped good guys. Cue plenty of bicep-flexing, brawling, shooting and slurred retorts, interspersed with occasional attempts at character backstory and macho emoting that are ridiculously corny and contrived.
Nonetheless, the requisite boxes for the action blockbuster are mostly ticked, with plenty of amusing one-liners that the cinema-going masses will devour with relish. When Terry Crews threatens to "terminate" Mr Schwarzenegger's derrière in the highly effective pre-title sequence, you know you're dealing with audaciously 'meta' material!
For a movie that's more about visuals than Shakespearean-style dramatic monologues, the CGI work is glaringly poor at times. Did they let some work experience kid loose on the Photoshop during post-production?
The best special effects are undoubtedly the bodies of the main stars though, especially JCVD and Stallone. Even if the latter is starting to resemble his Madame Tussaud's waxwork after it's been placed too close to a fire, it's still a magnificent achievement to be in such shape at his advanced age.
Attempts to throw some gender politics into the mix by adding Nan Yu's cool Maggie to Stallone's crew also falls short of having the desired effect on the group dynamic. Despite noble intentions and the actress's best attempts, she still feels very much like a cipher and isn't given enough of a chance to display her skills.
Director West orchestrates the action sequences with an appealing sense of clarity and fluidity, approaching the winning tone he managed with Con Air. There's no pretence of art here. The nature of the game is carnage and destruction, whether it be a building being blown apart or a torso exploding in a shower of blood.
One particular smaller scale sequence inside a church stands out, featuring Jason Statham in serious buttkicking mode. Well, he wasn't going to deliver a sermon, was he? Especially with that raspy voice.
The very fact this review instinctively gravitates towards naming the actors but not their 'characters' is revealing in itself. Fortunately there are enough moments in The Expendables 2 when it knows and nails its function as an escapist, explosive blockbuster that packs a powerful punch. It may be all brawn and no brain, but there's plenty to enjoy on a non-cerebral level here.
Photo gallery - Expendables 2 character posters: