Or, to use its alternative title: Ageing Alphas Assemble. Again. Two years ago, we were introduced to these freebooting soldiers of fortune in their golden years, led by menopausal hombre Barney Ross, played by Sylvester Stallone. They were called The Expendables, in an ironically defiant nod to their own status as cannon fodder, and to the fact that their old-school action heroism is now considered obsolete, and surplus to requirements, in today’s bullshit world of tree-hugging political correctness. (Or maybe they once all starred in some forgotten 80s straight-to-VHS actioner called The Pendables.)
Anyway, Sly’n'the guys had an adventure on the made-up island of “Vilena” and it all went terribly well, so now they return in a sequel which like the first film has been co-written by Stallone himself. As it says on the poster, they are “back for war”, ie making a warlike reappearance for more of the same: this sets the keynote of rather modest wit and wordplay. There is some self-mocking entertainment to be had, but Stallone does seem to think that just getting all his old buddies to lumber up in the one place, as if opening some new branch of Planet Hollywood, is enough to earn our sentimental indulgence.
Barney continues his gruff bromance with Brit second-in-command Lee (Jason Statham) and still on the crew is tousle-haired blond Gunner (Dolph Lundgren). Martial arts warrior Jet Li plays Yin Yang; as in the first film, he is picked on a bit for being Asian. At least this time he gets to kick some butt, but he bails out of the film pretty early on. His place on the crew is taken by sexy badass Maggie, played by Chinese screen star Nan Yu. These seniors also have a fresh-faced youngster on the team, Billy, played by Liam Hemsworth, for whom Barney has a fatherly tenderness. As before, two more faces on the Action Mount Rushmore loom out of the screen: the two paymasters, hard-faced Mr Church, played by Bruce Willis, and Trench, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger with that unreadable, crazy-eyed expression of scorn which seems to apply to whatever mood he’s in.
The guys make their initial appearance in a convoy of rusty old military vehicles, speeding aggressively towards some secure compound in Nepal, and coming in red-hot. What appalling activity is Sly so desperate to thwart? Has someone illegally stockpiled the world’s entire reserves of Grecian 2000 behind those walls? Is some horrible psycho holed up in there, about to push a button that will blow every Spanx factory on the globe sky-high?
Well, it turns out to be about some nefarious sub-plot, whose function is to bring Barney once again into testy contact with his old nemeses Trench and Church, and so discover a plan devised by an evil-doer antipathetic to the interests of the United States, to tunnel into a disused mine where an unlimited amount of ex-Soviet nuclear material is to be found. This evil-doer is played by Jean-Claude Van Damme, perhaps on the basis that only an action star hailing from within the borders of the European Union can be truly evil.
When the first movie came out, I suspected that action fans might find the relatively brief appearances by Arnie and Bruce a swiz. Well, there is a similar tease in this film, which at one crucial stage torments us with the possibility of the most glorious iconic cameo. The guys are in a tight spot and some weapon-toting stranger, offscreen, helps them out. Who can it be? Stallone puts Sergio Leone on the soundtrack. I, and plenty of other journalists in the audience, almost rose to our feet and looked at each other in wild surmise. Not … not Clint! You’re kidding! Clint? Clint! Clint? Is it Clint? Clint!
No. It’s not Clint. And Sly might be in big trouble with the Advertising Standards Authority (or something) for using that music. It’s a big name in action circles – a great name in many ways – but not Clint.
Anyway, as with all action movies we’re hoping for some great taglines, little insouciant bon mots that true action heroes casually drop after some piece of mayhem. Sly blows someone to smithereens and says: “Rest in pieces.” Ouch. Good one. At one stage, he chances upon a pack of wild dogs, fires his gun into the air to make them scatter and then says: “Take off, Rover.” Fido or Rex wouldn’t have worked nearly as well.
There’s some comedy in there, too, intentional – mostly. As a poignant study of the ageing process, it’s on a rough par with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. For The Expendables 3, they might want to consider enlisting Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and Judi Dench.
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