Film Review: The Expendables 2

Mercenaries fight over a cache of plutonium in a sturdy if lowbrow sequel to the 2010 surprise hit.

Less ambitious than its predecessor, The Expendables 2 still shows Sylvester Stallone's uncanny grasp of the marketplace. The sequel adds a woman to the mix of underemployed action heroes, but otherwise it's business as usual, with smartly staged mayhem compensating for dull repartee and threadbare plotting.

The opening finds the old gang attacking a warlord's stronghold in Nepal. Barney (Stallone), Lee (Jason Statham), Yin Yang (Jet Li), Gunner (Dolph Lundgren), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) and Toll Road (Randy Couture) work separately and together to dismantle the bad guys' defenses, rescue a kidnapped Chinese banker, and escape via zip line through the nearby jungle. They also pick up rival mercenary Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger, a walk-on in the previous film but a bigger presence here).

A key figure in the escape is Billy (Liam Hemsworth), a sniper who seals his fate by telling Barney that after one more gig he's quitting the group to be with his nurse girlfriend in Paris. CIA operative Church (Bruce Willis) orders the gang to retrieve coded material from a downed plane in Albania. Church also insists that Maggie (Yu Nan) accompany them.
An evil mercenary cunningly named Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) not only beats them to the code, but kills Billy in the process. That's when Maggie reveals that the code is a map to five tons of enriched plutonium hidden in a mine, which Vilain intends to sell to the highest terrorist bidder.

Barney and his survivors regroup, assemble an arsenal, and brawl their way to the heavily guarded mine, meeting the mysterious Booker (Chuck Norris) along the way. Then it's on to a commercial airport for one more blowout, this one featuring Schwarzenegger and Willis trading quips while mowing down bad guys, and a one-on-one fight between Stallone and Van Damme that fans would have killed to see 30 years ago.

Most of today's moviegoers weren't around then, but Stallone's genius for these films, as well as his Rambo and Rocky reboots, was to realize that a contemporary audience exists for mindless, state-of-the art nonsense. Those baby-boomers reliving their guilty pleasures are just icing on the box-office cake.

By peopling his story with so many characters, Stallone (who co-wrote the screenplay with Richard Wenk) can limit any one star's exposure, including his own. Ten minutes of Chuck Norris mocking his old screen persona is a lot more fun than actually sitting through an entire Norris vehicle. And Jet Li executing one flawless martial-arts sequence (which is all he gets here) tops his last few Hollywood vehicles.

The film's tongue-in-cheek tone helps deflect attention away from some dicey plot elements, like appropriating Holocaust imagery during the mine sequence. But who expects nuance in a Stallone outing? The Expendables 2 delivers what it promises: solid action from battered but still likeable tough guys a little past their prime.