Watching them is a guilty pleasure, but it’s mostly guilt.
Have you ever spent two hours wondering why you’re staring at an overstuffed sausage? Watching Stallone in The Expendables 2 feels a little bit like that, especially when they give you closeups of his veiny, muscular arms. Or maybe the experience is more like watching a slightly stiff bulldog trying to be more athletic than its bulky frame will allow. It charges about at decent speed, its jowls swinging back and forth determinedly as it tries its best to be fierce and intimidating… yet from the safe distance of my screen, it looks more funny than frightening.
That failed delivery might be the real take away message here. I never watched the first movie, so I don’t know whether this is true for both of them, but The Expendables 2 feels like someone has distilled the essence of the overblown action movie and made an occasionally palatable bounce liquor* instead of something really worth drinking. There were moments when its ridiculousness so exceeded my expectations that I couldn’t help but marvel at it, but for the most part it wasn’t as good as the vintage it was attempting to refine. I say ‘for the most part’ because there are some truly terrible action movies out there, and I don’t want to go to the effort of deciding how this compares. I’m pretty sure it’s better than some of them, if only because The Expendables 2 clearly had more budget for stuntmen and action scenes.
Speaking of “more”…
I also say ‘for the most part’ because there were some action scene set-pieces that were pretty cool, and some of the wacky shenanigans that they pulled off were entertaining. But 6 Fast 6 Furious (wrong name, I know, I reviewed it here) did a better job of capturing my attention and exciting me without leaving me wondering why the hell I’d just watched the movie. With The Expendables 2 I had to consciously decide to keep watching a little while before the 20 minute mark, something that just shouldn’t happen with a good action flick. If I hadn’t decided that I’d be reviewing it, I probably would have turned it off then and there.
I could say that I was disinterested because of the piteous attempt at a moving storyline which totally failed to elicit any emotion from me, but the truth is that I wasn’t even that interested in the spectacle of the first action scene. To be perfectly honest, it lost me before it even had a chance to amuse me: you immediately know who the bad guys are because they’re not white, because people in their town are carrying off screaming women without them doing anything, and because they walk into a dim room and hit a hooded prisoner on the head a few times. Maybe that exact scene could be recreated in such a way that I was actually interested in the movie, but … I doubt it.
I’m miffed. The Expendables 2 was quite obviously more self-aware than many older action movies, but what it did with that awareness is questionable at best. Rather than using its self-awareness to skillfully navigate the genre and give us a tantalizing fusion of the expected and the new (or even just do something old well), it feels more like it (to continue my alcohol analogy) mixed its awareness in as a small amount of “natural flavors” to mask the coarse grain spirits that made up most of the movie. I chuckled and groaned at the silly, quippy, meta-humor of the movie’s one-liners, but the movie’s jokes barely moved beyond referencing old action stars’ old movies. And they did little to leaven the otherwise bland and easily anticipated plot and action scenes. It’s not so much that they did a poor job of shooting lots of people as that they did a poor job of making that in any way interesting. And when an action movie fails to make shooting people interesting, I’m just left with the feeling that I shouldn’t be watching people commit murder for my entertainment.
So, despite being so seemingly genre savvy and self-aware, the movie never really moved beyond trying to do what hundreds if not thousands of other action movies had done before it. It stuck rigidly to the expected tropes, with so little in the way of innovation around the edges that I almost wonder whether it was supposed to be parodying itself. And even if it was a self parody, I’m not sure that it succeeded. If it was trying to poke fun at the action movie genre, it definitely fell afoul of Poe’s Law for me. There was no point at which I could look at any given piece of it and say “ah, yes, this is all just a big ‘ha ha,'” because even the self-referential overly aware joke lines about previous action roles were delivered without affect, in situations in which they could just as easily be a heartfelt homage. If you’re going to parody something as problematic (and guiltily enjoyable) as the action genre, I’d really like to be able to tell that you’re parodying it instead of epitomizing it.
My conclusion? If I have to pick entertainment full of referential humor that requires a great deal of action movie pop culture knowledge to appreciate, I’d rather play BROFORCE. Maybe my experience would be altered by loudly heckling or yelling at the movie with booze and a group of friends. That’s certainly worked well enough for other movies before. But I was thrown for a bit of a loop by this one. It almost parodies action movies, but instead falls a bit short and offers a stripped-down pepped-up version of what all those old action movies tried to give us, without ever really hitting on the ineffable something that made them fun to watch in the first place.
*you know, the crappy stuff that comes in plastic bottles and tastes like regret