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Feature


The team signs on for a mission that looks like an easy paycheck for Barney and his band of old-school mercenaries. But things go wrong fast and one of their own is killed by a psychotic terrorist for hire. Hell-bent on payback, they cut a swath of destruction through enemy territory and wreak havoc upon their opponents. In the midst of the mayhem, they must also shut down an unexpected threat in the nick of time – prevent five tons of weapons-grade plutonium from falling into the wrong hands. (From Lionsgate’s official synopsis)

Expendables 2, The
I admit that I was excited by the prospect of Sylvester Stallone getting ‘the gang’ together for a big action sweepstakes back when the original Expendables was announced. I didn’t have much faith in the ‘talents’ of folks like Randy Couture and Steve Austin, but a good, old-fashioned ‘tough guys on a mission’ movie with a full-bodied, call-back cast seemed like a win/win proposition. Then I saw the movie. Stallone and company managed to squelch almost every ounce of cool out of their concept by barely using the more exciting members of the cast for more than a few minutes, tempering the impact of their violence by hedging their bets on a PG-13 rating, and wasting hours of the audience’s time on the dull adventures of Stallone and Jason Statham – as if there hadn’t been a heavily advertised promise of further action movie royalty. Despite the mismanaged cast and only a handful of tepid action sequences, The Expendables has its fans. These fans that assure me up and down that I just ‘don’t understand’ this film and claim it’s the natural extension of the boorish, gory action films of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. I have no idea what the these people are talking about, because I’ve seen literally hundreds, maybe thousands of the A and B-action flicks of the ‘80s and ‘90s and outside of some familiar faces, I see very little I recognize as the specific product of a bygone era. The original Expendables (a bit of a misnomer, considering at least three other films share the title) was, in my plenty educated opinion, a nearly categorical failure. This was especially disappointing, because at the time of its release Stallone had just revisited his two most popular franchises and made both a successful retrospective character piece with Rocky Balboa and a successfully bombastic and hyper-gory retrospective action flick with Rambo.

But the idea of The Expendables lived beyond the crushing disappointment of the actual film, leaving even me to look forward to the possibility of a sequel – this time with even more has-been action heroes, including the biggest comeback king of the bunch – Jean-Claude Van Damme. Besides, Stallone himself still has some talent left in him as a director and I had faith that, given the right circumstance, he could make the concept work. Then he went and hired Simon freakin’ West to take over as the director of Expendables 2. If Simon West isn’t the worst working director of his specific Jerry Bruckheimerian generation, he’s certainly in the running. Everything old film critics complain about when they refer to ‘music video filmmaking’ is an integral part of West’s pastiche of empty, detached, and often downright ugly images. His most watchable films – Con Air, The General’s Daughter, and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – only work as well as their casts, while When a Stranger Calls and The Mechanic sit easily among the worst post-millennial remakes I’ve ever seen. Much to my surprise, West doesn’t completely botch this particular assignment, despite ripping off Saving Private Ryan at every available turn. He threatens to overcut the action into pieces too small to appreciate, but captures some nice, expensive scale without wasting the audience’s time with obtuse shaky-cam. The bulk of the action is also clearly captured in camera, which is a respectful ode to the films he’s apparently aping (I still don’t see anything particularly ‘80s-ish in these images). I can state this with certainty, because anytime digital effects are a part of the equation they are so terribly executed there’s no question of their artificiality. West’s hack colours show when he’s not shooting action, where he continues to overcut, coat most scenes in unexplainable smoke, and constantly messes up eye-lines (some of which can apparently be blamed on actors’ schedules not adding up).

Expendables 2, The
Expendables 2 does a much better job delivering on its promised giant cast, even if characters constantly disappear and reappear with little to no explanation. It also appears that the carryover cast members recognized their lack of charisma in the first film. The ensemble chemistry is a little more believable this time, too, though I still find defining character elements difficult to find, expect maybe Stallone (regretful), Statham (pussy-whipped), and Lundgren (the wacky born loser). This ‘upgrade’ is minimal, but enough for my basement-level expectations. Not surprisingly, it’s newcomer Jean-Claude Van Damme that sits ahead of everyone else to the point that it sometimes appears that he’s the only actor in on the joke. The storytelling requirements here are similar to the requirements made of Joss Whedon on The Avengers – both projects are about gathering the team, making them interact, and supplying them with action set-pieces. Stallone and co-writer Richard Wenk have very little required of them in terms of narrative and are also permitted huge holes in plot and logic. A little more originality or surprise would be welcome, but is, again, not a requirement. All the screenplay (which I’m sure was barely a suggested outline to begin with) really needs to do is keep things moving in a nominally logical matter. I could do without all the stupid soliloquies on war and violence, but words are mostly a side effect of the movement to further cameos and action. The comedy is closer to funny this time too, though the excess of self-referential, overly modest dialogue is both annoying and a bit insulting. This should really be expected, I suppose, since old men tend to repeat jokes until someone acknowledges them. Every disc should’ve come with a ‘we get it, Grandpa’ button that makes the ‘I’ll be back’ gags stop.

The action (you know, the other of the two requirements) is more potent this time around and closer to the wall-to-wall stuff we expected from the lacklustre original film. Considering the sheer quantity of martial arts experience in the cast it shouldn’t have been too difficult to hash out a little more decent hand-to-hand combat. Apparently, West and Stallone were willing to listen to the voices of experience surrounding them, which leads to some extended stand-out fisticuffs, especially Statham’s knife fight with the mini-boss and Stallone & Van Damme’s climatic burly brawl. There were horrible rumours that West and Stallone were hedging their bets on a PG-13 rating, which, as stated, was one of the biggest problems with the first film – it felt truncated and safe. Worse was the further rumour that the PG-13 was requested by old fogy Chuck Norris, who was supposedly offended by the script’s naughty language. The idea of a supposedly ‘no holds barred’ action extravaganza being held hostage by a 72-year-old who happened to be the least interesting member of the ensemble was kind of mortifying. Thankfully, the final film is plenty gory. Not Rambo gory, but plenty gory. I do notice an awful lot digital augmentation to the gore, which might lend credence to the original rumours.

Expendables 2, The

Video


There’s not a lot about The Expendables 2 that recalls the ‘80s, outside of the cast and basic concept, but Simon West and cinematographer Shelly Johnson do shoot on good, old-fashioned 35mm film. Well, 35mm film plus a whole lot of digital grading to alter the colour timing (more on that in a second). This 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer is a strong representation of the format through and through, featuring sharp contrast levels, rich colour quality, and plenty of fine grain for added texture. Some viewers might find this image too grainy and object to the way the grain tends to snow-up some of the blacks, but, aside from some weird telecine-looking effects on some of the harsher edges, I mostly like the ‘shorthand to gritty’ look, even at the risk of some fine detail. The high contrast levels help keep details crisp despite the pervasive grain and darkness, but there is definitely an overall inconsistency to textures (this may be the result of West and Johnson mixing different takes without any regard for continuity). Extreme close-ups and expansive wide-shots fare the best, especially those rare occasions when everything isn’t overwhelmed by fog and smoke. The basic colour palette is divided into more or less two categories –  Jan u s z   Kaminski’s trademarked desaturated look and, unfortunately, orange and bloody teal. The desaturated and cooled daylight sequences tend to feature something in the way of natural skin tones, but the majority of the darker sequence’s hues fall into that O&T uncanny valley, specifically any sequence shot on the airplane set. In keeping with most O&T-heavy movies, the most common highlight colours are rich reds and deep blues. These are generally solid and consistent without bleeding or blooming issues. I’d just prefer a bit more variety. There’s a bit of edge enhancement here and there, but no major blocking effects in the grain.

Expendables 2, The

Audio


The Expendables 2 comes fitted with a 11.1 channel DTS Neo:X optimized, DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack. It’s kind of ironic that a movie so steeped in antiquity would feature an industry first sound format on its initial Blu-ray release. You’d think something more ‘new-school,’ like The Avengers, would break this particular ground, but there you go. Note that I personally don’t even have a 7.1 set up in my rather compact apartment, so I’m not really getting the benefit of the extra channels for this review. I’m pretty sure no one is getting the benefit just yet, actually, and, as I understand, the extra four channels aren’t discreet, either. Regardless, this bombastic mix sounds just fine in old-fashioned 5.1. The film’s opening action sequence alone is enough to fulfill the duties of this newfangled technology. This sequence features about a dozen different calibres of firearms, each with their own specific sonic firing and impact tones, about a dozen different notarized vehicles (most of which eventually slam into each other), more large-scale explosions than most movies feature over a two-hour runtime, and even some clanging pots and pans via Jet Li’s brief hand to hand kitchen massacre. Besides some really bad ADR work, dialogue remains clear and relatively natural, at least as natural as any dialogue spoken by these actors can be (though the volume levels tend to be a bit inconsistent depending on the surrounding noise). Brian Tyler continues moving up the ranks as Lionsgate’s go-to composer for hire with this boisterous and nostalgic score. The music is a little too wrapped-up in recalling other scores (I hear quite a bit of Alan Silvestri here, myself, though that might just be the additional use of oldies, ala Predator) to stand alone, but features plenty of modern percussive and electronic elements that don’t sound hackneyed, which was definitely an issue for his music when he was first getting started. The music pumps pretty consistently throughout the film without overwhelming key effects, but I’m most impressed by its tendency to slide into the surround channels for little instrumental highlights.

Expendables 2, The

Extras


Extras begin with an audio commentary featuring Simon West solo. In a perfect world, West would be surrounded by the cast, but, even in an imperfect world, one would hope Stallone would’ve joined or replaced him. Stallone’s commentaries tend to have downtime, but are rarely boring. West is fine, though. He tends to focus on production design, crediting his crew, and the technical aspects of shooting the film’s action scenes, which was apparently his main duty as director. He accepts a lot of credit for the gags in the more complex set-pieces, leading me to think I may have been too harsh on my assessment of his work in the Feature section of this review. There are plenty of interesting little factoids peppered throughout the track that are not available elsewhere on the extras, many pertaining to the logistics of making it appear that these actors were sharing the screen when they were not (apparently, the production was moved to Jet Li for his scenes, not the other way around). At worst, West narrates the on-screen action, but he does tend to do it in an amusingly dismissive fashion. My only real complaint is that West really doesn’t discuss Stallone’s role on set, because the other extras seem to verify he worked as a secondary director for the non-action scenes. I don’t necessarily suspect West is stealing credit, I was just curious.

Next up is Gods of War: Assembling Earth’s Mightiest Anti-Heroes (21:20, HD), a behind the scenes featurette covering the writing process, improving on the first film’s tone, recasting/gathering further cast members, why Stallone didn’t officially direct this time around, and putting together the final fight sequence. It includes interviews with Stallone, West, producers Avi Lerner, Les Weldon and Kevin King-Templeton, and cast members Lundgren, Van Damme, Randy Couture, and Terry Crews. Big Guns, Bigger Heroes: The 1980s and the Rise of the Action Film (25:00, HD) covers the social aspects of that very specific brand of action-hero-headed movie that came out of the Reagan era, including interviews with writer/critics John Meroney, Leo Braudy, Susan Jeffords, Chris Carle, First Blood director Ted Kotcheff, Stallone, 48 Hours and Die Hard writer Steven E. De Souza, Commando writer Jeph Loeb, and Ron Reagan (son of the former President). This featurette is a little too short to really cover all the bases and filtered through too rosy of Reagan-loving glasses for my taste, but is a solid primer on the subject. On the Assault: The Real Life Weaponry of Expendables 2 (13:40, HD) covers guns and gun safety, hosted by Randy Couture and the owner of ‘The Gun Store’ in Las Vegas, Tony Dee. Guns For Hire: The Real Expendables (24:20, HD) briefly covers the ins and outs of real-life mercenaries, including interviews with Trojan Securities International CEO Stephen Mastalerz, Ronin Worldwide Executive Protection owner/operator Wayne S. Cole, Ag Advisors president and CEO Greg Suhajda, and various professional mercs. Not surprisingly, this thinly-veiled recruitment video doesn’t make mention of the slippery moral slopes traversed by the industry.

The extras are completed with five deleted/extended scenes (4:40, HD), a gag reel (5:10, HD), trailers for other Lionsgate releases, and Expendables-themed DTS-HD system tests.

Expendables 2, The

Overall


The future looks bright for the stars of The Expendables 2. Stallone is joining Jason Momoa for Walter Hill’s first R-rated action film in over a decade, Bullet in the Head. Jason Statham is going to reboot Donald E. Westlake’s ‘Flashfire’ again (following Point Blank and Payback) under the title Parker. Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme have an apparently fantastic Universal Soldier sequel on its way to theaters entitled Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. Arnold Schwarzenegger teamed with one of Korea’s most exciting filmmakers, Kim Ji-woon, for The Last Stand. Bruce Willis continues to impress with his acting choices, more than making up for his lacklustre part here by appearing in two of 2012’s best – Moonrise Kingdom and Looper. We’ll just hope Jet Li has something better than The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate up his sleeve in the future, and, with any luck, Chuck Norris, the absolute most unappealing action hero of all time, will just disappear into the obscure place he belongs. Until then, the fans of this particular mediocrity, which is certainly better than the first Expendables, should be plenty satisfied with this solid Blu-ray release.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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