It's rare that a sequel trumps the original but The Expendables 2 manages to do just that with a steady stream of one-liners and welcome weathered faces as well as a few new ingredients. E2 seems even more self-aware of its own silliness especially with Jean-Claude Van Damme as the villain (named Vilain of course) and Chuck Norris and Arnold Schwarzenegger popping up in smaller roles alongside previous Expendables Sylvester Stallone Jason Statham Jet Li Dolph Lundgren Bruce Willis Terry Crews and Randy Couture.
Then again The Expendables wasn't any sort of action classic; it was like writer/director/star Stallone threw a whole bunch of ideas at the wall to see which would stick then added massive amounts of weapons and the occasional hand-to-hand combat. It was popular but it definitely not the kind of awesome actioner that the stars were able to make 10 or 20 years ago. There's the rub actually; like women actors who have written or directed their own projects because nothing else was available or satisfactory Stallone created The Expendables because Hollywood didn't seem to know what to do with him and his fellow action stars as they got older. It's easy to criticize Stallone et al for not doing the same amount of stunt work or hand-to-hand fighting that for example Statham is capable of but the whole thrust of the movie is that they're expendable -- to themselves to the world and until Stallone kickstarted these movies to Hollywood.
E2 is still clumsy but it's a little more adventurous and a little more introspective. Two new additions to the crew seem to throw everyone for a loop in one way or another. Liam Hemsworth shows up as Bill the Kid a sniper who left the military after a raid in Afghanistan went horribly wrong; his age and hopefulness not to mention physical prowess is a foil the Sylvester Stallone's Barney Ross and one that Barney is well aware of. Nan Yu joins the team as Maggie who is apparently the only person who can disarm the safe that holds whatever secret thing Church (Willis) has sent them to retrieve. And if the Expendables don't get her back alive Church will make them pay because even though Maggie is some sort of multilingual computer genius with a vicious roundhouse she's a lady. On one hand perhaps we're supposed to gather that this group of old dogs is learning new tricks by having to deal with a smart capable woman in their midst; the attempts Gunner (Lundgren) makes to flirt with her are clunky and goofy and she's obviously way too smart for fall for that claptrap. On the other when she whips out some instruments of torture Barney cracks "What are you going to do give them a pedicure?" And of course her role also devolves into an incredibly stilted and unbelievable romantic interest for Barney. One point for trying but two points deducted for falling into the romantic interest trap.
At times it's hard to tell whether or not we're laughing with the crew or at them. Plus because of how jam-packed the cast is some actors get the short end of the stick. Statham is the most charismatic of the bunch and he also has the most impressive hand-to-hand fight scenes but the emphasis in E2 is sheer firepower so he doesn't get nearly enough screen time. Couture is fairly forgettable while Lundgren plays the lunkiest of lunkheads; the running joke is that he has a chemical engineering degree from MIT and was a Fulbright Scholar which is supposed to be funny... except it's also true. (We're to assume he's mended his evil ways between the first Expendables and the second.) Is Lundgren agreeably poking fun at himself the same way Schwarzenegger hams it up at every turn? Or does E2 have shades of JCVD which stars Van Damme was a washed-up action star? Are the emotional moments supposed to fall so hilariously flat on purpose? For some reason it seems important to tease out which parts of these movies are earnest and which are tongue-in-cheek.
There's a weird melancholy about watching this group of aging action stars that has the same tang as watching someone you love grow older especially as they try so very hard to fight the ravages of time. If you dig a little deeper maybe deeper than E2 warrants you could find a well of sadness below the back-slapping antics. The world has changed and even though Stallone and his crew have muscles so hard and juicy they could pop out of their skin like grapes they can't compete with Bill the Kid and Maggie and others like them. They know it and we know it and while it's good fun to see old friends or onscreen enemies kill scores of bad guys (led by JCVD sporting a truly horrible fake Baphomet-style neck tattoo) there are better smarter more exciting and more interesting action films on the horizon.
And there's also The Expendables 3.
Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek) is a mischievous and sexually liberated student and aspiring painter in Mexico City when she first spies the much older prominent muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) cavorting with one of his models. Frida lives with her loving parents--Mexican mother German-Jewish father--and is intimately involved with her boyfriend. Tragedy strikes when Frida is gravely injured in a trolley crash and she never fully recovers. When her boyfriend takes off for Europe Kahlo focuses more on her paintings and boldly approaches Rivera for an honest appraisal of her work. Rivera well known for his marital infidelity and womanizing immediately recognizes Kahlo's talent and takes her under his wing as a protégée rather than a lover. An ardent Communist with a zest for socializing he introduces her to his artsy and progressive circles where Kahlo easily fits in. The pair soon become lovers and believing they have a special understanding of each other decide to marry. The union is immediately threatened when Kahlo learns that the hotheaded Lupe (Valeria Golino) one of Rivera's ex-wives occupies the apartment above theirs. After Rivera is awarded several commissions in the U.S. he and Kahlo begin their tour in New York and enjoy life as minor celebrities. Kahlo exercises her promiscuity by carrying on with one of Rivera's lovers and Rivera exercises his political intransigence with a fateful confrontation with Nelson Rockefeller (Edward Norton) who hired the artist to paint a mural in the Rockefeller Center lobby. The dust-up causes the loss of another commission and the couple returns to Mexico where they become hosts to fugitive Communist Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush) and his wife. Kahlo has an affair with the legendary figure but when it threatens his marriage they move away and Trotsky is assassinated soon after. Rivera and Kahlo divorce but remarry when Rivera returns to his partner who is now impoverished and desperately ill.
The acting here is outstanding. Salma Hayek as the wild and quietly creative Kahlo is in practically every frame and dazzles in a variety of moods and situations. Alfred Molina in the more subtle role of Rivera is every bit as marvelous managing to charm and delight as a character who is essentially dissolute yet warm and lovable. Valeria Golino is another standout in the lesser role of the fiery Lupe. Geoffrey Rush makes a credible Trotsky and Ashley Judd pleases as a jovial Mexican party girl with a taste for mischief. Antonio Banderas does a neat cameo as a heated Communist and Edward Norton plays a very decent Rockefeller not shy about saying who pays the bills. Brits Roger Rees convincing as Kahlo's loving father and Saffron Burrows as Kahlo's loving diversion add heft to their supporting roles.
Julie Taymor best known for some very showy previous works like Broadway's The Lion King her feature debut Titus and a number of critically acclaimed operas proves again with Frida that she's an incomparable visual stylist. Taymor engages the eyes with a dazzling palette of Mexican colors and iconography and episodes of magical realism and mixed media invention that convey the intoxicating world of her subjects and the dramatic signature events of their lives. But Taymor (who also delivers a seductive majestic soundtrack) never loses sight of the fact that it is her beguiling characters who matter most.