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.
Drive Angry directed by Patrick Lussier (My Bloody Valentine 3D) is an action thriller with a resolutely trashy grindhouse ethos. This weekend should you require an antidote to the Academy Awards’ hauteur pretentiousness and altogether unreasonable commitment to quality this lowbrow orgy of carnage nudity and roaring muscle cars will surely do the trick. Then again so will a few episodes of Jersey Shore. But that show unlike Drive Angry isn’t available in eye-bludgeoning 3D. Yet.
The film stars Nicolas Cage as John Milton a cigar-chomping Jack Daniels-swilling ex-con who has escaped from hell (literally) to save his granddaughter from being sacrificed by an apocalyptic cult. Fear not B-movie aficionados: The character’s name a winking nod to the author of Paradise Lost is about the only discernibly literary or philosophical element to be found in Drive Angry which otherwise keeps its aim squarely below the waist. Knowledge of Milton’s 17th-century epic poem or of literature in general is not required for the enjoyment of this film. In fact it might hinder it.
Some films inadvertently earn the “so-bad-it’s-good” label; Drive Angry aspires to it. The plot is spotty and nonsensical crafted mainly to connect the dots between bloody spurts of stylized mayhem. Milton drifts through various small southern towns populated entirely with louts and sluts leaving behind a trail of bodyparts as he rushes to confront the cult leader (Billy Burke) who abducted his granddaughter and who intends to offer her up to the Dark Lord at the next full moon.
Along the way he picks up a sidekick Piper (Amber Heard) a pugilistic potty-mouth in daisy dukes included in the film for the very express purpose of giving us something pretty to look at betwixt the gory shootouts and car chases – a considerate gesture on the part of the filmmakers truth be told. She is however only tangentially related to the plot. Which would be a problem if plot were a priority.
Drive Angry’s holy triumvirate of sex violence and muscle cars merges into one unified splatter-drenched whole during the film’s climax in which Milton launches his ’69 Dodge Charger into the center of an orgiastic cult gathering picking off with a shotgun the few revelers he can’t run over before finally following through on his pledge to drink a bottle of beer from the skull of his dead nemesis. This is actually one of the film's more endearing moments.
Cage for his part has a few moments of inspired batshitry my favorite being a scene in which he enjoys a bizarre sexually charged exchange with a randy waitress before pulling her in for a sloppy French kiss but for the most part his eccentricity is disappointingly muted. He’s more of a grim gunslinger out of the Sergio Leone mold in Drive Angry shooting much and saying little which doesn’t leave much room for those manic outbursts I’ve come to regard with such genuine affection.
Slyly stealing the show from Cage in Drive Angry is the man who pursues him The Accountant played by esteemed character actor William Fichtner. A sort of bounty hunter sent by the devil to bring Milton back to hell The Accountant moves with a kind of creepy grace his utter disregard for conventions of personal space throwing every character he encounters off-balance. Fichtner’s wry observations are the comedic highlight of a movie that tries hard to ape the dark offbeat humor of Tarantino's Death Proof but falls woefully short in the end.
Someone’s been killing off the criminals of New York City--the ones that the law can’t seem to put away via proper channels--and it’s up to veteran detectives Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino) to crack the case and bring the killer to justice by means fair or foul. As whodunits go this isn’t a terribly compelling or suspenseful one. There are red herrings and dropped clues galore but the script (by Russell Gewirtz of Inside Man fame) is both choppy and loopy--and not in good ways. The story is needlessly convoluted and despite a few tough-guy quotes from De Niro and Pacino this is a forgettable police potboiler. De Niro. Pacino. What more could anyone ask for? A decent script perhaps? There’s a palpable pleasure in seeing these two titans share the same frame but that sensation is quickly dissipated as the clunky storyline lurches toward its inevitable finale. Pacino appears to be having more fun than De Niro who’s almost sheepish in his role as a troubled New York detective. The supporting cast--and it’s a good one--fares little better although there’s more chemistry between John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg as sort of a younger version of the De Niro/Pacino duo. Carla Gugino smokin’ hot as always bats her eyelashes and struts her stuff as a police pathologist with a kinky streak. Brian Dennehy clocks in as the obligatory hard-boiled police lieutenant while Curtis Jackson (better known as 50 Cent) sleepwalks through the stock role of a club owner of dubious disposition. It just goes to show that a great cast can’t do it alone. Jon Avnet who guided Pacino through his paces in the equally clumsy 88 Minutes (for the same producers no less) is simply not up to the task of overcoming the script’s vast and many shortcomings. Even for the most devout devotees of the two superstars Righteous Kill is merely a matter of killing time … and not in a particularly righteous way.