The first Expendables movie benefitted enormously from nostalgia, not just for the cast of action icons like Sylvester Stallone, but for a time when action meant crude Golan-Globus productions with practical effects, big explosions, and ’roided-out machine-gunners getting their testicles electrocuted in the jungles of Southeast Asia. But The Expendables 2 makes a franchise out of a novelty item, and the nostalgic kick is gone: It’s a reminder that most of those ’80s actioners were xenophobic and dumb, that many of its stars had more muscle mass than charisma, and that the sight of these old fossils referring to themselves as old fossils is more pathetic than cheekily self-referential. There’s nothing wrong with the no-frills, two-fisted ’80s action aesthetic—which is still a relief from contemporary abuse of CGI—but merely reheating it with a wink isn’t enough anymore.
The needlessly murky plot finds Stallone and his band of mercenaries—Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, and newcomers Liam Hemsworth and Yu Nan—dispatched by CIA agent Bruce Willis on a mission to retrieve a MacGuffin. When bad guy Jean-Claude Van Damme (playing a character named “Vilain”) foils their plans and kills one of Stallone’s men, the gang goes back for revenge and justice. This involves infiltrating some terrible operation where Van Damme and his thugs are enslaving locals and forcing them to dig for plutonium in an Eastern European hellpit. Such things make Stallone stare off to some vague point in the horizon and mumble something righteous before corralling his crew into slaughtering henchmen indiscriminately.
The 72-year-old Chuck Norris makes a ceremonial appearance as a “lone wolf” who leaves many bodies in his wake without seeming capable of raising his arms above his head. (Though killing without having to move does suit the Chuck Norris Facts meme.) He’s the symbol for much of what’s wrong with The Expendables 2: Trotting out old stars spouting old catchphrases against a generic action backdrop isn’t exactly giving the genre a shot in the arm. The Expendables was a fine enough curtain call for Stallone and friends, a chance to relive past glories and rebel against the status quo. But if he wants to be a star again, he’ll need to do more than keep taking a bow.