Let's be honest: once you got past the vicarious thrill of seeing all of the major action icons from your '80s and early '90s childhood sharing the screen, The Expendables was a lousy movie. A passion project for writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone -- who threw his body, soul and bank account into the film, even severely injuring himself in the line of duty (check out the pretty good feature-length making-of documentary Inferno, available on Netflix Instant, for the full story) -- the finished film turned out to be monotonous, poorly choreographed and self-serious to the point of parody. Still, the tug of nostalgia proved too strong for most moviegoers and The Expendables became a legitimate late-summer hit, making a sequel inevitable if not exactly demanded. So here comes The Expendables 2, which, if you're judging a movie by its plot, characterizations and internal logic (you know, the little things), is also pretty lousy. Unlike its predecessor though, this one recognizes its inherent stupidity and goes all-in on being the loudest, dumbest and most comically preposterous action movie of the summer. It's even more of a cartoon than that mid-'80s Rambo animated series... and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
So how to account to the dramatic shift in tone between installments? I'm going to credit incoming director Simon West, who took over the Stallone's chair when the-now sextegenerean former director understandably decided he wanted to spend more of his golden years as a senior citizen action hero just showing up and hitting his marks instead of telling everyone else what to do. An action hack of the highest order, West has helmed a lot of crap during his career (The General's Daughter, Tomb Raider and the pilot for The Cape are just a few of his not-so-illustrious credits), but he did also direct one of the most enjoyably dumb blockbusters of the past two decades, 1997's Con Air, which celebrates its crystal anniversary this year. Watching that movie again recently, it's clear that West set out to remake The Expendables franchise in Con Air's image. So how does The Expendables 2 stack up against its spiritual cousin? I pit them against each other in a few key areas.
Con Air: Although The Rock was Nicolas Cage's first post-Leaving Las Vegas foray into action territory, Con Air marks the beginning of the Nic Cage we know and love today, the guy who is incapable of giving a straight line reading and seems to view every scene as an opportunity to make the viewer go "What the hell?" As wrongly imprisoned ex-soldier Cameron Poe -- who winds up on a prison transport plane that's seized by the inmates while trying to get home to his wife and daughter -- Cage sports a lustrous mane of hair and a breathy Southern accent that sounds like no other Southern accent known to man. It's a wholly ridiculous role and Cage, to his credit, doesn't try to bring Poe down to Earth. That's one of the reasons you can't stop watching Con Air -- you're never sure what the star is going to do or say next.
The Expendables 2: Unlike Cage, Stallone has never been one for indulging in blatant self-parody. Even in his silliest action movies (think Cobra, Tango & Cash and Rambo III) he's incapable of winking at himself for very long, which also explains why he's generally a wash-out whenever he tries his hand at comedy. His stone-faced star turn sucked a lot of the potential fun out of the previous Expendables, so here West wisely uses him as the straight man whose main job is to play off a rogue's gallery of action stars more adept at the wink-wink-nudge-nudge school of heroics the film traffics in. The result is a relaxed and appealing lead performance from Sly, although he's still no match for the beast that is Nic Cage. No wonder the filmmakers are already campaigning to get the Cage-ster in the third movie.
Winner: Con Air
Con Air: Con Air's supporting cast is an oh-so-'90s motley crew of slumming celebrities (John Cusack, Ving Rhames), character actors scoring big paydays (Steve Buscemi, Colm Meaney), up-and-coming players (Dave Chappelle, Danny Trejo) and previous action movie staples on their way out (Rachel Ticotin). It's like watching a feature length version of one of those I Love the '90s specials, complete with Trisha Yearwood wailing the lite rock radio staple "How Do I Live" over the closing credits.
The Expendables 2: The key appeal of this franchise has always been its Avengers-style grouping of action icons from the '70s, '80s, '90s and today. To that end, returning alongside Stallone for another go-around are Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren (who is positively Cage-ian in the odd way he chooses to play certain scenes), Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Jet Li (although his role is basically a glorified cameo as he disappears after the opening set-piece) and, finally, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis in beefed-up parts. To that already formidable line-up, West adds old-timer Chuck Norris and young bloods Liam Hemsworth and Chinese star Yu Nan. For the way this cast spans the contemporary history of action movies -- not just a single decade -- the victory must go to...
Winner: The Expendables 2
Con Air: Nic Cage isn't the only actor who allowed himself to go a little crazy in the '90s. After establishing himself as a serious stage and screen thespian during the previous decade, John Malkovich proceeded to indulge himself by playing a string of over-the-top bad guys, starting with his Oscar-nominated turn in In the Line of Fire. As great as he is in that movie, though, Con Air's Cyrus the Virus is the ne plus ultra of Malkovich villains. From the moment he enters the frame, he's chewing the scenery to bloody pulp and his rip-roaring, no-holds-barred performance is a nice counter to Cage's more tempered form of insanity. And then there's his endless string of memorable lines, from "The next wings you see will be the flies buzzing around your corpse" to "Make a move and the bunny gets it," spoken as he's holding a gun up to a stuffed toy rabbit. Now that's being John Malkovich.
The Expendables 2: Although Stallone's attempts to book Jean-Claude Van Damme in the first Expendables fell through, the Muscles from Brussels decided it would behoove his career to appear in a lucrative franchise and thus agreed to play villain who puts the Expendables through their paces. It's a fun bit of casting that allows JCVD to let his natural sleaziness shine through and also gives Stallone an formidable fighter to square off against in the climax, something that was missing the last time around. But even though it's impressive to see that Van Damme can still pull off that flying roundhouse kick he was famous for back in the day, our money would be on Malkovich to take him down.
Winner: Con Air
Con Air: Since the bulk of the movie is confined to the airplane, the larger spectacle doesn't really kick in until the last half-hour, when the cons light up an abandoned airfield like the Fourth of July and then crash-land on (and subsequently chase through) the Las Vegas Strip. These sequences are enjoyable in the way the violate the laws of space, time and physics, but for true Bruckheimer bombast, the movie doesn't top Top Gun, The Rock and Bad Boys II.
The Expendables 2: Where Con Air is fairly bloodless all things considered, here West takes his cue from Stallone's fourth Rambo adventure. So when people get shot, they don't just fall over -- they explode in a cloud of the sticky red stuff. The close quarters combat can get pretty brutal as well, with each kick and punch landing with an awesome (and sickening) thud. There's nothing especially remarkable about the set-pieces themselves, most of which take place in generic warehouses, but the exaggerated pain that the characters dish out entertains and satiates the audience's bloodlust.
Winner: The Expendables 2
Con Air: I know, I know... the what now? Con Air's plot is little more than a two-line premise, which, honestly is just fine as the script does assign each character very clear motivations that effectively substitute for story. To wit: Cage just wants to get home to his wife and child; Malkovich just wants to fly to freedom in South America; Mykelti Williamson just wants to get his insulin shot; etc. etc. It's the way these motivations clash that propels the film forward. Nothing kills the entertainment value of a completely illogical action movie faster than an attempt at a logical master plot.
The Expendables 2: Believe it or not, Expendables 2 has even less story than Con Air. While on a mission to recover a random MacGuffin, one of Stallone's crew is murdered by Van Damme and he and the Expendables spend the rest of the movie chasing after him to get revenge. And that's pretty much it! I'm not sure that the movie would benefit from additional storylines, but there are large dead spots in between the action sequences that reminded me once again that the ideal Expendables picture would be a five-minute trailer that only consists of action and the random wisecrack. There's just not enough meat to this franchise to justify two feature-length movies.
Winner: Con Air
Con Air: Apart from Cage seeming inordinately more concerned with getting good buddy Williamson his insulin than with returning home to his wife and child, there's not a lot of good ol' fashioned HoYay! in Con Air. If anything, the movie is completely asexual, although the characters do have significant hard-ons for causing mayhem.
The Expendables 2: Just like almost '80s action movie can be analyzed as a gay love story in disguise, so too do the Expendables seem more like life partners than mere pals. The movie even goes so far as to pair them off -- Lundgren has an obvious affection for Li and misses him when he vanishes; Couture and Crews are always teasing each other in flirty ways; and, despite having a girlfriend back at home (Charisma Carpenter, stopping by for a one-scene cameo), Statham seems super-jealous at the sight of Stallone buddying up with young recruit Hemsworth. And when the comely Nan joins the group, look out; Stallone is positively horrified by her presence, to the point where she flat-out asks why she makes him so nervous. But the greatest love of all has to be between Stallone and Van Damme, who precede their final battle by trading taunts about what they're going to do to each other, all the while shedding weapons and layers of clothing until they're (almost) naked and ready for action. Get a room, you guys.
Winner: The Expendables 2
The Late Night Cable Rewatchability Factor
Con Air: Fifteen years on and Con Air is still compulsively watchable -- the finest action movie cheese that West has ever spread onscreen. No matter the time of day, no matter your state of mind (though lightly buzzed always helps), you'll stick around until the credits roll.
The Expendables 2: Obviously, time will tell about the movie's longevity, but right now one viewing seems like enough for The Expendables 2. While West taps into some of Con Air's zany spirit, the absence of a power duo like Cage & Malkovich and the languid pacing keeps holding it back. Now that you've cracked the code for this series, Simon, better luck on Expendables 3.
Winner: Con Air
Final Score: Con Air: 4/The Expendables 2: 3. This new Expendables easily tops the first, but it still doesn't soar to the ridiculously dumb heights achieved by Con Air.
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