The critic/academic James Kendrick cites the advent of the 'Pure Action Film' as a sea change in the way that screen violence was depicted in the 1980s. The hallmarks of the 'Pure Action Film' generally were the usage of of bloody yet cartoonish violence, humour and levity, invincible superhuman heroes and vaguely designed, generic villains, to achieve a form of screen violence that audiences could take as escapism.
The first film in the Expendables franchise was a celebration of this aesthetic, made by one of its creative pioneers, Sylvester Stallone. Stallone, after all, was the one who turned a disillusioned Vietnam veteran created by David Morrell (John Rambo) and an underdog prizefighter (Rocky Balboa) into two symbols of Reagan-era triumphalism. The plot of that instalment, which was basically all about recreating the invasion of Grenada, was straight out of the 1980s zeitgeist as well.
The franchise returns in a sequel celebrating the aesthetic of 'Pure Action' in this instalment, bringing in two other action veterans Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme to spice up the mix, and barely makes any pretensions to be anything else. After a hilariously over-the-top raid on a warlord's compound in Nepal to rescue global mercenary Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and a Chinese businessman, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and his international group of mercenaries, who have now added newcomer Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth) to their ranks, find themselves under the surveillance of Mr Church (Bruce Willis), who wants them to find out who it was that downed a plane from the Chinese government and is apparently after a safe on board. Joining them on behalf of the Chinese government is Maggie Zhang (Yu Nan), a master codebreaker not without her own combat talents. The trail leads them to the all-too-broadly named Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and his private army known as the Sangs, where they also soon encounter 'Lone Wolf' Booker (Chuck Norris).
That's all you really need to know. The rest of the movie consists of all these veterans of 1980s action movies strutting their stuff, celebrating and parodying their own image at the same time and acknowledging their transformation into museum pieces as time mercilessly kicks their asses. You get to see Van Damme do his trademark roundhouse kick, Schwarzenegger use his 'I'll be back' line multiple times, Lundgren joking about his real-life MIT science degree, and Chuck Norris making Chuck Norris jokes about his own invincibility.
The major setpiece here draws its cue from World War II films and classic Westerns, with the heroes saving an Albanian village solely defended by its women when its men have all been kidnapped by Vilain for slave labour in a nearby mine. The film's most surprising revelation is Van Damme, who is at this point a better actor than he has ever been throughout his career, playing Vilain with just the right mix of psychopathic glee and playful sadism. Yu Nan, though is the film's weakest link and shows why forced attempts to add a 'token female' to this ensemble should be avoided. She seems like an afterthought with the likes of Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi all trying to leave their action movie roots behind. Journeyman director Simon West rebounds from his ill-fated remake of the moody Bronson thriller The Mechanic to focus on what he does best: cacophonous, kinetic action.
So the celebration of the 'Pure Action Film' continues. If a few tough guys barging around the world like bulls in a China shop is what you wanna see, this film delivers it.