For quite some time now the ambiguous influence of that pernicious force known as postmodernism has been sending popular culture – and with it the previously established ‘normal’ way of regarding and interacting with the world – spiralling down the rabbit hole. As the ‘postmodern’ continues its evolution from purely theoretical ‘ism’ to something more palpably woven into the fabric of daily life, what might once have been considered surreal impossibilities start to be routinely enacted. Only recently, we watched slack jawed as the actual Queen appeared as the Queen alongside the fictional character of James Bond in a video sequence for Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony.
Almost everything in our contemporary existence seems to aspire towards self-reference, ironic nods or a head-fuck. Is this simply a more playful way of interacting with life, or a dangerous disconnection with what makes it real? What’s certain is this: shit is getting weird and we’re all in it together. My greatest fear is that this self-reflexivity will keep pushing things closer, diminishing space – that the world will just become smaller and smaller until it finally disappears with some kind of comedy ‘pop’ sound right up it’s own painfully distended anus.
And so now, in 2012, we come to this: the second instalment of a potentially never-ending Expendables franchise – a film so ludicrous in conception and follow-through it almost makes perfect sense. But doesn’t. At all.
“That was it”, I will tell my kids. “2012. Year of the Mayan Prophesies. I was there.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the event that was, in later years when humanity has pieced itself together from the ashes, recognised as the key to triggering the apocalypse.
“I was there,” I’ll say, “when Arnold Schwarzenegger (wearing an expression one can only describe as mildly beatific, like a glowing child possessed with the will to clarity as they prepare to pour salt on a slug), fired a Gatling gun out of the side of a Smart car being driven by Bruce Willis. I was there”, I will say, “when Chuck Norris cracked a Chuck Norris joke onscreen and everything came apart at the seams.”
However, I’ll get it out of the way right now: I thoroughly enjoyed this film.
This project could, and probably should, have had a massive whiff of cynicism about it – a cash-in by ageing action stars on the ‘meta’ fad. But everyone seems to be having so much fun with it that it draws you in almost despite yourself. Whereas the first in the series suffered from something of an identity crisis, unsure of quite how far into farce it wanted to descend, The Expendables 2 has no such qualms. They’ve taken what worked in the first, got a new director and writers on board and basically remade Expendables 1 but sillier and better.
The result is magnificently deranged. In some senses it actually resembles an episode of a long-running sitcom, where old favourites enter to a cheer and applause from the canned audience (though the audience in the screening I was at did actually applaud every time a new hero appeared) and knowingly steal each other’s catchphrases.
This is a world where men (big, oversized men) are capable of transcending the boundaries of space and time, where characters can be shown running through the jungle and seconds later are at the controls of a massive plane flying down to wreak havoc on a faceless army that surely only built that massive dam so it could have the SHIT blown out of it. Surely these men, with their insane control of the space/time continuum, are the real super heroes. They have the power of deities. Being armed with guns seems both completely necessary yet totally redundant.
It’s tantamount to admitting that the action genre, no matter how serious it might take itself at times (I’m looking at you, Señor Nolan) is really just about stuff blowing up, stuntmen falling off things and the hero making a pun at the end of it. For all these perma-sculpted men (what on earth are they going to look like in their 80s?), who at one time or another must also have considered themselves quite seriously, to basically admit as much takes a lot of guts. Guts raining from the sky it is, then.
For anyone who’s ever enjoyed a cheesy action film from the 80s and 90s, pretty much everyone is here. The only notable absentees from this roster of action movie legends to feature across the series so far are Jackie Chan, Mel ‘naughty step’ Gibson and the bloke who played McGuyver. And Steven Seagal, I suppose. Considering none of these men are exactly known for their acting chops, the relaxed atmosphere works wonders. That, and the fact that they’re basically playing themselves. Or an amalgamation of all their various selves, Basically, they know the terrain, and they’re totally comfortable in it.
Stallone these days resembles an uncannily animated totem pole, but at least he can almost crack a smile now (I wouldn’t rule out CGI there). Jean-Claude Van Damme (who’s actually not new to this postmodern game, having starred in 2008’s really very good JCVD) is rather brilliant as Jean Vilain. Dolph Lundgren is much more comfortable in his role this time around and at times has an almost (I shit you not) Klaus Kinski-esque madness to him. Schwarzenegger and Willis, Norris and Li, Crews and Statham, Yu and Couture – all are very watchable. Also watch out for a ‘plot’ line involving young Liam Hemsworth that is simply brilliant for it’s tongue-in-cheek ridiculousness.
So what next? No doubt there will be a third Expendables, but part of me wishes that, having succeeded so brilliantly here they just let it go. What could they possibly do that could top this? The ‘meta’ approach only allows for so much before some serious imagination needs to come into play. Expendables 3? Joined by David Hasselhoff, Shaft and Kevin Costner. Taking on Skeletor and the reanimated zombie corpses of Charles Bronson and John Wayne. With Scott Bakula from Quantum Leap playing Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dennis Quaid in Total Recall (but voiced by Colin Farrell’s penis). Or we could have a remake of Lethal Weapon with Jamie Foxx and Larry David. Or we could do Columbo with Vin Diesel…
(Ed Wall stops writing, turns and looks wistfully out of the window. Apparently trying hard to think of a good way to end the article he’s working on. After a moment’s pause, he turns and looks directly into the camera, breaking the fourth wall. He pulls off his face, revealing a smiling Tom Cruise).
Tom: “The possibilities are endless.”
The Expendables 2 is in cinemas from Friday. Contributor Ed Wall can be followed on Twitter @Edward1Wall.