Sylvester Stallone with his family at the London premiere of "The… (Sang Tan / Associated Press )
"The Expendables 2"arrives jam-packed and fully loaded with main man Sly Stallone still leading the charge, followed by that wild bunch of aging brawn. There is some new blood in Liam Hemsworth and a lot of very old blood with nearly every AARP action hero in the book turning up at some point. And the kill count reaches into the ca-zillions.
But somehow all that testosterone-infused blow-'-em-up craziness turns out to be kind of a kick.
Director Simon West hasn't messed much with the basic formula of Barney's (Stallone) buffed-up band of misfits saving the day, though the camp factor has been ratcheted up considerably and the action is even more over the top than in its 2010 predecessor. The central wrecking crew is composed of Christmas (Jason Statham), Yin Yang (Jet Li), Gunner (Dolph Lundgren), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) and Toll Road (Randy Couture). The fight has shifted from Latin America to Asia, but freedom is once again on the line. The guy responsible for this desert storm is brutally played by kickboxing great Jean-Claude Van Damme — a villain named Vilain (sic).
Like the original, "Expendables 2" starts with a brazen bid to rescue someone from imminent torture and death, this time in Nepal. Since Barney and the guys don't really do anything on the down-low, it is a breathless stretch of crash and burn that stacks up the dead while destroying around a hundred sets and the souped-up vintage plane Barney flies his troops around in.
But that's just the tease and a good spot to start throwing in some of those cameos — Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Church (Bruce Willis) and Booker (Chuck Norris), who always manage to be memorable. It's also where we meet new recruit Billy the Kid (Hemsworth). He's just past a nasty stint fighting in Afghanistan with a sad story he'll soon be telling. But before Barney, Billy and the rest even have a chance to get out of Nepal, Mr. Church (Willis as dry as a martini and worth savoring) comes calling with their next dangerous assignment in nearby China.
But what bugs Barney is that he's forced to bring along, gasp, a woman. Maggie (Yu Nan) is some kind of computer genius and since the guys aren't very smart, she's critical. There's a secret cache of Russian plutonium long buried in a mine that Vilain wants to get his hands on. In the process, villagers will be conscripted or killed or both.
Barney and the boys will stage a series of raids to right all the wrongs. And Booker (Norris) will show up armed and dangerous, also presenting the chance for some lone wolf jokes. (For the uninitiated, 1983's "Lone Wolf McQuade" starred Norris and is one of the many, many nods to action movie lore that are sandwiched into the film.)
There are a series of good moves that make "2" slightly better than "1," starting with Stallone's decision to turn over directing duties to West, an old hand at the genre with "Con Air" and "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" among his credits. Richard Wenk came aboard to co-write the sequel with Stallone and the result is a cleverer script. Cinematographer Shelly Johnson gives it all a vintage postcard look.
For all the tough guy posturing in "Expendables 2," they actually turn out to be a bunch of old softies — who knew? When they aren't discussing ways to crush their adversaries, you're likely to find them talking about their feelings. Hemsworth is a nice addition as the good kid who manages to pull off his Army sob story without totally embarrassing the guys, though there were a few wet eyes on screen.
As to the boom boom, those sequences are splashy and high-octane enough they should satisfy the adrenaline junkies. But what gives "Expendables 2" its charm is the film's unabashed nostalgia for the genre's best B-movie moments. As Statham's character puts it so well while slipping on a pair of brass knuckles, never count out the classics.