The Expendables 2

Taut and humorous, the sequel captivates with more than just nonstop action.

Capping off the summer season with explosive action, The Expendables 2 offers the sendoff adrenaline junkies are seeking before the more sedate pace of fall releases. As he proved with the original installment, Sylvester Stallone grasps the action-oriented DNA of the films' badass cast of reprobate mercenaries with an intuition derived from dozens of genre roles.

Without wasting any time on setup, the sequel finds Barney Ross (Stallone) and his team of hard-bitten mercenaries on a clandestine mission to extract a kidnapped Chinese billionaire in Nepal, where they discover that someone has gotten there before them -- Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger), another operative for their contractor, Mr. Church (Bruce Willis). Freeing Trench and the billionaire from their captors, the team returns to the States, where Church confronts Barney with an unpleasant reminder: The Expendables' leader owes Church $5 million in confiscated cash from a previous job. But he is prepared to make a deal if Barney takes on a new assignment.

The catch is that he will need to place Church's operative on his team, Chinese tech expert Maggie (Yu Nan). Their assignment is to retrieve an undisclosed item from a downed plane that has crashed in Albania. Although new team member Billy (Liam Hemsworth), an expert sniper, reluctantly tells Barney that this is his last outing, the rest of the Expendables relish another mission, including Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Toll Road (Randy Couture) and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews).

After the Expendables are ambushed by an Eastern European crime cartel led by the sadistic Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme), the crew focuses on revenge and the retrieval of some weapons-grade plutonium.

Taking over directing duties from Stallone, Simon West preserves the hardboiled action and wisecracking cast dynamics of the original. Managing the complexity of stunts, vehicle pileups and frequent shootouts that comprise the majority of the running time is a major challenge that West executes with elan, even adding unexpected grace notes to some otherwise routine scenes. The action choreography never disappoints.

With such an expansive cast, there's a risk that the quality of performances might be diluted by the quantity of recognizable actors. But co-screenwriter Richard Wenk and Stallone have generously given both major players and cameo actors their own often humorous character traits and dialogue.

Since many of the leads have well-known personas, the performances are a blend of action-hero impassivity and sendups of familiar characters. Stallone anchors the cast, playing it straight as a foil to Statham's put-upon sidekick, but a late scene with Van Damme shows he's still got the charisma to carry a fight sequence. Lundgren gets great comic mileage out of lunkhead Gunner, but Hemsworth and Yu don't add much, and Chuck Norris and Jet Li appear too briefly to make much impact. Many might wonder about Schwarzenegger's return to action but will find this role a perfect fit, one adorned with some of the best dialogue in the script. While he's every bit as creaky as the other vets -- relying more on very large weapons and cutting humor than unarmed combat -- Schwarzenegger still can steal a scene, particularly in the final set piece where he's paired with Willis, who relies more on smirking threats than action until the final reel.

Opens: Friday, Aug. 17 (Lionsgate)
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger
Director: Simon West
Rated R, 102 minutes

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