Stallone creates a new genre in The Expendables 2

Sylvester Stallone has created a new genre: Self-Camp. The Expendables 2 reunites the same over-the-hill gang of big screen hooligans as in the first installment but this time with a better, almost polished, sense of humor. (“Rest in pieces“ Stallone’s Barney Ross drawls when a villain is reduced to hamburger meat.)

Despite the slenderest thread of a plot (these shadow soldiers are sponsored by the CIA to keep nuclear weapons from a bad guy), nothing here is taken very seriously. That doesn’t mean you abandon your standards; but you don’t cheat them as at a film like The Bourne Legacy that pretends to be serious. And The Expendables 2 is easily preferable to Marvel’s The Avengers.

In order to successfully achieve Self-Camp, Stallone turned over directing duties to Simon West, a practiced hack (Con Air) who paces the action and the dialogue casually, not ineptly. (Female interest Yu Nan as Maggie the assassin speaks for West when she says “I’m combat proficient.”) It’s tribute to those 80s and 90s action movies in which Stallone, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger whupped butt with no thought of skill or art, just blunt, rowdy pleasure–or rowdy, blunt release.

Reunited, these ex-superstars display a sense of humor about their past exploits. Reconstructed, balding or just aged, they exhibit a masculine confidence unexpected from their narcissistic profession. This propels the tale of men who maintain die-hard courage. It is also a tribute to the stars’ audiences; it lets their fans know what wasn’t always clear back in the 80s and 90s: that Sylvester, Bruce and Arnold are in on the joke. (The joke being that he-man action-movie stars had nerdy names. Camp.)

When Arnold shows up and announces “This is embarrassing,” he frees himself and us from feeling credulous. His deadpan humor allows a sense of nostalgia. The Expendables 2 doesn’t announce the end of a genre’s cycle like the rousing 1974 Blaxploitation film Three the Hard Way that united Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Jim Kelly; Arnold, Bruce and Sylvester are so past their glory days that this amounts to a reminiscence rather than a summation. And that’s where The Expendables 2 starts to feel sorta good.

This is not stylish, witty action-filmmaking such as Luc Besson produces, nor is it colorfully vapid like the recent The A-Team or The Losers. Rather, the simplicity of Stallone’s script and West’s directness goes back to a kind of innocence that action movies have lost in recent years. The skill and diabolical resoluteness of David Fincher and Christopher Nolan prevent having a good time–only a disturbed time. While contemporary action films equate realism with cynicism, Stallone knows the value of hyperbolic sentimentality.

This is a cartoon that means well. Willis describes a “gang of psychotic mutts” but it really showcases honor, valor, loyalty, goodness and unambiguous fun. Even when the war in Afghanistan is evoked by blue-eyed innocent Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth), sacrificed on some patriotic-genre altar, the real point is to restore camaraderie. (The mutts recharge at a dive named Old Point Bar.)

In this context, more recent heroes Jason Statham and Jet Li feel like guest stars. The movie gets its nostalgic pulse from appearances by veterans like Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme who return us to a world of simplified machismo. (“You want to man-up? I’ll man you up!” Sly challenges JCVD. No line in Rocky was more succinct.) The oldies soundtrack also helps, climaxing with the old man’s anthem, Rare Earth’s “Celebrate” (“I just want to celebrate another day of living/ I just want to celebrate another day of life!”) You can’t help but respect Stallone’s good natured Self-Camp. “Respect is everything,” JCVD says. “Without respect we’re just common shitty people.” Self-Camp is self respect.

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