As befits a throwback to the righteous-kill, Reagan-era action movie, The Expendables 2 begins with most of the male population of a Third World nation being evaporated into red dew by superior firepower. So resumes the machine-gun etiquette and repartee —”Oh, shit,” “Arggghhh,” “Yeahhh,” “Whoo-rah”—of the titular soldiers of fortune, returning from Sylvester Stallone's 2010 nostalgia victory lap. This time around, the Expendables (Stallone, Jason Statham, and assorted beef) cinch on their trusses to chase a Great Whatsit across Cold War-istan, and race against a dastardly, curiously made-up Jean-Claude Van Damme, who radiates an amusing aristocratic disdain. Director Simon West has previously shown a knack for brazenly overinflating action clichés until they giddily pop — notably in 1997 classic-of-a-sort Con Air — and his Expendables 2 does admittedly discover some ingenious new methods for disassembling the human form. But any glee is offset by the film's weakness for mechanical self-reference, encompassing joyless one-liner nods to the assembled actors' filmographies and a knowing attitude toward the film's Hall of Fame, cavalcade-of-cameos nature — Chuck Norris and a windblown and slightly spooked Arnold Schwarzenegger pass through — making a sour joke of flaunting its outright cash-in cynicism (actual exchange: “Thanks for stopping by.” “My pleasure”). Has the parallel between the actor and the mercenary's trade ever been so overt?
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