NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
In one respect, this is a perfect 80s homage – it feels a lot like those thrown-together Cannon sequels that get by on one or two good stunts and a scenery-chewing villain performance. It’s scrappy, sometimes cheap-looking, wildly inconsistent in tone, oversells its knowing winks and winds up with an ‘is that all there is?’ shrug, but it’s still mostly entertaining nonsense and – even if he takes the semi-serious action stuff into Hot Shots territory – every moment with Chuck Norris is golden.
It opens with Barney (Sylvester Stallone) and Lee (Jason Statham) and their carried-over crew of mercs – Gunner (Dolph Lundgren, a standout last time, comedy relief here), Yin Yang (Jet Li, jumping out of the plane early for no real reason and sitting the rest of the film out), Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) and Toll Road (Randy Couture), plus newcomer sniper Billy the Kid (Liam Hemsworth) – rescuing a kidnapped Chinese millionaire from nondescript Asian scum and incidentally saving rival merc Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from torture. Simon West, of Con Air (and a slow subsequent slide), can stage a raid on a jungle base and an escape involving jetskis and a seaplane pretty well, though this is one of those films sound-mixed for explosions rather than dialogue so a lot of exposition gets lost. The script is by Stallone and Richard Wenk (little heard from since Vamp), from a story by Wenk, Ken Kaufman and David Agosto, from characters created by David Callahan – but it’s a rote assemblage of plot licks and cameos.
The next mission, at the behest of shady agency guy Church (Bruce Willis), brings aboard Maggie (Nan Yu, excellent), a techie femme fatale, to retrieve something from a safe in a plane crashed in Albania and brings the gang into conflict with a villain subtly named Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme), who needs the package to help locate ex-Soviet plutonium he wants to mine and sell on the black market. One of the exes talks early about the girl he wants to settle down with and has a soulful anecdote about the stray dog he adopted in Afghanistan, which pretty much sets him up as the sacrifice to motivate the others to stay in the fight. Booker (Norris) hilariously shows up to blast away at hordes in a few scenes set up by the ‘Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ theme, nurturing his lone wolf reputation – asked about what happened the time he was bit by a cobra, Booker deadpans ‘after four days of agonising pain, the cobra died’. There are some token enslaved miners to be rescued and Vilain has an almost-inexhaustible horde of disposable, uncharacterised, unmotivated minions to get mown down by the good guys, who barely get scratched as hundreds die all around them. These may be conventions, but are overdone to such an extent that all the CGI blood-bursts and piled-up corpses fail to make it seem less cartoony.
There are good settings – a derelict ‘American’ town once used by the Soviets to practice invading the USA is a highlight, much stronger than the bland airport where the finale takes place – and even at an advanced age this cast can command the screen with macho charisma (the homoerotic undertones of their 80s heyday have gone by the wayside). It’s a shame it’s too late for the showpiece we’d like to have seen – Norris and Van Damme in their prime fighting each other – and have to make do with Van Damme (who can still do a flying kick) and Stallone (who can mumble a threat) in a climactic one-on-one with a foregone conclusion outcome that’s a hard-sell. The in-jokes get a bit stale (Willis and Schwarzenegger playing on their old catch-phrases) and with Lundgren being funny, Crews and Couture don’t really have anything to do in the film except look lumpily hard and bicker. There’s a sense this is too crowded to be as much fun as it should be, and a comparison with the baroque absurdities of Con Air shows how the action movie has dwindled since its great days.