The Joys of Uncomplicated

A peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Kraft Mac and Cheese (in the blue box!). Mashed potatoes and gravy. There’s a reason these are some of my favorite foods, and it’s not just because they have enough carbs between them to make Robert Atkins come back from the grave and die all over again. No, it’s because they are uncomplicated. There isn’t anything complex or subtle about them; you know exactly what you are going to get, and that is as wonderful as it is comforting.

The movie equivalent of this would be The Expendables 2. In many ways it is a tour-de-force. On the surface it may seem like nothing but pure action movie schlock, and there’s a reason for that: it’s nothing but pure action movie schlock. But stop for a moment and think about what that really means. When was the last time you saw a pure action movie?

Action movies aren’t supposed to be complicated. They should have a clear good guy (or good guys), maybe a little rough around the edges but very easy to connect with. The bad guy should be so rotten he practically oozes filth. If there is any angst it should last just long enough to give motivation to go out and get the bad guy. And there should be lots of fights: fistfights, knife fights, gunfights, explosions fights, the works. The dialogue should be breezy enough to keep the action moving without getting you bogged down, and juts interesting enough to keep you amused.

And that’s exactly what The Expendables was. The brilliance of the original was that David Callaham and Sylvester Stallone managed to deconstruct the action film and determine exactly what its minimal components should be. They then built the perfect film with a great ensemble cast, putting together some of (if not most) of the greatest action stars of all time. It was fantastic, and of course they were going to do a sequel. So what does a deconstructed sequel to an action film look like?

Basically, it looks like The Expendables 2. You use the same formula as the first, add 20% more explosions, “this time it’s personal”, a couple of fun cameos to round out the whole thing, and bam! You got a sequel. If it feels like the entire movie is one running cliché, it’s mostly because that’s what happens when you break down the formula for (arguably) the most formulaic film genre ever made and strip out all the useless detritus that has been accumulating over the years as people try to disguise the fact that they are making an action film.

But here’s the thing: none of that matters, for two reasons. First, formula or not, the film works. It’s a great action flick, mostly because it doesn’t try to be anything else. If they had tried to add even a dollop of something else (even a hint of romance, or meaning, or whatever) it would have fallen flat on its face. It succeeds because it is pure and uncomplicated, delivering exactly what it promises.

The second reason is that the cast is a lot better than most people give them credit for. Some of them (Sly Stallone, Bruce Willis) are actually astoundingly good actors, and others (I’m not cruel enough to call them out by name) excel within their milieu, which is still pretty damn hard to do. Selling the scene is always difficult; doing it when it could be sitting in a bar one day and the middle of a jungle firefight the next is monumentally tougher. And staying in character while explosions are going off just a few yards away? Not as easy as you think. If you don’t believe me, try it some time. The cast sells this movie, even more than the movie sells itself.

If you’re looking for a great movie that will make you think, will bring tears to your eyes, and in the end will make you believe that people can triumph over any adversity, I highly recommend that you watch The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Great film. But if you just want to have a good time, get a few laughs, and not have to work too hard for it, I highly recommend The Expendables 2.


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