Without wasting any time on setup, "The Expendables 2" dispatches Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and his team of hard-bitten mercenaries on a clandestine mission to extract a kidnapped Chinese billionaire in Nepal.
Yet, someone has gotten there before them: Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger), another operative for their contractor, Mr. Church (Bruce Willis).
"The Expendables 2"★ ★ ★
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews
Directed by: Simon West
Other: A Lionsgate release. Rated R for violence. 102 minutes
Freeing Trench and the billionaire, 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 work with Church's Chinese tech expert Maggie (Yu Nan). Their assignment is to retrieve an undisclosed item from a high-tech electronic safe aboard a downed plane in Albania.
Most of the Expendables relish another mission, including second-in-command Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) and team members Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Toll Road (Randy Couture) and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews).
Once aboard the plane, the Expendables are ambushed by an Eastern European crime cartel led by the sadistic Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme), who forces Barney to turn over the mystery device: a computer containing the location of a five-ton cache of plutonium that the Russians stashed in an abandoned mine during the Cold War.
The Expendables take off in pursuit of their adversaries, with Barney's directive uppermost in their minds: "Track them, find them, kill them."
Most of the action in the original "Expendables" transpired in Latin America, "Expendables 2" relocates to Bulgaria, which offers appropriately expansive vistas and credible locations for the Eastern European settings.
Taking over directing duties from Stallone, Simon West preserves the hard-boiled action and wisecracking cast dynamics of the original, channeling some of the B-movie tonal elements he might have picked up directing "Con Air."
Managing the stunts, aircraft, vehicle pileups and frequent shootouts is a major challenge that West executes with Úlan, even adding unexpected grace notes to some otherwise routine scenes.
Abetted by cinematographer and action-adventure specialist Shelly Johnson, whose camera placement and movement are spot-on, the action choreography never disappoints.
Numerous gunfights, combat set pieces and fight scenes are muscularly staged and skillfully supported by Todd E. Miller's editing, though the sheer sound volume grows repetitive and wearying.
Co-screenwriter Richard Wenk and Stallone have generously given both major players and cameo actors their own often quite-humorous character traits and dialogue.
The performances blend action-hero impassivity and sendups of familiar characters. Stallone anchors the cast with a nuanced mix of personal and professional demons as a foil to Statham's put-upon sidekick.
A late scene with Van Damme's sadistic villain shows that Stallone's still got the charisma to carry an intimately staged fight sequence.
Lundgren gets great comic mileage out of Gunner's lunkheaded character as Couture and Crews hold down the stalwart combat veterans' shtick.
Chuck Norris as Booker and Jet Li as Yin Yang appear too briefly to make much impact.
For Schwarzenegger, the brief role of Trench is a perfect fit, adorned with some of the best dialogue. He's every bit as creaky as the other vets his age, relying more on large weapons and cutting humor than on unarmed combat.