A routine assignment to capture a rogue arms dealer leaves Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and his team of immortal but highly moral mercenaries beaten and diminished. Worried his personal vendetta will put his men in danger (?) Barney shelves his Expendables and hires a new team of dispensable youngsters who more properly fit the definition of “expendable.” Can he corral these upstarts long enough to capture the villainous Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), or will the more seasoned ex-expendables need to suit up once again?
This is a rhetorical question.
The Expendables 3 is a film at odds with itself. It’s an action film filled with dull, instantly forgettable action sequences. It’s a massive ensemble picture where the talent too frequently couldn’t be bothered to shoot scenes together. It’s meant as a loving ode to the tough, ass-kicking action films and stars of the past but has its bloodless hands tied with a PG-13 rating and an abundance of shoddy CGI. And it’s the third film in a franchise but still manages to be the best of the three.
To put that last one in perspective though, Ebola is the best disease when grouped together with HIV and malaria.
Let me save you a few keystrokes and agree right upfront that this movie wasn’t made for critics. And obviously it’s meant to be fun! And you’re right, I do enjoy watching foreign language films complete with subtitles.
But I don’t think it’s too much to ask an action movie to actually include some worthwhile action. The opening set-piece for example drops us right in the middle of a train hurtling at high speeds as a helicopter loaded with popular action stars (and Randy Couture) attempts the rescue of a prisoner on board the locomotive. Hundreds of bullets are fired, the CGI helicopter flies in the face of the laws of physics and the prisoner (Wesley Snipes) leaps to safety propelled by an enormous (again, CGI) blast. As pre-credits sequences go it’s an unexciting cartoon where the cast is only visible in tight closeups while their stunt doubles do all the work in wide shots.
And it never gets better.
Thousands upon thousands of rounds are fired – the Expendables always (bloodlessly) hit their targets, the Expendables themselves are never hit – and explosions are consistently “enhanced” digitally, but none of it is ever interesting or exciting or weighted with anything resembling dramatic stakes. There are a handful of hand to hand combat scenes later on, and while this should be where folks like Jason Statham and Ronda Rousey shine, their brawls are instead little more than jumbled edits and cramped screen real estate. Director Patrick Hughes made his feature debut with the promising and simple modern day western, Red Hill, but his talents apparently haven’t survived the transition to Hollywood.
The cast is mildly exciting on paper at least – Stallone, Statham, Snipes, Gibson, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Antonio Banderas, Terry Crews, Kelsey Grammer – but while anyone could have predicted that not even a two hour running time would be enough to afford each of them a worthwhile amount of onscreen time, it gets even less impressive in practice. Forget terrorists… it seems the biggest challenge faced by the Expendables is scheduling, as characters repeatedly interact and engage in conversation without sharing the frame with others supposedly in the same scene with them. An entire sequence features Ford flying a chopper while others on board shoot from the cabin, but it’s glaringly obvious that those two parts of the helicopter – separated by no more than a few inches in reality – were filmed on separate occasions. There are multiple instances of this, some of them going so far as to feature body doubles in the background meant to be other members of the team.
As bad as that all is though, it’s preferable to the film’s middle section that sees the familiar faces benched in favor of the newbies. Grammer’s talent scout character takes Barney on a shopping trip for new mercs, and you’re instantly reminded why the initial concept of the original Expendables film first appealed to you. Those old, wrinkly-faced action stars of the past are memorable because they were – and still are to some degree – charismatic bastards. The quartet of young bloods here are anything but, and their time front and center makes for an incredibly dull slog.
It’s a terrible action movie, but there is some fun to be had here as a comedy, and almost all of it comes from the franchise’s far more recognizable newcomers. Gibson is easily the film’s MVP as he takes what worked in his very similar role in the abysmal Machete Kills, tightens his manic grip and gets to spout the only meaningful dialogue in the movie. He makes the exposition come alive as he chips away at Barney’s moral high ground pausing only to threaten one of the young turks with “I’ll open your meat shirt and show you your own heart.”
Snipes is equally entertaining, albeit in a smaller role, and he shows his time out of the spotlight hasn’t diminished the visible joy he feels running free, kicking bad guys and quipping like it was still the ’90s. He also contributes to the film’s self awareness by joking that he was on that prison transport due to “tax evasion.” (Grammer gets in on the meta action by having his character pilot a plane while intoxicated.) Banderas meanwhile is in full-on comedy mode, and while some of his later ramblings begin to grate he offers up many of the film’s (admittedly limited) laughs. Ford isn’t quite as successful as he drops his trademarked grumpiness in favor of some uninspired line readings, but his too-brief banter with Statham is pretty great.
The script (by Stallone and the husband and wife team behind Olympus Has Fallen, Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt) shows more interest in trying to craft laughs then build a competent story, but the majority of the jokes fall limply to the ground. Stallone in particular seems incapable of delivering a funny line and instead finds the most success with reaction shots and a simple “wow” uttered flatly as a comedic reply on more than one occasion.
“We’re part of the past,” says one over the hill action star, but that realization isn’t helping any of them fade gracefully into the night. Instead they’re little more than walking anachronisms with hip replacements, allowed to be themselves only in closeups while doubles and digital technology do all the dirty work. The most honest moment in The Expendables 3 comes after the main team has been cut loose by Barney in favor of younger “talent.” It’s a montage of these past action stars (and Couture) sitting around, aimless and bored and utterly at a loss without nameless thugs dropping dead at their feet or explosions to walk away from in slow motion. And it’s the closest any of them get to acknowledging how expendable most of them truly are.
The Upside: Mel Gibson and Wesley Snipes prove they’re still worthy of leading their own films; Antonio Banderas is fun; some moments of amusing banter
The Downside: Terribly bland and weightless action; excessive CGI; feels overlong
On the Side: Bruce Willis’s character from the first two films was dropped after the actor “demanded” more money – $4 million instead of the offered $3m – but Sylvester Stallone and the producers chose to replace him instead with an unknown named Harrison Ford.
Also on the Side: Both Wesley Snipes and Antonio Banderas are reuniting with Stallone here after playing ’90s bad guys to his heroes in Demolition Man and Assassins, respectively.