When The Expendables first came out the notion of a group of 80s, old school action movie heroes teaming up for a campy, violent adventure in 2010 was a novel one. It was an R-rated film filled with equal parts blood, violence and intentionally cheesy one-liners and for the most part it was an amusing look back at the action movies of the past. The sequel doubled down on its own self-awareness to the point where Chuck Norris literally walks onscreen and delivers an internet travelled ‘Chuck Norris joke’. The cast had returned and even slightly expanded but the enthusiasm from the first film both on the part of the performers and me as a viewer had dwindled significantly. Now Stallone is bringing The Expendables back for a third lap around yet another made up foreign location where a cast that has ballooned to more than twice the original’s size proceeds to tear it apart brick by brick. In an attempt to bring something new to the series, Stallone’s Barney Ross recruits a handful of young, new recruits. Will the fresh blood revitalize this already waning franchise or is it time to put these old bones to rest?
The third outing in The Expendables franchise opens in a similar fashion to the first two films. We join the titular group right as they are in the midst of a mission. Soon enough the operation devolves into gunfire, explosions and lots of shaky camera shots. This time the group are chasing a speeding train as they attempt to break former Expendable and franchise first timer Wesley Snipes (Doctor Death…seriously) out of captivity. With what little context is given in the opening scene it mostly works as an entertaining piece of action. This enjoyment will last you all of about ten minutes at which point the film starts in earnest and clumsily attempts to tell a story about revenge, the clash of old and new schools of thinking and what makes up a family.
With Doc freshly rescued and immediately recruited back into the team, the Expendables are off once more on yet another mission that ends with gunfire and explosions. However, this one concludes more explosively with a bomb being dropped on top of the team. The film teases you with the possibility that these unreal characters may actually be susceptible to death and injury but then it reminds you that you are in fact watching an Expendables film. Defiant to the movie’s title the seriously injured Terry Crews isn’t written off just yet as he spends the remainder of the film in a coma. Arguably the most charismatic and entertaining Expendable has been taken away not fifteen minutes into the movie. Conrad Stonebanks, arms dealer, war profiteer and bomb dropper is truly a villain for taking away ninety-nine percent of the charm the Expendables ever had in the form of Crews.
Gibson’s Stonebanks is easily the greatest villain that this franchise has produced in three films though I should say that the bar was set rather low after the first two movies. It might be fairer to simply say that Stonebanks is a villain with legitimate motivations for his villainy and his close personal ties to Barney (Stallone) as the Expendables co-founder gives the film some modicum of tension. His performance is entertainingly unhinged and brings a lot of energy to the film. Speaking of energy, the standout performance in a movie filled with grumbly, grouchy performances belongs to Antonio Banderas as motor mouth Galgo, an aging mercenary visibly itching for more work. Ironically, the cast of fresh faces in the form of a younger group of not-quite-yet Expendables does little to alter the heartbeat of this film. It is Banderas and Gibson alone that give The Expendables 3 brief flashes of life.
Kellan Lutz, Ronda Rousey, Victor Ortiz and Glen Powell make up the fresh blood and they’re told to do little more than scowl and act cocky in the face of the older generation and their old school methods. Since the brush with the death at the beginning of the film, Barney decides to drop his old team in fear of having a real casualty on his hands. With the old team thrown to the wind the second act of the film consists of rounding up this new group of fresh faces and attempting to take out Stonebanks themselves. The introduction to each new recruit and their subsequent planning in their mission to capture Stonebanks evokes both Ocean’s Eleven and Mission: Impossible with Kelsey Grammer playing Brad Pitt to Stallone’s Clooney. This is unfortunate since this only serves to remind you that you’re not watching those much better movies and are instead witnessing a weak willed and lethargic re-enactment of the best elements of both films.
After ninety minutes of buildup and false starts the film finally decides to deliver on what fans of this franchise were hoping to see. The original gang gets back together (Still woefully missing Terry Crews who is still coalescing) and finally gets into the action. At some point Harrison Ford flies a helicopter while Arnold Schwarzenegger urges everyone to get to the ‘choppa’. Jet Li even shows up again to shoot a machine gun and perform absolutely no martial arts. The action is easy enough to follow in spite of the more than occasionally shaky camera. The fact that this Expendables film no longer carries its R-rating may come as a surprise to fans of the earlier films. It’s all gunshots and flailing bodies, but there is never any impact. Tank shells and machine gun fire tear into flesh and concrete but all we see is dust kicked up into the air to obscure the gore that’s only hinted at. More shots of the effects of violence wouldn’t have saved this film’s action scenes but its representative of the entire film as a whole. Lots of things blow up but there is never any consequence. There is never any sense of danger, no tension, no stakes and therefore no investment as a viewer. You’re simply watching these actors go through the motions in a film that hits one predictable beat after another.