Review: “The Expendables 3”

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Think what you want about this knuckle-headed series, but its mastermind Sylvester Stallone is a smart guy who knows exactly what he’s doing. He named his franchise ‘Expendables’ because he’s well aware that these movies are just that; entertaining, ultimately disposable, lacking any real substance that you can carry with you later. But in continuing to bring all these action stars together every two years, Stallone is still banking on audiences still have a place in their hearts for flimsy, inconsequential bombast every now and then (or at least a place in their wallets).

I can’t say I disagree with his aspirations; while I’ve never seen the original Expendables, I did catch the sequel and was pleasantly surprised by how satisfying it was, despite the fact that every moment spent listening to the characters speak felt like a moment wasted. Unsubtle in its self-awareness but charmingly so, the movie was hilariously bloody, relentlessly campy, and mercifully short on filler. I can’t remember a thing about the finer details such as plot, but hey — it was enough to get me interested in another round. So here we are at The Expendables 3, still championing the value of pointless action. Except this time, that value has diminished substantially.

The story finds the still-badass, still-aging Expendables team trying to take down a bad guy who we are assured is evil and crazy (though he’s played by Mel Gibson, so we don’t exactly need much proof on the insanity front). Whereas the first two movies were content with an endless stream of jokes about the stars’ aging, this time Stallone’s character Barney Ross finally seems to decide he’s ‘too old for this shit’ and hires a younger group of Expendables to help him take down Gibson. As a result, he alienates his buddies who’d rather the new, young Expendables get off their blood-soaked lawn.

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But the main draw of part three are not the young guys, it’s still the old guys. And more than that, we don’t care about the characters! Nobody sees this movie to find out what’s new with Barney Ross, Lee Christmas, Hale Caesar or the rest of the stupid-sounding names I just grabbed off of Wikipedia. We come to see Sly, Jason Statham, Terry Crews, who are basically playing a mix of the characters they’ve played in other films, they’re own public personas, and whatever bland backstories they’ve been given for this specific series.

All of these stars made it to where they’ve been because they had a certain charisma about them, and for most of them, this hasn’t changed. More than that, now that most of them seem to realize they’ve made it through their glory days, they look like they’re able to have a lot more fun just goofing around in something like this. This is especially clear with Arnold Schwarzenegger (returning to the franchise for the third time), who treats every single line as if it were a giant wink that screams “Remember me? I was in Terminator”. Although the blatant references to his past work feels admittedly hamfisted, it’s hard not to admire Arny’s spirit and his ability to laugh at the cheesiness of his whole career and persona. Here’s a guy who knows people love him, knows exactly why they love him, and is more than happy to embrace it all. And I love him all the more for that.

New addition Antonio Banderas gives a breathless, intentionally-annoying performance that steals every scene he’s in. It’s forced comedy to the point that it should be irritating, and maybe in a different type of movie it would be, but here it somehow manages to be infectious and charming. That is, until they heap on the sudden, serious backstory which effectively kills the mood. Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford and Kelsey Grammer are also new to the team, but don’t add nearly as much life to the proceedings.

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Mel Gibson, on the other hand, acts with such conviction here that it feels like he’s in a whole different movie altogether. It was genius on Stallone’s part to get Gibson to play the bad guy, as it really hammers home the film’s meta-lite construction. He’s intimidating at certain parts of this movie, but when he says to a character that they don’t want to make him angry, we believe it not just because of the performance, but because we’ve all heard what it’s like when Mel Gibson gets angry and it’s utterly terrifying.

The fatal flaw in this film is that it takes the reigns away from all of these beloved icons, if just for a while, and shifts the focus onto the young’uns played by Kellan Lutz, Victor Ortiz and Glenn Powell, Jr. Wait, who? I’ve only heard one of those names before, and only because of how many bad movies he’s been in. My point is, these aren’t well-known actors and they have no established personas to work with. All they have is the bland character descriptions they’ve been given, and only the smallest shreds of innate charisma I could see in them.  They’re boring.

If the filmmakers had found some actual current action stars, it would have both added to the film’s star power and to the only-hinted-at themes of former icons feeling sidelined in a new, young adult-centered industry. The Expendables 2 had Liam Hemsworth, which is exactly the kind of actor this film needed and that one didn’t! Of course, in all likelihood the budget of Expendables 3 just couldn’t meet the price-tag on such big-name young stars, and so Stallone and crew had to settle. It’s a shame, because the commentary that was clearly intended could have been very interesting.

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But nothing could have saved a script that cares way too much about way too little. Any and all emotional moments between characters feel banal, yet there are plenty of them. While the beginning and ending of the film are the expected bombastic action sequences, the whole middle section of the movie has way too few exciting moments. There’s supposed to be a tense espionage scene around the half-way point, but thanks to the film’s inability to make you care about the young characters, it feels incredibly void of urgency.

But when the action does kick into gear, two things become apparent. One, the budget has clearly been lowered, as the special effects are pretty bad at parts. The more glaring issue is the film’s PG-13 rating. This isn’t a problem in most movies, but when the one best thing about the previous Expendables is its gleeful, old-school violence, taking out all of the blood and cutting away right before a brutal death feels unsatisfying. It’s like ordering french fries and they give you a baked potato. I guess it’s kind of the same thing, but you’re missing the point.

In certain ways it feels like the franchise was still improving, so it’s a shame that the issues present in The Expendables 3 are so critical that it threatens to ruin all of the fun. It certainly doesn’t leave me anticipating any more of them, if they’re just going to find more ways to give audiences more of what they specifically don’t want. Still, the action is kinetic and fun, even if it is clipped and censored, and the stars are still awesome to watch. Awesome enough to sit through the boring parts? Depends how much you really like your Schwarzenegger.

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Score: 2.5 out of 5

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