[19 August 2014]
“We started out with five, built it up to 22,” muses Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), during one of his frequent moments of contemplation in The Expendables 3. Barney is discussing the long and mostly unseen backstory of the legendary mercenary team whose exploits have been chronicled by director Stallone since 2010. He means to imply that since its peak, the team has been ravaged and haunted by death: a collection of dog tags hangs in his airplane as a reminder of what’s been “built up.”
Yet per the three films so far, the list of dead Expendables is far shorter than Barney lets on. One youngster played by Liam Hemsworth had a knife kicked into his chest by Jean-Claude Van Damme back in The Expendables 2. CIA operative Church (Bruce Willis) from the first two movies disappears for Expendables 3, supposedly because Willis demanded too much money; he’s dismissed as an asshole, but not dead (and wasn’t really a team member anyway). Mentally unstable drug addict Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren) betrayed his friends and died trying to kill Yin Yang (Jet Li), only to show up at the end of the first movie with a bandage on his chest wound and his transgressions forgiven. He fights with the good guys again in both sequels.
Given this near-invincibility, Stallone’s cast only swells as the series goes on; the plot of Expendables 3 suggests a marathon of HR maneuvering. It opens with Barney and core team members Gunnar, Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Toll Road (Randy Couture), and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) mounting a rescue operation to free former Expendable Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes) from a prison transport train. Doc resists the rescue, and tries to slam the train into its prison destination in order to make sure a nemesis is dead. The other Expendables don’t seem phased by the deaths of what must be at least a few hundred people; characteristically, they treat an act of mass murder as vaguely bothersome shenanigans.
After this introduction—and after delivering the requisite tax-evasion joke about Snipes’ real-life incarceration—Doc joins the boys on another mission, going after an arms dealer who turns out to be Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), another former Expendable. When the mission fails and leaves one member terribly wounded (although still not dead), Barney disbands his team out of uncharacteristic concern for their safety, and immediately sets out to recruit a new team of younger Expendables (including a woman!) to finish off Stonebanks. When some of these team members are captured, it’s time to get the old gang back together—the old gang that was together approximately 45 minute earlier in the movie.
This strange doubling back makes up much of Expendables 3; presumably it has to do with the way the movies are transparently pieced together from actors’ schedules. The scheduling also results in some mismanagement of resources: famed martial artist Jet Li, for example, turns up only to sit in a helicopter and fire a machine gun. This seems like assigning Vin Diesel to sell popcorn at a NASCAR rally, or hiring Stallone to write a screenplay. But no matter the limitations of budget, age, effects, or his own abilities as a screenwriter, Stallone leaves no man behind.
As Snipes’ presence indicates, Stallone’s tough-guy acquisitions now include his costars from the mid-‘90s, say, Antonio Banderas. He plays Galgo, an excitable Spaniard who longs to join the team despite his middle age; his motormouth routine (one of the few not based on an established persona) is very funny, and signals the madder, wackier touches of Stallone’s newest recruits. Snipes too plays a little loonier than usual, and Gibson mugs and makes terrible puns like he’s doing Lethal Weapon 8.
Terrible puns are actually a step up in terms of Expendables dialogue, which often has the rhythm, if not always the clarity, of playground joshing. “Just cause you can fly a plane, that don’t make you smarter than me,” asserts one tough guy, at which point another retorts, “Sure it does.” Yet the movie’s witlessness—its studied and failed attempts to imitate the banter of actual humans—is, at times, transcendent in its weirdness and the way it bumps up against the occasional good joke. In between half-glorious, half-forgettable action sequences, The Expendables 3 wanders around in search of what an action movie actually does, landing on a sequence where Stallone and Kelsey Grammer (playing an intermediary called Bonaparte) lazily criss-cross the country, recruiting younger Expendables, a trip as pointlessly drawn-out as it is delightfully stupid.
The film may be finding less grim ways to kill time because it can’t wallow in the same computer-generated gore as its predecessors; for the first time, an Expendables movie is rated PG-13. In a perfect world, this would mean better, clearer, more exciting action. Instead, it means the insanely high body count looks a bit like a G.I. Joe cartoon. Cutting around furiously, the movie offers up montages of kinetic brawls and, sometimes, just blurs of stunt doubles and bad effects. During the downtime, director Patrick Hughes also includes shots that linger—on Banderas doing cartoon poses to telegraph his consternation after Stallone dismisses him, on Lundgren’s cold, dead eyes at a shooting range, on a heart-to-heart between Stallone and next-generation BFF Statham.
Such inability to develop a tidier plot or even a well-constructed action sequence makes the Expendables series look less like sequential daredevil thrill missions than a traveling caravan of famous people attempting to reassert both their iconography and their humanity. Stallone still likes the romantic, fatalistic danger-courting that the Expendables supposedly embody, but the movies themselves no longer reflect that sensibility. By the halfway point of The Expendables 3, the movie’s title has lost all meaning: Stonebanks taunts Barney that the group is so easy to eliminate that they should really change their name to the “Deletables,” as if “deletable” somehow means the opposite of “expendable,” rather than almost the exact same thing. Stallone obviously doesn’t want to hit delete. As a movie, The Expendables 3 is kind of a shambles. As part of a never-ending retirement party, it’s kind of a gas.