By now it should be abundantly clear that Sylvester Stallone “gets” action. He understands the dynamic involved in a major league blowout stunt spectacle. He’s a wizard when it comes to staging, acts each carefully choreographed beat with the necessary amount of machismo and, when given the opportunity (and the MPAA rating) is not shy to showcase enough splatter to make a million gorehounds happy.
Granted, for this third installment in the exceedingly goofy Expendables franchise, Sly isn’t sitting behind the lens. His handpicked protégé, in this case, Red Hill director Patrick Hughes, is, however, and the results constantly remind the viewer of the iconic ’80s b-pictures that made the cast nostalgia laced currency. While not fully invested in the direct to video past, there’s enough low rent ridiculousness here to make even the most cynical action fan smile.
As for the story — and let’s be fair, the narrative is only present to act as a binder between bombast — we catch up with the Expendables as they are trying to rescue an important prisoner. Barney Ross (Stallone), along with Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunner Jansen (Dolph Lundgren), Toll Road (Randy Couture), and Hail Caesar (Terry Crews) use a helicopter, and some help from said inmate, nicknamed Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes), who it turns out, is also an old Expendable.
No sooner do they have their “package” on a plane then they are sent on a mission to stop an evil arms dealer. Turns out, the bad guy is another old Expendable, Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson) whose gone rogue. Barney thought he was dead. Turns out, he’s far from it. When they are unsuccessful at capturing Stonebanks, Barney decides to let his current team go.
With a CIA operative (Harrison Ford) on his back, our lead decides to recruit a new, younger style of specialist. With the help of old buddy Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer), Barney finds a tech geek (Glen Powell), a sharpshooter (Victor Ortiz), a former Navy SEAL looking for redemption (Kellan Lutz) and one “bad-ass chick” (Rhonda Rousey) to work with. He also runs into a desperate ex-member of the Spanish Armed Forces (Antonio Banderas) who is desperate to be a mercenary.
Eventually, the newbies fail, and the old Expendables have to team up once again. With the help of Trench Mauser (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and old ally Yin Yang (Jet Li), they take on Stonebanks one last time.
Let’s make one thing abundantly clear: you aren’t going into The Expendables 3 to savor the drama. You’re not going to get caught up in the various character dynamics because, well, because there aren’t any. There’s no depth here, no real commentary on bringing old heroes “back” on last time. Understand, the idea of taking famous faces from the past and giving them one more shot at genre glory isn’t really a new one, but Stallone saw something in the idea of inviting his ’80s icon brothers along for the fledgling franchise ride and, for a while, audiences responded.
Unfortunately, the 68-year-old superstar really doesn’t mine the potential in his premise. Instead of bringing on his former film rivals and letting them do what they do best, everything is orchestrated and organized with “moment in the spotlight” precision.
Thus ,Snipes starts us off, while Li is left to the last act. Even the youngsters are provided with proficiency defining sequences where their implied skill sets are shown off. When brought together, it’s Stallone who stands front and center, the rest of the warriors relegated to various beats in the elaborate action.
The opening train raid is good, as is the first bungled attack on Stonebanks. The inevitable let down that comes with the novices is saved by a sensational finalé, with everyone involved and what looks like an entire former Soviet casino at their disposal/destruction. Indeed, when tanks show up to shell the building, we wonder how much is practical F/X and how much CG is being employed. The answer may surprise you.
It has to be said, Gibson and Stallone are great here. Again, they are given nothing much to do, but they excel at such maximized minimalism. The artist formerly known as Mad Max gets a lot of mileage out of his Cheshire cat grin, and Rock-Rambo offers the same with his hound dog expressions. In fact, the movie loves to mock the various characteristics on display.
Ford makes fun of Statham’s accent (“What language is he speaking?”) while Snipes gets off one of the best quips when asked why he was in prison. Even the former Governator manages to mine his catalog for a patented repurposing of some one-liners, while running gags from previous installments (Jet Li’s size, Crews’ gun obsession) are also employed.
Yet what The Expendables 3 lacks is the kind of exuberant pizzazz which made these particular performers ripe for rediscovery in the first place. There’s no sense of wonder or fun here, just journeymen bruisers going through the relatively entertaining motions. Thanks to Hughes relative inexperience behind the lens, and an odd mandate to make the movie PG-13 (the last two installments were rated “R”), it doesn’t allow itself to go full bore over the top.
Instead, it moderates, even among hundreds of soldiers and ample ground artillery. It won’t allow itself to be wicked, or mischievous, or unhinged. Instead, like most established film series, The Expendables 3 steps up, delivers, more or less gets the job done, and then dissipates into a fog of sweat and male pheromones. In an hour or two you’ll forget everything and everyone you’ve seen. While it plays out, it’s a palpable escape.