In concept, THE EXPENDABLES films have enough cultural caché, gritty drive and sweat-slicked human meat to play greasy, mugging John Henry against the modern blockbuster machine, with all its CG robots and green screen fancy-pantsing. In execution, however, they fall woefully short, feeling less like the flesh-and-bone, stunt-driven actioners of yesterday than plodding victory laps after the fact.
Patrick Hughes’ (RED HILL) THE EXPENDABLES 3 is no exception.
In true Expendables fashion, I could exhaust my word count on the role call alone: Sylvestor Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Randy Couture, Terry Crews and Dolph Lundgren (who is seriously starting to look like a scientist tried to build a Mickey Rourke that is also a Rutger Hauer) all return to their roles (Barney, Christmas, Yin Yang, Toll Road, Caeser and Gunner, respectively) to grunt and gambol their way through a fill-in-the-blank action movie template.
It’s no secret to either the audience or the filmmakers that the first film’s novelty - watching Hollywood’s 20th century action elite buddy up to quash injustice - has long since dwindled, so Sly and the gang (co-writers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt ) make two separate attempts to inject new life into the franchise.
First, of course, there’s the addition of even more old-fashioned cinematic hardbodies (and Kelsey Grammer). The film begins with Barney's crew rescuing wild-eyed physician Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes) from an enemy prison. Later, a sleepwalking Harrison Ford shows up as The Expendables government handler, who enlists the team to take down Conrad Stonebanks, an international terrorist and - *gasp* former Expendable - played with maniacal panache by Mel Gibson. When Barney decides to fire his veteran teammates in a bid to save them from certain death, he relies on a well-connected contact named Bonaparte – i.e., Kelsey Grammar – to help assemble a new team. Antonio Banderas rounds out the cast as Galgo, a saucy Latin chatterbox whose enthusiasm to be an Expendable is used to limp, but dogged, comic effect.
While Snipes is passably amusing, and Ford and Grammar are non-starters with screentime barely in excess of cameos, Gibson and Banderas manage to bring a surprising amount of life to the otherwise wholly predictable and mediocre film.
While most of the franchise’s actors play soundbyte-spewing extensions of their on-screen personas, Gibson seems to be engaging directly with the public’s disdain for him, personally, as a human being – hell, it’s reflected in the plot: the disgraced actor plays the fallen, evil member of a once-glorious team made up of aging, but still respected, celebrities. And he plays it with demented relish, hitting a mark somewhere between comic book supervillainy and Alzheimer’s, spitting out lines like, “I’ll cut open your meat shirt and show you your heart” with an insane, wild-eyed gusto that’s as repulsive as it is enthralling.
Banderas, meanwhile, succeeds on energy alone. As written, Galgo is an obnoxious, predictable attempt at comic relief. As performed, Banderas imbues the nattering Cassanova with an effete, eccentric charm that’s so different from the dependable, grimacing masculinity of the rest of the film, it can’t help but feel refreshing.
The second tactic deployed to keep EXPENDABLES 3 fresh is the introduction of a wide-eyed group of battle-hungry young bucks (and one doe) who bring not just brawn, but also tech savvy, to Barney’s new squad. Introduced in the blandest assembling-the-team sequence ever, the Junior Expendables – Smilee (Kellan Lutz), Luna (Ronda Rousey), Thorn (Glen Powell) and Mars (Victor Ortiz) are played by a retinue of brawny but largely unfamiliar (at least to me) Hollywood newbies.
As with the film’s treatment of Gibson, there’s a ghost of potential for a bit of tongue-in-cheek cultural engagement – action movies have become an anonymous slurry of pretty, young faces lost in computer-generated fray in a genre where personality and name-recognition used to be kings. But the tensions between our stalwart Expendables and their larval contemporaries don’t amount to much more than lazy old man jokes and the addition of more flailing bodies into already dizzying, overstuffed fight sequences.
Yeah - “overstuffed fight sequences” pretty aptly describes everything I haven’t mentioned. While I felt EXPENDABLES 3 was better paced in both the frequency and placement of action scenes than the prior entries, the set pieces themselves are so busy with characters and so typical in execution, there’s not much to talk about. I guess the film’s okay at varying up the vehicles involved… there’s also about five minutes where it looks like the movie is going to take a cue from FAST FIVE and inject new life into the franchise with some heist movie theatrics, but the promise is quickly abandoned in lieu of prescribed deployment of heavy artillery.
Though marketed as the ultimate combination of the largest living action stars, there has yet to be an Expendables film worth the sum of those parts. Though THE EXPENDABLES 3 demonstrates brief flashes of originality, and ever briefer, buried moments of self-conscious cultural engagement, it’s ultimately another exercise in homogenized destruction, less a steely-eyed, hard-driving contender to the Hollywood machine than a disgruntled passenger, tired of the ride, but unwilling to give up its seat. (2 out of 4 stars)