The Expendables movies have never really thought beyond their casts. The thinking has apparently been: “We’ve got classic action heroes, some new blood, and we shoot stuff. The end.” It’s been an action franchise without any memorable action, and a big cast of likable actors devoid of almost any charisma. Although there’s something admirable in how the franchise has sought to be lo-tech in comparisons to today’s CG-loaded blockbusters, it rarely tries to even match the likable characters of those blockbusters. The Expendables 3 is the same old bag of tricks, and while there’s a hint of passing the torch to a younger generation, Sylvester Stallone and his co-writers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt have no intention of really moving forward. The cast just got bigger, the action remains bloated and unimpressive, and only magnetic performances from Mel Gibson and Antonio Banderas manage to break through this tired series.
After Barney Ross (Stallone) and his team of Expendables rescue former comrade Doc (Wesley Snipes) from jail, the guys bring him along to take down an arms dealer. However, Ross is shocked to discover that the dealer is Conrad Stonebanks (Gibson), a former Expendable who realized that if your line of work calls for killing hundreds of people, you may as well accept that you’re a bad guy. After Stonebanks almost wipes out the team, Barney realizes he doesn’t want their deaths on his conscious. Instead, he decides to hire a bunch of young, new recruits (whose lives apparently don’t matter as much) to capture Stonebanks under the orders of CIA handler Drummer (Harrison Ford). We then sit patiently and wait for Barney’s old team to come back.
The franchise is built on the notion of “Give the people what they want!” without ever delivering. Everyone just has to show up, fire some guns, act gruff, throw in stilted banter, and the audience will cheer. But assembling a cast is a promise. It’s a promise built on the beloved films of every person involved. Or, in the case of the younger cast members Victor Ortiz and Ronda Rousey, that their real-life fighting experience will carry over (and bring their fans) to a feature film. But there’s not a single veteran cast member who does anything close to their best work. The best they can do is smile, which I guess is too demanding for most of the cast.
The only newcomers who seem to be having fun are Banderas and Gibson. Banderas plays Galgo, a former fighter desperate to be on any team that will have him, but they’re likely put off by his motor mouth (the Expendables should carry around a sign reading “Enjoyment Only at Designated Times”). In another movie, Galgo would likely be irritating, but in the dour world of The Expendables, he’s a breath of fresh of air. Banderas seems overjoyed to be there while the other memebers just stand around and try to make as few facial expressions as possible.
The other great asset is Gibson. I really wish Gibson wasn’t a horrible, insane, pathetic excuse for a human being because he is a really good actor. I don’t know if we’ll ever see him play a good guy again because his public image is so tainted, but he (unsurprisingly) has no problem playing the heavy. And in The Expendables 3, he’s having a blast doing it. Additionally, he’s the only character to contradict Barney on a fundamental level. Barney and his team have killed more people than Ebola, but presumably all their victims were bad, so who cares? It would be interesting to see a movie that delved into the notion of the heroes being cold-blooded murderers, but The Expendables will never be that kind of movie. It will be a movie where the mercenary army of Assmanistan (not kidding; that’s how Drummer pronounces it) gets mowed down in an endless action scene.
Director Patrick Hughes throws in a lot at the set pieces, and his direction is serviceable at best, crowded at worst. To be fair, he’s hamstrung by a bizarre PG-13 rating, which the previous two movies didn’t have to deal with. When bad guys on a speeding train get clotheslined, they’re knocked down instead of torn in half. This is a movie that at the very least demands blood since it wants to be in the vein of the 80s action flicks where we knew an R-rating wouldn’t scar kids for life. That being said, the film’s climax is a mess as Hughes scrambles to gun fights to beat downs to helicopter battles. Individually, none of these scenes are particularly memorable, and smashing them all together doesn’t make them any better.
That’s the ethos of The Expendables franchise: Quantity over quality. It’s better to stuff your movie full of actors instead of making them characters. As long as there is plenty of gunfire and explosions, no one should ask for anything more. I’ve asked for more three times now, and for the most part all I’ve received in return are a bunch of grumpy faces and forgettable action.