Sylvester Stallone rounds up Antonio Banderas, Jason Statham, Wesley Snipes and Dolph Lundgren for some AARP thrills in "The Expendables 3." Credit: Phil Bray
'The Expendables 3' Director: Patrick Hughes Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham Rating: PG-13 3 (out of 5) Globes
Much like America, “The Expendables” series aren’t just films; they’re an idea. They exist to sound like the most AWESOME movie ever made — an all-star round-up of your favorite old school action stars in one movie, where they blow stuff up and shoot at each other and pretend that they haven’t all had an AARP membership for over a decade. In practice, they’re forgettable and kind of crappy programmers that remain junky fun — provided you dial down your expectations.
Granted, “The Expendables 3” is the closest to whatever ideal frontman Sylvester Stallone blabbers about like a huckster trying to sell gullible throngs magic elixir. This is to say it’s the biggest. The first one talked a big talk, but the main set of mercenaries only counted three legends. (No disrespect to The Mighty Terry Crews.) This one adds Wesley Snipes and Antonio Banderas and Harrison Ford, plus more time for Arnold Schwarzenegger (he says “choppah” twice). And there’s Mel Gibson as the hammy bad guy — a former Expendable-turned-shadowy criminal whom our heroes must track down.
Hey, look! It's Wesley Snipes, out from jail and back in movies. Credit: Phil Bray
This one’s only PG-13, yet this is still more like it. The series is a shape-shifter, if not a mythological beast; for every one person to drop out, two, sometimes three take their place. Gone is Bruce Willis; says Sly of his character: “He’s out of the picture.” That’s one of many, many couldn’t-resist-it lines tipping the hat to real life, but not the biggest. That would be the opening action sequence, in which Snipes, recently finished with a prison stint in real life, is broken out of jail. What was he in for? “Tax evasion,” he jokes with crazy eyes.
Snipes clearly enjoys being back at work, and he jokes up the kind of storm you see from someone who doesn’t want to again disappear. But the “Expendables” films are sloppy, and they quickly forget about him, as well as his boasted knack for knives. (“I’m the knife before Christmas,” he says.) It teases viewers with Robert Davi, who doesn’t get any real lines and disappears as suddenly as he arrived. A mighty colossus is built up, but once he’s unleashed, he’s felled in less than a minute by relatively tiny Jason Statham. The film is so long you can forget Kelsey Grammer — as another former mercenary, who introduces Stallone to younger recruits, including Kellan Lutz and lone female Ronda Rousey — was ever in it.
If you forgot that Harrison Ford can smile, then here's proof that that's not true. Credit: Phil Bray
It’s also easy to realize that this is still a lot of pomp with very little craft. These guys made their names with trash, but it was visually strong trash. “Rambo: First Blood Part II” was lensed by the legendary Jack Cardiff, ferchrissakes. “The Expendables” is drab and underlit, and director Patrick Hughes stages action so that it looks busy without ever being bold. He gets lost trying to cut between all the moving parts in the epic climax, while the severe cutting is not only there elide violence but also the stunts “performed” by our cast. Everyone shoots a lot, because that’s all they can do. Harrison Ford grins from a helicopter while blowing up a tank, then announces this “was the most fun I’ve had in years,” which is sad in at least two ways.
But that’s how these films roll. They’re not trying hard to be good. They’re really hang-out films, only instead of cracking wise or busting each other’s chops — which they did badly in the first one — they’re firing off groaners and blowing things up. There’s a hint of sadness, even bitterness. “We’re not the future,” Stallone grumbles. “We’re from the past.” Neil Young’s “Old Man” even crops up on the soundtrack.
But it doesn’t actually want to deal with grim realities and looming retirement and decaying bodies. It wants to distract you and its stars. It wants to live in a fantasy, where even Mel Gibson gets to have fun, tearing into bizarre threats like, “I’ll open your meat shirt and show you your own heart.” It’s not much of a line, but if it was, this wouldn’t be an “Expendables” episode. Then again, any film that has Terry Crews take a knee at the 20-minute mark can’t be too likeable.