The Expendables 3, the latest in Hollywood’s action-star pension plan, confirms the series’ status as the modern action genre’s biggest missed opportunity. Star and story producer Sylvester Stallone has mined his rolodex for a beefed-up (emphasis on the beef) punch-a-thon for him and his bulging buddies and while there are some welcome roster additions, Stallone and new director Patrick Hughes remain unable to dream up material worthy of the star wattage on show. We’re three films deep, and the franchise has yet to deliver a single memorable set-piece. And that’s kind of a problem.
At least the films have finally landed on a villain with some pop. Mel Gibson is the inexplicably-named Conrad Stoneheart, Expendables co-founder turned cold-blooded arms trader. After he puts Caesar (Terry Crews) in the hospital, Stallone’s granite-faced Barney Ross disbands the group and puts together a sort of Junior Expendables (Glen Powell, Victor Ortiz, Kellan Lutz and MMA fighter Ronda Rousey) to take revenge. Inevitably, things don’t go to plan and it’s up to seasoned vets Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren) and Toll Road (Randy Couture) to save the day and hit Stoneheart’s hideout in Azmenisation (just south of Whereveristan).
It’s a treat to have Gibson back on the big screen, smarming and biting and scorning his old friend. ‘How many people have you killed today?’ he snarls, a rare acknowledgement that yes, our heroes are basically mass murderers, 12A rating or otherwise. The film doesn’t often come to life, but when it does it’s because of the efforts of new cast members, not just Gibson but also Harrison Ford, Kelsey Grammer, Wesley Snipes and Antonio Banderas. Snipes, no longer the property of Pennsylvania’s penal system, plays ‘Doctor Death’, an old-school team member whom the lads break out of a prison train in the opening set-piece. Befitting a callback-heavy franchise, it’s a setup with a winking meta-text: asked what got him locked up, he jokes ‘tax evasion’. Snipes goes for an ever-so-wacko comic book silliness, which seems appropriate enough for a character named ‘Doctor Death’. It is Banderas, though, who pretty much steals the show as Galgo, a needy, over-enthusiastic, chatty fighter who bounces around with Zorro’s swashbuckling Latin spirit.
The Expendables 3 has two modes: stilted banter and loud. Like the first two, it trades heavily on the fraternal charms of its macho-violence fantasy football team. Whatever else, there is a real incongruous thrill in watching Rambo and Frasier trading barbs, even if the script, written with Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, does often read like something a half-literate fan-fic message-boarder would come up with. And when the shooting kicks in, it’s a weirdly dull blur of stodgy browns and dusty greys. There’s a visual basicness and a workmanlike repetition to how the combat is staged and shot: it felt like a good third of the film was close-ups of exploding gun barrels. Given that the cast list of the series doubles as its sole marketing strategy, much effort has presumably gone into assembling this headline-grabbing line-up but comparatively little seems to have gone into figuring out what to do with them once they’re all together.
From its inception, The Expendables’ primary problem has been the mistaking of form for content. It recycles the machismo gunfare, faceless goon fodder and smirking one-liners of films like Rambo, Commando and Demolition Man but forgets the campy, black menace that helped make them so appealing. The third instalment is a lot like the patriarch at its centre: lumbering, blunt, unsophisticated and a little bit sentimental. ‘We used to be the future’, he sighs to his comrades, ‘now we’re the past’. Conor Smyth