It’s a strange world indeed when a film you were expecting to be an action movie highlight of the year works best as a comedy, which is especially ironic since The Expendables 3 is by far the biggest and most action packed in the series to date, both in terms of its cast and set pieces.
I’d argue that there remain few people out there who remain as invested in The Expendables franchise as this particular writer, with the heady mix of nostalgia and ultra-violence providing some sublimely over the top entertainment. What’s more, it taps directly into the 80s action movie fantasy line up, that many of us dreamt of seeing back in the day. However, when Stallone shrewdly pioneered the unique concept behind The Expendables, one of the core ingredients and draws for its targeted demographic was the gloriously over the top splatter that accompanied every bullet – it was, after all, how he successfully managed to bring Rambo back to the big screen.
Stallone has always had mixed results from his sequels though, with Rocky V and Rambo III (which I actually love despite the now dubious political posturing) often cited against him. Yet his gamble with The Expendables 3 will prove to be another divisive move as the PG-13 trappings of the latest venture for his gang actually hurt the action in an unexpected way. I was perfectly prepared for the head shredding and face removing gore from the last instalments to be missing to attain its more teen friendly rating. But still: the film is a near bloodless affair, with bad guys dropping to the floor with nary a grazed knee.
It’s a surreal sight that thankfully doesn’t quite hit the same hysterical awfulness of Liam Neeson hugging people to sleep in Taken 2, but at times makes you feel like you’re watching an unfinished work print that’s yet to see gallons of CGI red stuff added. It’s a shame because the bombastic nature and execution of the large scale set pieces is a whole bunch of fun, from the opening liberation of one Mr Snipes, to a finale that simply throws all logic out of the window in the name of a good time.
While Die Hard 4.0 caused controversy by dropping a rating and a motherfucker for its theatrical release, there was still a violent edge running throughout that kept its 80s origins there in spirit. Lethal Weapon 3 and 4 likewise (even if the BBFC applied liberal cuts to the latter’s showdown involving Jet Li in this country). But The Expendables 3 goes one step too far in its quest for a larger box office dominance – hell, even the Indiana Jones movies showed bullet damage. A wiser move would have been to centre more of the action around hand to hand combat, as the scenes which see newcomer and UFC Champion Ronda Rousey snapping limbs are by far the most exhilarating. Thankfully our man Statham gets a little skull cracking too, or there really would have been trouble.
Where The Expendables 3 does work though is in the aforementioned comedy, and that’s largely down to sheer charisma of its cast. If the last two films played heavily with referential puns and the novelty of gratuitously squeezing the likes of Chuck Norris into scenes for no good reason, then part three at least ups the comedy ante. Like any string of gags, some extract belly laughs and others fall flat – Harrison Ford cutting Stallone down is a joy, but Arnie cracking not one but two chopper gags is a little too much.
The two real highlights though, are Wesley Snipes and Antonio Banderas. From the second Snipes appears, with only his eyes on display, it’s a sudden reminder of just how electrifying and unfeasibly cool he can be, and his performance elevates every scene he’s in. Here’s hoping it marks the start of a cinematic comeback as the suppressed menace that made him so compelling in everything from New Jack City to Demolition Man and Blade is more than present and he doesn’t appear to have aged at all. More’s the pity that after a superb first act of quality Snipes, he gets lost in the mix as more and more faces hit the screen vying for time.
Banderas fares much better, with his character Galgo allowed consistent opportunities to shine as a psychologically damaged motor-mouth. Banderas’ performance is hysterical, providing many of the much needed laughs, but his genius is in managing to elicit the films’ only real moment of pathos, which is revealed in a rare and brief bit of quiet, that rounds out his character with more depth than any of the others are given. Here’s hoping that if there’s a future instalment that the casting is cut back and Banderas and Snipes are allowed the lions’ share of screen time, as I’d happily watch an Expendables film with just the two of them cutting loose (though Statham would have to get a look in, obviously).
On villain duties, it’s good to see Mel Gibson channelling his always hypnotic blend of charm and psychosis into his role – there’s no one who does crazy eyes quite as well as Gibson and the Martin Riggs and Max Rockatansky fan in me took delight in seeing him back in some big screen action. The fallen hero dynamic in his character is an aptly melancholy fit.
What the expanded cast prove, especially with the addition of some truly great action stars, is that if The Expendables has a future it needs to be one without Barney Ross. Stallone has always been great at what he does, but the extra focus on Ross merely draws attention to the fact that he’s not an especially great or interesting character anymore. If Sly struggles to imbue Ross with the necessary charisma that’s been so present in his roles from day one, then it’s time to retire him and let the more colourful members take centre stage.
The box office will decide if The Expendables will overcome its lower rating, as it did (sadly) for Taken 2’s success, but one thing is certain – the old school action heroes need old school levels of violence to really work on screen. So if there’s to be more PG-13 antics then hand over the franchise to the younger generation of actors in their own spin-off and let those of us who revel in the sight of Jet Li removing a man’s face with a frying pan have The Expendables we’ve grown to love in all their gory glory.
The Expendables 3 is still fun. But it just doesn’t quite feel like a true sequel, and instead of playing safe it needs to take more risks if it’s to maintain a loyal audience for future instalments.
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