Three films in, the Expendables franchise piles on the guest stars like some insane militarized version of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. This time around, Sylvester Stallone and his regular crew (Jason Statham, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Dolph Lundgren, Arnold Schwarzenegger) are back, but they’re joined by Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson and a fistful of new recruits whose names you’d be as hard-pressed to remember as their performances. But fine emoting is not what we come to these movies for, right?
The Expendables 3 begins with Barney Ross (Stallone) and the boys getting one-time member Snipes out of a black ops prison after he’s been incarcerated for eight years (“Tax evasion,” he says with a smirk when asked what he was in for) and making a stop on the way home to capture an arms dealer. But that part of the trip goes pear-shaped when the arms dealer turns out to be Conrad Stonebanks (Gibson), a co-founding member of the Expendables who was thought to be dead and is now as amoral as they come. Stonebanks’ minions make short work out of the Expendables, leading Ross to decide that he needs a younger, fresher team. But can Ross and his newbies successfully complete the mission that the old Expendables couldn’t?
I’d be curious to know what Menahem Golan, the late, legendary producer who died last week, would have thought about The Expendables 3. Golan’s Cannon Films was responsible for a lot of the ‘80s actionfests that Stallone has sought to emulate with the Expendables films, but The Expendables 3 — the first in the series rated PG-13 — lacks the sleazy energy and gore that defined that era. The film is nearly bloodless in both the literal and metaphorical sense, and it has a leaden pace, especially in its saggy second act, that renders even a lot of its action strangely inert. Director Patrick Hughes never seems to inject any real energy into the proceedings, and the best I can say about his work is that the film at least looks good most of the time.
It’s a shame because he does have some game actors on board this time. Gibson is a deliciously evil and larger-than-life villain — something lacking in both earlier films — and he digs into the role with manic intensity and a sense of humor. The funniest stuff goes to Antonio Banderas as a crazy out-of-work mercenary who desperately want to latch onto Ross’ team and, in the end, is really just looking to find a new group of friends. Snipes and Kelsey Grammer also have fun with their relatively small roles, injecting more levity and little bits of character business into the screen time they have.
Far less impressive is Harrison Ford, replacing Bruce Willis as the Expendables’ CIA handler. Ford — who did show some signs of life as Branch Rickey in last year’s 42 — continues here along the same trajectory as most of his recent roles: he seems tired, cranky, and barely interested in even pretending to be involved in the proceedings, pushing his lines out with all the enthusiasm of a retiree ordering the Wednesday lunch at the assisted living home. If Han Solo is indeed a major character in Star Wars Episode VII, we can only hope that J.J. Abrams has the set fully stocked with a steady supply of vitamins.
Then again, Stallone seems tired as well, his impressively craggy face more frozen and stone-like than ever. His one note — grim determination — is at odds with the more self-aware work from Banderas, Gibson, Statham, and even Schwarzenegger, and the new recruits seem to be taking their cues from him. We meet them — Glen Powell, MMA star Ronda Rousey, Victor Ortiz, and the already dreaded Kellan Lutz — in a montage and they make so little impression that we barely care when they’re captured 15 minutes later.
Of course, it’s up to the old guys to rescue the new ones, and The Expendables 3 finishes with the kind of overlong orgy of gunfire, hand-to-hand combat and explosions that has more in common with modern action spectacles than their 30-year-old predecessors. But aside from a few inspired flashes here and there, even this just seems flat. We should be cheering, but instead we just want it over with after a while (the CG helicopter battle doesn’t help matters either). The Expendables 3 is occasionally fun — mainly thanks to the actors who don’t take it all so seriously — but just once we wish Stallone would cut loose and really let these movies be as mad as they could be.
The Expendables 3 is out in theaters Friday, August 15.