The plot of The Expendables 3 is so besides the point, I’ll mention it first to get it out of the way. The Sylvester Stallone-lead team of warriors for hire now seek vengeance after one of their own is critically wounded by a former-Expendable-turned-bad guy (Mel Gibson). Among the many new team members, we have an agile, ex-convict… well, I was trying to think of ways to describe the role, but all you need to know is that he’s played by Wesley Snipes. For all the care the screenplay takes in setting up the newcomers, it’s who they are to us off screen that really matters: Wow, that’s Antonio Banderas! Hey, it’s UFC champion Ronda Rousey! Look, it’s that guy from Twilight! Actually, why is he here?
During a long scene in which a villain taunts a group of heroes while captured, it suddenly hit me where I’d witnessed this before: it’s an effective re-do of the tense Tom Cruise/Philip Seymour Hoffman confrontation in Mission: Impossible III. In fact, there were more than a few times when Ethan Hunt’s adventures were being mimicked. That’s a problem, as Stallone’s series has never been hip, slick or light on its feet.
Even more so than inevitable franchise fatigue, the biggest hurdle for Expendables 3 is an identity crisis. The first Expendables had a real-world commentary on dictatorships, water boarding and human suffering. The 2012 sequel was equally tough but threw in a lot of one-liners, lightened up the tone considerably and even introduced a villain named Vilain, played by Jean-Claude Van Damme.
The third time around, the movie wants to have it both ways, as a comedy and a bone crusher. It’s rated PG-13 and the bloodshed isn’t as messy but the pile of bodies remain stacked high. When Stallone’s Barney Ross and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Trench have a secret meeting to discuss their latest mission, I kept waiting for a jokey line that winked at either of their former movie roles. The scene passed and I realized, Oh, I was supposed to be listening for plot points and watching the acting.
Much later on, it’s a different story, as Schwarzenegger reprises one of his most beloved one-liners (not “I’ll Be Back,” which he’s likely polishing for next summer’s Terminator Genisys). How much of this we’re supposed to be emotionally invested in or just laughing at, I’m unsure.
I enjoy these movies for being robust, jocular action movies and tongue in cheek parodies of 1980s explosion-fests but this latest installment felt a little off. A sequence of recruiting a new team goes on far too long, as Stallone and Kelsey Grammer (out of place but somehow making his appearance work) repeatedly drive out to a remote location, watch some young scrapper do something macho, then nod and say, “he’ll do.” This portion takes up much of the running time.
The large ensemble cast is too crowded. As the camera cuts to the many, many people on screen kicking butt during the well-staged grand finale, the performers are trying hard to make each of their moments count. Like a kid yelling, “Mommy, watch me!,” I felt bad for Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Glen Powell and all the others I forgot were in this movie. Rousey is engaging, gorgeous and an obvious star in the making but she’s not showcased enough. Snipes has a big introduction but, in the same way, is shoved to the background. Banderas stands out for giving a real performance while surrounded by beefy non-actors. Harrison Ford has a striking introduction but overstays his welcome.
Oddly enough, its Gibson who gives the film the most juice. Unlike his unfortunate lampooning in Machete Kills, Gibson brings dimension to his top-rate villainy. I wouldn’t call this a comeback but then, The Expendables have always been a franchise for troubled action stars to come back. He’s the most authentic Expendable and the movie’s secret (and lethal) weapon.
Score: ** and a half stars