Expendables 3, The (United States, 2014)

August 15, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Expendables 3, The Poster

They're back! That lovable band of washed-up '80s action heroes has returned in full glory for the third installment of Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables series. And, while some of the names have changed (bye, bye Bruce Willis and Chuck Norris; hello Antonio Banderas, Wesley Snipes, and Harrison Ford), the basic mission statement remains the same: bring together many action icons from the past and throw them into a cocktail overflowing with testosterone. For a variety of reasons, most having to do with a weak screenplay and poor pacing, The Expendables 3 is the least successful entry in the series. It lacks the newness of the first movie and the pure camp enjoyment factor of The Expendables 2. This one takes itself a little too seriously and comes across as 50% setup and 50% repetitious action. And, while the number of bullets is at the level one would expect, there are surprisingly few laughably silly one liners. ("I am the Hague!")

Excitement often accompanies action, but it's not a given that the former follows the latter. In fact, generic action - routine shoot-outs, fights, etc. - can often lead to boredom. Tension and suspense results when we care about the characters and believe their fates to be in jeopardy, neither of which is the case in The Expendables 3. In fact, the degree to which we're invested in these people has nothing to do with their screen personas and everything to do with the actors playing them. Names like "Barney Ross" and "Trench" don't mean a lot, but "Stallone" and "Schwarzenegger" do. And it's less likely that either of these men is going to get killed than that bad guy Mel Gibson will end up in a one-on-one knock-down drag-out with Stallone during the final reel.

For a mostly brainless movie, The Expendables 3 has a surprisingly dense plot, which is part of the problem. The 2-hour running length is unnecessarily long. Pacing is a major problem - there are times when the film drags to a halt. And director Patrick Hughes has fallen in line with many modern action filmmakers by constructing the fight scenes in the most chaotic, incoherent manner possible (lots of cuts, shaky camerawork, and so forth). Maybe this was made necessary by the ages of some of the participants or the mandates of the PG-13 rating but it's frustrating to have to work so hard during a big action sequence to figure out what's happening. Eventually, the tendency is to give up and stop caring.

The movie opens with current the current cast of Expendables - Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunner (Dolph Lundgren), Toll Road (Randy Coture), and Caesar (Terry Crews) - rescuing an imprisoned former member, Doc (Wesley Snipes). After dramatically springing him in a scene involving a train and a big explosion, they head off on their next CIA-sponsored mission: eliminating an arms dealer. This turns out to be more difficult than expected because the target is a former Expendable and all-around evildoer named Stonebanks (Mel Gibson). They fail and Caesar is nearly killed. Filled with remorse, Barney disbands the Expendables, not wanting to be responsible for the deaths of his friends. He then hires a band of young mercenaries to follow him on a "second chance" opportunity to capture Stonebanks. Barney's new CIA contact, Digger (Harrison Ford), makes it clear that Stonebanks is to be brought in alive so he can be put on trial for war crimes. Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger), an old rival of Barney's, comes along to help. Eventually, the rest of the Expendables become involved.

In some genres, total predictability is a worthwhile quality. Romantic comedies are an example. It's debatable whether that's true of an action/thriller. Movies like The Raid work in part because the viewer is never quite sure what's going to happen and because the death of a major character is not only possible but likely. The greatest American action/thriller, Die Hard, worked for similar reasons. The Expendables 3, however, never for a moment makes us believe there's anything surprising lurking around the bend. This film is weighed down by a sense of inevitability. While the same was true of its immediate predecessor, that film was dipped in a coating of campy, over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek fun.

Wesley Snipes (whose previous appearance with Stallone in Demolition Man is obliquely referenced along with his income tax-related imprisonment) and Antonio Banderas bring an injection of energy to the proceedings. The same isn't true of Harrison Ford, an 11th hour replacement for Bruce Willis. Ford looks bored; one hopes this isn't the vibe he's going to bring when he reprises Han Solo. Mel Gibson proves that, whatever off-screen issues he might have, he can still turn in an intense performance. The best scene in The Expendables 3 is one in which he and Stallone have a pointed conversation. The returning members of The Expendables are mostly going through the motions. In fact, Jet Li has less than five minutes of screen time.

By now, the audience for The Expendables has been whittled down to those whose affinity for '80s action movies and their stars won't die. This is more of a niche film than a mainstream one. The action isn't good enough to attract a younger, hipper audience. There are bullets aplenty and big explosions but none serves a purpose beyond delivering the expected. It's safe to say that, with the third installment, this franchise has expended whatever good will it once had.

Expendables 3, The (United States, 2014)

Run Time: 2:06
U.S. Release Date: 2014-08-15
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1