Sylvester Stallone as Barney Ross
Mel Gibson as Conrad Stonebanks
Harrison Ford as Max Drummer
Jason Statham as Lee Christmas
Wesley Snipes as Doctor Death
Arnold Schwarzenegger as Trench Mauser
Antonio Banderas as Galgo
Kellan Lutz as John Smilee
Ronda Rousey as Luna
Glen Powell as Thorn
Victor Ortiz as Mars
Dolph Lundgren as Gunner Jensen
Randy Couture as Toll Road
Kelsey Grammer as Bonaparte
Terry Crews as Hale Caesar
Jet Li as Yin Yang
Robert Davi as Goran Vata
Directed by Patrick Hughes
The “Expendables” as a concept was basic and for a filmgoer of a certain age, enticing enough: old-school action heroes committing old-school action without apology. It was the kind of film which had long since been relegated to the world of direct-to-video, in part due to a move towards films which need to bring a larger audience than an R-rated film could manage (because of their enormous cost) and in part because they were gloriously stupid (a major part of their charm).
Like the “Transformers” and “21 Jump Streets” of the world, “Expendables” was a film living on nostalgia for the ’80s, and was probably more successful than anyone involved expected. A variant of a genre known for simple characters and simple plots, the series continues to remain true to that portion of its antecedents: during their latest assignment, Barney Ross (Stallone) and the remaining members of the Expendables discover an old comrade turned war criminal (Gibson) is still alive and still gunning for the rest of the group. That’s all well and good when you start out, but to keep a series going requires more creativity than anyone involved with the “Expendables” has yet shown.
A victim of its own success, the franchise has gone on well past the point where the original idea is enough, sending the filmmakers looking for variations on their theme, leading them into a rut they can’t seem to get clear of. The last time around the answer was to bring on every aging action star they hadn’t managed to squeeze into the first film, and to increase the scope of the action elements by handing the directing reins to a more accomplished action director than Stallone. Coming back for the third time, Stallone and the producers have made the same decision others have made before them — try to keep as much of the formula the same as possible.
This means even more new Expendables starting with Wesley Snipes’ Doctor Death, who immediately outclasses almost every other actor in the film. Obviously enjoying what he’s doing greatly, Snipes infuses the series with the wit it’s been lacking–part of a real attempt at adding humor and humanity to the series which works more than you’d expect–as he joins the Expendables in an attempt to extract vengeance on a fellow founding member, the unlikely named Conrad Stonebanks. Unwilling to let bygones be bygones, Stonebanks hands the group their worst defeat ever and sends them scurrying back to America and the arms of their none-to-pleased CIA handler (Ford).
Rather than risk his team’s death in an act of vengeance, Ross decides to go it alone, forging a new group of younger, faster Expendables to help him hunt his old foe down in what is likely to be a suicide mission. In other words, “Expendables: The Next Generation.” While it’s clear that Stallone and company have some awareness of their limitations–mainly an overabundance of Expendables and an inability to use them beyond leveraging their action movie identities–it’s also clear they have little idea what to do about them beyond introducing more new guns.
The thing is there’s only so many of those old ’80s guys around–the combat sports guys who rounded the group out never quite seem to count–so the new idea has become about introducing a newer, younger selection of heroes who can keep the franchise lurching forward when its stars really do become “too old for this sh*t.” The result for much of the film’s running time is a generic twenty-something fueled action movie not terribly different from most VOD offerings with okay set pieces, terrible acting and worse attempts at humor. It’s telling that most of the heavy character lifting is given to Lutz, the “Twilight” cast member given the least to do because he was considered the weakest performer. I’m going to repeat that for emphasis: the new “Expendables” star was the worst actor in “Twilight.”
Not that the point of all this is to replace the old action guys… yet. Instead it’s more of a young versus old competition as Barney must round up his fellow old dogs to rescue the eventually captured youngsters and prove they’ve still got it… if they can survive a siege by the entire army of the country Stonebridge has gone to ground in. Mainly, what this achieves is making “Expendables 3’s” weaknesses that much more apparent. In a quest for actual humor and some occasional humanity, the filmmakers have developed some real oddballs to join the cast and given them to some talented actors like Kelsey Grammer’s mercurial headhunter and Antonio Banderas’ Galgo, who cannot stop talking to save his life and whose joie de vivre at killing people is infectious. If none of them reach the bar Mickey Rourke set in his five minutes of screen time in the first film, at the very least they (and Snipes) show that the filmmakers are capable of making something interesting and entertaining.
The result is a franchise which, in its quest for the bigger and better, continues to drift further and further away from what made the concept appealing in the first place. Once our classic Expendables are stuck next to the youngsters for the whiz bang climax, all they manage to do is underscore just how awful the younger actors are and how boring the film was without them in it, and they’re not in nearly enough of it.
The growing mayhem of the finale also underscores how weak many of the prior set pieces were in this the first PG-13 rated installment of the franchise. (Much of the middle is focused on a “Dirty Dozen” style character round-up.)
Yes, a series needs to grow and change if it’s to survive, but it can’t get too far from its identity to do so. As the stars get younger and the action gets tamer, “Expendables” comes to resemble more and more of its direct-to-video kin, and worth about as much of your time.