The first The Expendables delivered when it came to violence, but the story was extraordinarily lacking in the way troubled origin stories typically are, trying to build too much back-story, forgetting why the audience is there in the first place. The Expendables 2 was a complete and utter mess, the ensemble cast grew, but that ultimately became its downfall as story gave way to characters popping up out of nowhere in an attempt to give reason for their casting, which often proved to be no more than making sure they could deliver a punchline or classic character one-liners.
This trend would suggest The Expendables 3 would be damn near unwatchable as the franchise now tosses aside the R-rating and goes for a more audience friendly PG-13, which is a disappointing revelation as one of the only remaining reasons to watch these films was the elaborate violence as story never seemed to be a priority. Oddly enough, while the story isn’t exactly what I would consider “A-grade”, it definitely works and the massive ensemble cast is wrangled in well enough that this doesn’t become a movie about one-liners and cameo appearances, instead there’s a little meat on this bone.
Written by Sylvester Stallone, Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, the opening sequence finds our familiar group of mercenaries — Barney Ross (Stallone), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunner (Dolph Lundgren) and Toll Road (Randy Couture) — busting a one-time Expendable, Doc (Wesley Snipes), out of a maximum security prison, where he’s been for the last eight years. It’s a big set piece filled with kicking, punching, lots of gunfire and one big explosion and Snipes fits right in with the gang and even gets a pretty good one-liner in when asked why he was imprisoned.
The group is quickly onto another mission, this one to take down an arms dealer in Somalia, but Ross soon realizes the name on his hit list doesn’t match the face he sees, one-time Expendable gone rogue, Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson). Barney’s crew is decimated and one of them hospitalized on life support.
Barney disbands his old crew and sets his sights on a suicide mission to kill Stonebanks with a younger and, in his eyes, even more “expendable” crew — Thorn (Glen Powell), Luna (UFC star Ronda Rousey), Mars (Victor Ortiz) and Smilee (Kellan Lutz). From here, a lot of things happen, a lot of people are bloodlessly killed thanks to the PG-13 rating and the likes of Harrison Ford, Kelsey Grammer, Arnold Schwarzenegger (who delivers a classic line at just the right time) and even Jet Li get into the mix to varying degrees.
The addition of Snipes is a welcome one, but, surprisingly, Antonio Banderas as Galgo, a garrulous killer who’s bursting at the seams to get in the fight, is one of the best things about the movie. Oftentimes characters created to annoy the other characters in a film are often annoying to the audience itself, but in this case the timing consistently works as he’s giddy just to get involved in killing some bad guys.
Easily the biggest misstep is the PG-13 rating, which knocks this film down as the majority of the action is a bunch of bullets being fired, knives across throats and hand-to-hand combat that certainly ends with a winner and a lot of losers, but the imagination in the action is lost. There is simply too much killing going on in this movie for there not to be a single drop of blood and the movie suffers for it. I’m not suggesting a movie with a high body count is somehow better simply with the addition of blood, but with the addition of blood and some gore not only does the tension rise along with the consequences, but the filmmakers can be more inventive in the action. More stakes are on the table for how these people can fight the bad guy rather than mowing them down with machine guns time and time again.
The other issue the film faces is a matter of length. At 126 minutes it’s just too damned long and the montage in which Kelsey Grammer as Bonaparte aids Barney in selecting his newer, younger team members isn’t altogether boring, but it’s edited and left too long. Following that is an insert where the two are driving around somewhere (though it’s clearly a green screen set piece) and Bonaparte asks for his money upfront. It’s a scene that could have been inserted anywhere else but director Patrick Hughes (whose directing skills are quite lacking) felt it was necessary to waste another minute of our time with a throwaway scene that only sticks out for its needlessness rather than any relevancy to the story.
In the end, I liked Expendables 3. Perhaps more due to lowered expectations, but I know for a fact had this been trimmed down by 10-15 minutes and had they made it an R-rated movie with violence akin to what Stallone delivered in his final Rambo film or even the first Expendables I would have liked it a lot more. But this is the state of the cinematic world we live in now, where not even our tough guy cinema can go all out as the almighty dollar and the teen demographic drive studio driven features. It’s a shame, because it’s not a matter of merely adding CG blood to this current cut, it’s about new choreography, more inventive kills and some actual consequences that would have turned this into one hell of a bad ass ride. Instead it’s just a decent way to spend a couple hours with a dream of what could have been.