"Expendables 3" Keeps Series On Track

The Expendables are back, with more aging movie stars in tow than, um, “The Expendables 2.” There’s no good analogy to made as the series continues to set the bar for biggest assemblage of grizzled action vets looking for one last hurrah. But like a Cher farewell tour, the series shows no signs of actually being a last hurrah, set on charging forward until Sylvester Stallone and company need to be rolled out of their Star Wagons. Audiences have shown no aversion to this plan, reliably showing up to celebrate the golden years of their favorite silver screen macho men, rejoicing in the same kind of dumb, morally ambiguous gunplay they’ve grown up with.

Chapter 3 is no exception to the rule, with an ever-ballooning cast and screenplay that predictably reads like kindergartener action figure speak. Its most interesting lines are on the foreheads of its stars, more than ever imbuing the film with the kind of world weariness that can’t be faked. In an age of film studios attempting to build franchises with hot, young stars – as determined by celebrity gossip blogs – it’s comforting to have a troupe of old hands around who know what they do best and still do it reasonably well.

“The Expendables 3” finally uses that as its main narrative bent – that old age might take a big physical toll, but it breeds the kind of experience that can’t be taught, only lived. In addition to Stallone, the core Expendables team all returns – Jason Statham, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, and Dolph Lundgren – with Arnold Schwarzenegger reprising his role as friendly Expendables rival. As these old, older, and ancient action stars ponder their own mortality, it feels like a refreshing break from the series’ mindless killing. There are emotional layers here – thin, but distinguishable.

But action junkies need not worry – too much. The aforementioned senseless violence is still very much on display, albeit curiously edited down to a PG-13, ostensibly to secure the dollars of adolescent fans. Who knew that pre-teens love Dolph Lundgren? It’s a miscalculation that robs the series of splattery exit wounds and four-letter wordplay, but, alternatively, adds to the weightlessness of the material. The limitations on violence bar the screenplay from becoming the nasty, self-serious gorefest that the first film was, keeping things light and fun, the way they should be.

Newcomer Patrick Hughes is the series’ third director in as many tries, and his serviceable but frequently sloppy staging is a comfy fit for the material. The film opens on the main Expendables team rescuing a long-imprisoned member (Wesley Snipes), before being unceremoniously dismissed by their leader, Barney Ross (Stallone). Barney cites a number of reasons for their discharge, including further endangerment of close friends and inadequacy in the face of a new threat – ex-Expendable Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson).

Enter the new, youthful Expendables, as assembled via molasses-slow montage by a retired mercenary (Kelsey Grammer). Kellan Lutz, Ronda Rousey, Victor Ortiz, and Glen Powell play Barney’s young guns, until things inevitably go awry and the old team is pushed back into the picture. The younger actors are unsurprisingly of little interest, and Gibson is initially limited to walking around, solemnly looking at art. But, when he’s unleashed at the film’s midpoint – given a joyously half-stupid, half-introspective monologue – the pic takes flight.

As was the case with “The Expendables 2,” it’s a movie stolen by its older newcomers, Snipes and Gibson chief among them. Additonally, Antonio Banderas is quite funny as a former member of the Spanish Armed Forces – and complete buffoon – while Harrison Ford usurps Bruce Willis as Barney’s boss, seemingly having a good deal of fun along the way. The pic’s energy level is surprisingly high, making up for a storm of continuity errors and erratic editing. Most bizarrely, some portions of the film are beautifully shot while others look downright amateurish, suggesting on-set strife, budgetary issues, or both.

Furthering the case for monetary troubles? The film is plagued by bad CGI, even worse than the rush jobs audiences have grown accustomed to. Digitally-rendered helicopters abound, belying the notion that the series is a throwback to action movies of days-gone-by. But anyone signing up for a third Expendables film should, by now, know what they’re in for, and few are likely to be disappointed by the sum of its parts. Offscreen behavior aside, Mel Gibson’s screen presence is as magnetic as ever, and the rest of the cast does similarly high energy work. And when the typically sleepy Harrison Ford seems engaged, it’s a sure sign that there’s fun to be had, for cast, crew, and audience alike.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: August 15, 2014
Studio: Lionsgate
Director: Patrick Hughes
Screenwriter: Creighton Rothenberger, Katrin Benedikt, Sylvester Stallone
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, Kellan Lutz, Ronda Rousey, Victor Ortiz, Glen Powell, Kelsey Grammer, Jet Li
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for violence including intense sustained gun battles and fight scenes, and for language)