The Expendables 3 (Lionsgate, PG-13)

Expendables-3 75The Expendables 3 is probably the closest the series has gotten to being a real movie.

Expendables-3 500

The Expendables franchise seems like a throwback to an earlier time, not the 80s when its stars were in their prime, but to the films that influenced them. Back in the 60s, it was common to take as many stars as possible and throw them together for a “men on a mission” movie. The appeal of this genre is the same as that of the heist film. We are introduced to an ensemble of characters, usually in a “rounding up the team” montage, which device will never get old to me. We see them bicker and eventually grow as a team. And then the rest of the film is dedicated to their mission, playing out like a procedural. The Expendables clearly wants to be one of these films, and it has all the ingredients, but it betrays the formula.

The first film starts with the team fully formed and in action, denying us the joy of seeing the team built, which is at least half of the appeal. I’m sure the idea was that we already know the actors and their action personas, so why bother introducing them? This decision may seem minor, but it doomed the franchise from the start. Each character ends up being a postmodern joke, and a little bit of that goes a long way. It was fun in the first film to see Stallone comment that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character “wanted to be President.” In the second film, the number of “I’ll be back” jokes wore very thin, and Chuck Norris just played a walking Internet meme. I’m not saying those first two films didn’t have enjoyable moments, but it’s hard to look at them as real movies. Which brings us to The Expendables 3.

The Expendables 3 is probably the closest the series has gotten to being a real movie. It’s not an especially good movie, but it makes some improvements that are worth noting. The plot isn’t original, but it has a structure to it that was lacking in the first two. While on a routine mission, the Expendables realize they are going after a man named Stonebanks, played by Mel Gibson. Stonebanks has a history with Sylvester Stallone’s Barney Ross, who thought he had killed Stonebanks years ago. In the ensuing chase, Stonebanks shoots Caesar (Terry Crews), putting him into a coma. This shakes Ross, and he tells his team that he doesn’t want to get them killed. Despite their objections, Ross disbands the team, and sets about finding some new, younger recruits to help him go after Stonebanks. This leads to (drum role) a montage in which he rounds up a team, and they set off on their mission. (If you think I’m overplaying the importance of seeing the team formed, look at Guardians of the Galaxy and tell me why it’s so good).

Unfortunately, the pleasant surprise of seeing this film give into its formula is tempered by the fact that the new team Ross assembles is pretty lame. Aside from UFC fighter Ronda Rousey, none of them stand out at all, and she only stands out because she’s a woman. She’s no different than the women in the other films, in that her role mostly boils down to the men ogling her and then being surprised that she’s actually tough and competent.

But there is some new blood injected into the cast; it’s just in the form of more old guys. The film opens with them releasing Wesley Snipes from prison (he jokes that he was arrested for tax evasion, one of surprisingly few winking asides), and he’s actually great in the movie. It’s a shame that his arrival coincides so closely with Terry Crews’ departure, implying that there can only be one black Expendable at a time. (The decision to put Crews on the proverbial bench for the majority of the runtime is a bad one, as he was probably the most enjoyable character from the first two films.) Antonio Banderas makes an impression as a guy who is really good at killing people, but also can’t shut up, which annoys everyone around him. Unfortunately, Harrison Ford shows up, to once again remind us that our collective childhoods are, in fact, over. And then there’s Mel Gibson, who we all know is a horrible monster in real life, but who still has tremendous charisma on screen. I guess he can only play villains now, but I really did enjoy seeing him, and he’s easily the best antagonist of the series.

In Rambo: First Blood Part 2 (bad titles have been around for a while) John Rambo defines the word “expendable”—“It’s like someone invites you to a party and you don’t show up, it doesn’t really matter.” Based on that, The Expendables may be the most aptly named franchise of all time. These films feel like parties, but none of them really matter. Ultimately, the third film is every bit as forgettable and mediocre as the others, but I appreciated that it made some improvements. It’s much less jokey (“I’ll be back” isn’t said once, and despite the presence of Mel Gibson, no one says “I’m getting too old for this shit”). Thematically, it feels like it’s playing with the same ideas as Skyfall. It will be fun for those who liked the first two, but I can’t help but feel like the whole series is a big missed opportunity. | Sean Lass

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