It took two movies, but The Expendables films finally learned their lesson. The Expendables 3 is stupid in a fun way, not in the irritating, grinding and boring way the previous two films were. It’s like a revelation - this is what this tedious series should have been from the beginning.
One of the ways The Expendables 3 improves on the last two is that it gives screen time to actors who are actually fun and bring something to the screen, sidelining lumps like Randy Couture and Dolph Lundgren and bringing in Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas and Mel Gibson. These three especially bring a fresh energy to the movie, ironic since the whole premise of the film is that Sylvester Stallone’s Barney is trying to bring fresh blood to his team… and they’re all pretty much duds. It’s old guys to the rescue.
The film opens with Barney and the boys busting Wesley Snipes from a prison train and bringing him back into the fold. But before he can return home to the good food and fine threads for which he longs after eight years in a black ops prison, they have one mission for him. That mission goes sideways when it turns out the target is actually Conrad Stonebanks, the co-founder of The Expendables who went rogue years before and who Barney thought he had killed. The team gets their asses handed to them and Terry Crews’ Ceasar is put into jail (he had to have a bad feeling when another black guy joined the team). Dispirited, Barney disbands the team, finds young blood and promptly fucks up again.
I honestly could not tell you what happened in the last two Expendables films. I could name dumb scenes or groan-inducing gags, but I have no clue what the plots of those films were. The Expendables 3 has a plot, and it has turns and reversals and even builds towards a climax that feels emotionally connected to everything that went before. The Expendables 3 is a real movie.
It’s a great real movie, but it has plenty of moments. Banderas and Gibson are the saviors of the film, each approaching their roles with relish. Banderas is a chatterbox merc who is just really lonely and Gibson’s Stonebanks is essentially a Bond villain, all the way to setting up a death trap for the Expendables and watching via webcam. After two films of generic DTV villainy this expansion to semi-super villainy is a welcome change. Gibson’s simply having a hoot, and he quickly reminds us why he was a movie star - he’s magnetic and manic and has actual range. He’s an incredibly strong villain.
I wish I could say equally nice things about Harrison Ford, the new CIA handler for The Expendables now that Bruce Willis is too expensive for the films, but Ford is simply horrible. Ronda Rousey, who seems congenitally unable to emote, out-acts him in this film. He mumbles and grimaces his way through the movie, and it looks like he only ever actually shares a frame with Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger, by the way, seems to have shown up just to fuck around with some guys he likes, which is essentially the exact correct attitude to have in an Expendables film.
The last few weeks have given me more and more hope for Star Wars Episode VII but in just a few lazy scenes Ford dashed them all. Watching him sit in a helicopter cockpit, pretending to shoot down other choppers (surely intended to recall Han Solo in the Falcon) while grumbling “Drummer’s in the house,” was so tragic I had no choice but to laugh out loud. I put more effort into that laugh than Ford did in this whole film.
The new team are a bunch of non-starters, although none are offensively bad. They’re mostly just there. They engage in a cool stealth mission and then get sidelined, and their character arcs are sidelined with them. Kellan Lutz is introduced as a loner who has authority problems, but that never actually comes up in the film itself. The newbie Exendables butt heads with the oldie Expendables, but everybody forgets that pretty quickly. It’s all sketched out in between action scenes, of which there are mercifully many.
The biggest misstep The Expendables 3 makes is getting rid of Wesley Snipes early on. His character, Doc, is a little ‘off’ after spending eight years in a pit, and he’s fun… until the team gets disbanded and then he’s just chilling out offscreen. He never quite recovers from getting tossed aside, an enormous missed opportunity. But since this is The Expendables nobody dies or is even permanently hurt, so he could always come back in the next film.
There’s plenty of action, and some of it even good. There are shoot outs and fist fights in shallow water and tanks and helicopter dogfights and even a guy riding around on a dirt bike for a bit. The action is often staged competently, if never rising quite to the level of coolness it probably had in the planning stages. A scene where a guy rides a dirt bike up a destroyed tank’s turret, leaps off, grabs onto exposed rebar, whips out an Uzi and shoots some guys should be a stand and applaud moment. It’s okay here. This makes me worried about the remake of The Raid - Patrick Hughes, who directed The Expendables 3, is working on that one.
Hughes certainly does a better job than Stallone and Simon West, the previous two directors. He’s made a movie with a heartbeat, at least. It’s possible he’s hemmed in by his budget, and in that case he certainly got a lot on screen for a mid-budget picture.
I really hated The Expendables, and I thought The Expendables 2 was so bad it was a money laundering scheme. That means I walked into The Expendables 3 with my expectations in the toilet… so they weren’t hard to exceed. But they were exceeded in a pleasant way; The Expendables 3 is the first film in the series to hit its low goal of being an action-packed, fun and schlocky throwback to a different era of action filmmaking. It took them three movies, but they finally got it right.
And they only have one Schwarzenegger catch-phrase crammed in this time.