Arguably the best film in the franchise for actually sticking to a loose, decidedly less serious tone than its predecessors, The Expendables 3 still isn’t high art or even something that makes the best use of its stacked cast of action movie superstars, but it’s fun while it lasts. It’s about putting on a show, giving the audience some spectacle to look at, saying some one-liners, and sending people home happy. It’s an easy mission for a team of pros like this, but at least it’s one that’s easily accomplished.
The core gang of mercenaries for hire from the first two films have returned under the leadership of Sylvester Stallone’s Barney Ross. They take on a job stopping a mysterious arms trader for the CIA, only to realize that their nemesis is none other than the man who helped start The Expendables (Mel Gibson) alongside Barney. They get their asses kicked, one of their own almost gets killed again, and Barney decides to sideline his aging crew in favour of some fresh new fighters “who don’t give a shit” to save the world from a maniacal madman. Eventually the crew members new and old learn to work together as a team, and you can pretty much figure out where the rest of this is headed.
Outside of watching a bunch of people who were once at the top of their game have fun with some elaborate action sequence (the opening sequence of a helicopter chasing a train is pretty great, ditto some killer motorcycle stunts that turn into killer parkour stunts), the real joy of watching these films comes from wondering just which famous actor will pop up next and in what capacity. Oh, hey! Harrison Ford is the guy hiring them this time (taking a few nice swipes at his status as “Bruce Willis’ replacement”). Oh, look! That’s Wesley Snipes balancing his hard action character with his crazy comedic character! Is that Ronda Rousey beating up dudes wholesale in a dress? Why is Kelsey Grammer the guy helping Barney get the team together again?
This time out co-writer sly and Australian director Patrick Hughes (Red Hill) knows that no one gives a shit about the plot or how serious of a threat Gibson’s delightfully batshit megalomaniac is, but rather that the audience just wants to see their heroes do some cool shit. The trouble with that is by giving everyone their own high spot to shine, the film has definitely longer than it needs to be running time that goes past the two hour mark. Even with all that time to work with, some fans will undoubtedly come away from this one feeling like the person they really came to see got short changed.
Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, and Snipes have plenty to do in the early going, but then the movie has to forget about them for an hour or so before getting to the point. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s rival team leader pops up again, but has arguably the least to do in this entry compared to the other two. Grammer gets about ten minutes of screen time, but that’s all his character really needs. The less said about the kind of strained mentor/mentee relationship between Barney and his heir apparent (Kellan Lutz) the better, but they acclimate themselves just fine to the silly push and pull of the material. Antonio Banderas shows up as an older motormouth trying to get a job. He’s essentially doing a live action Puss in Boots routine, but he also gets to utter possibly the most unintentionally and uncomfortably funny line readings of “Benghazi” ever uttered in the film’s most politically suspect moment. They all do a fine job, with MMA star Rousey and former boxer Victor Ortiz making surprisingly great impressions for novice actors, but again there will be plenty for some fans of these individual stars to complain about.
I’m particularly disappointed that Terry Crews seems to get the shortest part of the stick here, but those kinds of criticisms shouldn’t be paid much mind. The Expendables films are largely about team effort in the first place, and in teams no one is really greater than the whole. These films aren’t exactly rocket science, and while Hughes (who’s rightfully rumoured to be directing the American remake of The Raid) delivers arguably the best looking and fastest moving of these films to date.
Sometimes that’s all you need. That’s all I needed. I liked it, and it’s probably the only film in the franchise that I would consider watching a second time. The other films were fun enough in their own way. This was the only one that left me feeling satisfied that I was getting the cheesy action movie goodness I wanted going in. And similarly don’t pay any mind to the toned down violence this time out. If anything, it helps the film by playing up the hand-to-hand physicality of these stars instead of having them constantly shoot people from a distance. It proves they still have something left in the tank.