The Expendables 3 picks up with Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and his loyal roughnecks as they rescue an old crew member (Wesley Snipes), to assist the under-staffed Expendables team on what otherwise seems to be a routine mission. However, when their latest job brings Barney face to face with a presumed-dead acquaintance named Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), the operation quickly goes south.
Barney is thereafter hired by CIA field operative Max Drummer (Harrison Ford) to find Stonebanks and bring him in – alive. The Expendables’ patriarch decides that he needs some “new blood” for the job and recruits his alley Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer) to help assemble a pack of younger, more tech-savvy, mercenaries. Can Barney and his inexperienced team capture one of the most dangerous war criminals in the world?
The first Expendables movie was a relatively straight-faced throwback to the popular style of machismo action cinema in the 1980s and ’90s, while Expendables 2 often bordered on being an intentional self-parody (albeit, a rather violent one). Expendables 3, as directed by Patrick Hughes (Red Hill), aims to walk the line between these dual approaches, but goes about doing so in a rather clunky manner. The most devoted Expendables fans ought to still get their money’s worth, but even some of them may be left feeling that the series is just running on fumes at this point.
Stallone co-penned the Expendables 3 script with screenwriting duo Katrin Benedikt and Creighton Rothenberger (Olympus Has Fallen), but the story and dialogue is very much in the vein of previousExpendables films. The final result oscillates, giving rise to unintended camp dramatic sequences (see: the “Sad Expendables Montage”) and intended comical scenes; it’s an occasionally schizophrenic, if generally amusing mashup.
The big issue, however is that a good chunk of Expendables 3 is devoted to introducing and developing the “young Expendables” team. As such, the main reason for this property’s existence largely gets put on the back-burner. Unfortunately, the film’s fresh-faced stars – Kellan Lutz (The Legend of Hercules), Glen Powell (The Dark Knight Rises), and real-life professional athletes Victor Ortiz and Ronda Rousey – don’t have enough screen charisma (yet) to overcome their thinly-painted characters, so they don’t make up the difference. Eventually, The Expendables 3 offers its share of old-school action thrills and fun, yet it has the same problems as its predecessors – and then some.
Shoddy filmmaking has always been an issue for the Expendables franchise – and, sadly, it’s only gotten worse on Expendables 3. Hughes' direction tends to feel amateurish; he and director of photography Peter Menzies Jr. (The Incredible Hulk) often frame the proceedings in awkward closeups – resulting in a movie that not only has little sense of space, but doesn’t exactly make its aging stars look good, either. There are other very basic technical shortcomings as well (poorly-lit scenes, dubious green screen backdrops, and so on).
Hughes, despite this, still manages to stage a handful of satisfying action sequences and keeps the plot flowing at a steady pace, during the buildup to the grand barbecue that is the third act – one centered around a major set piece that, in many ways, feels like a trial run for the director’s upcoming remake of The Raid. Expendables 3 comes closest to delivering on its original promise at this juncture; though, due to (again) weak camerawork and slick CGI not being all that well-integrated with grittier practical elements, the final showdown is only just passable – even given the sheer amount of fireworks on display.
Stallone’s Barney Ross is, as in the previous Expendables films, most compelling when he’s interacting with his fellow seasoned costars, like Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, and Terry Crews. However, due to the sheer size of the Expendables 3 ensemble, these supporting players get very little time to horse around with one another. That said, Harrison Ford and Wesley Snipes make the most of their glorified cameos; Ford does his crusty grump act, while Snipes hams it up as a merc who’s been locked away too long (and yes, there is a meta-joke about his time in prison).
Similarly, it’s fun to watch Mel Gibson chew the scenery as the film’s main villain (he even gets to monologue), while Kelsey Grammer likewise brings just the right amount of self-awareness to his role. Antonio Banderas also shows up, playing a wannabe Expendable who often comes off as the Rob Schneider to Stallone’s Judge Dredd – in ways good and bad. Once again, though, it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger who seems to be enjoying himself the most; armed with a wink in his eye, Arnold’s clearly quite content to riff on his legacy, wield some heavy artillery for a bit, and then call it a day.
When all is said and done, though, Expendables 3 is a mixed bag. It doesn’t really work as a passing of the torch (nor does it satisfy as the promised “one final ride”) and the craftsmanship of filmmaking is still under-whelming. At the same time, there are still enough macho old-timers having a good time and blowing stuff up to make the whole movie perfectly watchable - especially if you can never get enough of this kind of popcorn entertainment. However, it might be for the best if Sly and company do, in fact, call it quits on the Expendables movie franchise after this third installment.
Sandy Schaefer blogs at Screen Rant.