“Welcome to the 21st century!”
Sylvester Stallone has dedicated the better part of the last decade to giving moviegoers what they wanted 20 years ago. It started with 2006’s Rocky Balboa, which closed out Stallone’s signature franchise in the satisfying manner fans have been craving since 1990’s Rocky V debacle. We’ve also gotten another Rambo sequel, as well as long-awaited team ups with icons both real (Schwarzenegger in Escape Plan) and cinematic (Grudge Match was “Rocky vs. Raging Bull”). But Stallone’s biggest recent success is the veritable fantasy team of action stars he’s assembled for the Expendables films.
– “How much we getting paid for this?”
– “Not enough!”
The first two movies grossed more than $575 million worldwide. Most of that money came from outside the U.S., and I’m sure that can largely be attributed to the international appeal of foreign-born franchise stars like Jason Statham, Jet Li, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dolph Lundgren, and others. Of course, it also helps that you really don’t need to be able to understand English to enjoy an Expendables movie.
“What I really need now is something to do.”
For this three-quel, Stallone and company have assembled the biggest collection of action icons yet. In addition to returning luminaries like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, and Willis, The Expendables 3 adds boldface names from yesteryear like Ford, Gibson, Banderas, and Snipes. I’m sure a lot of people roll their eyes at the entire enterprise, but the movies by and large don’t take themselves seriously enough for any of this to seem totally desperate.
In fact — Willis, notwithstanding — it seems like these guys are genuinely having a great time kicking butt on the big screen 20 years past what’s supposed to be their prime. (I mean, even Harrison Ford cracks a smile, for crying out loud!) At the very least, The Expendables 3 is “in” enough on the joke to make a Wesley Snipes/tax evasion joke about two minutes after I’d thought of my own.
In almost all my reviews, I’ve longed described the movie’s plot by now. You’re not going to believe this, but the plot of The Expendables 3 really doesn’t matter that much. All you need to now is Expendables leader Barney Ross (Stallone) is feeling increasingly weary about the fact that his elite group of mercenaries (Statham, Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews) has become depleted. The film opens with a daring breakout of a whacked-out former colleague named Doctor Death (Snipes), but Ross and Co. eventually come face-to-face with presumed dead arms dealer Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), who also co-founded the Expendables. Stonebanks seriously wounds a member of Ross’s team. (You can probably guess which one became “expendable” with the addition of Snipes.) Feeling responsible for the rest of his team’s safety, Ross sets out on a mission of revenge with a new squad.
“What are you gonna say? It’s a young man’s game.”
With help from a colleague named Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer…wait, Kelsey Grammer?!), Ross recruits a new, younger team. The JV Expendables are played by a mix of actors (Kellan Lutz, Glen Powell) and non-actors (MMA star Ronda Rousey and boxer Victor Ortiz; both as stiff as you’d expect). Not surprisingly, Ross’s new mission doesn’t go totally smoothly so the new school and old school Expendables — along with a few old friends — team up to take down Stonebanks and his private army.
The Expendables 3 is directed by relative newcomer Patrick Hughes, who only has one previous feature film (Red Hill) to his credit. Hughes has been mentioned as a potential director for an American remake of The Raid — click here to get my brief thoughts on the idea of an American remake of The Raid — and the filmmaker appeared to be auditioning for the gig by staging this film’s outrageous climax in a dilapidated building. The younger Hughes does a solid job of mimicking the outrageous stunts and style of the movies that made these guys stars. Then again, The Expendables 3 — unlike its predecessors — is rated PG-13, which probably limited Hughes’ ability to really go wild and put his own stamp on the film. (The comparatively low-rent visual effects also didn’t do him any favors.)
That’s probably because this is Stallone’s baby all the way. The star co-wrote the script with Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt (Olympus Has Fallen), and it’s Barney who drives the story and appears on screen the majority of the time. The decision to let the newbies practically carry the middle portion of the film was risky — especially when you consider that half of them literally don’t know how to act — until you remember how shrewd Stallone has been about his career all along. So if you think of this section of the film as a showcase for a potential Marvel Cinematic Universe-style future spinoff (The Expendababies?) it makes sense. (Think that seems far-fetched? There’s already an all-female version of this franchise on the way.)
Stallone is a fine anchor — and he shares especially nice chemistry with Statham — but my favorite bits involved seeing charismatic performers who’ve been away from the limelight take center stage. I got a particular kick out of seeing Snipes command the screen again when given the chance. (He’d only been out of prison for a few months when The Expendables 3 started filming.) Gibson, who took on a similar, more cartoonish villain in Machete Kills last year, is a major asset. He brings the same deranged energy that helped make him an offbeat action/comedy star in the Lethal Weapon movies to Stonebanks; Gibson is also (easily) the best, most magnetic actor to antagonize the Expendables so far. Grammer seems like the an outlier until you remember it makes perfect sense to cast a gifted comedic actor in a role that’s supposed to draw laughs. I haven’t even mentioned Antonio Banderas; he plays a chatty mercenary who is as thrilled to be a part of the team as I imagine these actors are to be in a major summer movie again.
The film clocks in at 126 minutes, which is a little flabbier than any of the Expendables are allowed to be. It’s also a loud throwback that is sneakily savvy about its dumbness. The Expendables 3 is clearly and intentionally over the top in every way, but I’m surprised to say I enjoyed it even more than the previous loud, dumb offerings in this series. And as far as the action heroes who come out to play this time around, it’s “great to have you back.”