Review: “The Expendables 3”

Sylvester Stallone once again heads the team in "The Expendables 3," here reviewed by film critic James Frazier.It took three tries, but Sylvester Stallone has finally done the unfortunate; he has turned his “Expendables” franchise into the lame, pandering celebrity parade that people thought the original would be. Though far from deep, the first two “Expendables” movies were superior genre flicks that wisely traded on their litany of brawny actors’ iconographies to add panache to routine shoot ‘em up action. The latest entry produces precious little of the unabashed, old school fun of its predecessors, instead brazenly lunging for an expanded audience unlikely to appreciate its charms.

Helmed by Australian director Patrick Hughes, this installment sees Stallone’s mercenary leader Barney Ross go head-to-head with Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson). Returning are previous team members played by Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, and Randy Corture, with assistance from series newcomer Wesley Snipes, but after the first act they’re sidelined for new blood (not that any actual blood is shown in this PG-13 pic).  Using the specious reasoning that the older fellows have seen too much fighting, Ross unceremoniously fires them and hires a new batch of killing machine twenty-somethings.

Trouble is, they’re all presented and played with maximum blandness by a combination of unremarkable actors and remarkable professional fighters who simply can’t act, including Kellan Lutz of “Twilight” fame and Rhonda Rousey, a UFC heroine slipped in so that the trailers can present the film as more youthful and less masculine than it actually is (the Rousey Ruse doesn’t work). It’s not just that the older actors are better screen presences, even though they indisputably are, but that the newcomers, defined by the script in broad strokes such as “Computer Geek” and “Woman,” carry none of the war horses’ cultural cache, the key component to the series’ success. It’s fun to watch Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger (who also returns) and the rest dispatch bad guys because of the goodwill their films have built over the years, but by cramming the screen with new faces, the result is something watered down.

Characters played by old favorites aren’t the only element diluted this time around. Sporting a new PG-13 rating, “The Expendables 3” nonetheless contains what is likely a larger body count than the previous two entries combined. Even so, the mayhem is presented in such a way that even the hardest scenes could safely air on midday 1990s network TV. Hundreds of faceless goons fall to the team’s machine guns and throwing knives, but the sheer number of dead bad guys synthesizes with the distinct lack of bloodshed to give the action an unintentionally cartoonish feel. Even as the action is competently staged, it’s both relentless and featherweight, neither punishing nor more than mildly compelling.

Despite the sheer outrageousness of the violence, this is still the sort of film where the heroes butcher others by the dozen, only to be crestfallen and cosmically insulted when one of their own spends a few weeks in the hospital.

And then there’s Mel Gibson, whose off-screen exploits and on-screen manic, knowingly hammy persona should make him an ideal fit as the heavy here, but he’s shockingly generic, a boilerplate arms dealer who doesn’t even come across as particularly malicious. What a tragedy that the one-time A-lister can’t even come close to matching the performance quality of Jean-Claude Van Damme, whose karate-kicking antagonist in the second “Expendables” stole scenes and made for a thrilling one-on-one climax with Stallone, in contrast to this entry’s blasé finale fisticuffs.

In addition to Gibson and Snipes, Harrison Ford joins the cast, taking over for Bruce Willis, as does Antonio Banderas. Banderas is one of the few actors to receive a decent chunk of the film’s two hour run-time, and he has great fun as a verbose Spanish soldier jockeying for a spot on the team.

Doubtlessly “The Expendables 3” will be enjoyed by many who, if asked why, would cite their love of cinematic violence or an attachment to the stars that transcends little things like narrative. Yet the flaws add up to a movie many won’t actually admit to liking, taking that extra step to defend it as good. Stallone and company have nearly expended their small stock of ideas, and if this film is any indication, it’s looking like they shouldn’t bother reloading.