15 August 2014


You know, until Guardians of the Galaxy came along, this might just have been the first of these movies not to have been upstaged by a faster and looser team movie in the same year. I'm not sure how many more times I'll repeat myself about the Expendables franchise, but there's at least a note of finality about The Expendables 3 which suggests that this team can finally start collecting their pensions now that they've notched up the trilogy.

The plot, such as it is, picks up with business as usual for this franchise. Led by Barney Ross, the Expendables are running jobs as mercenaries and generally engaging in excruciatingly unfunny camaraderie. A chance encounter with Conrad Stonebanks, an arms dealer and another founding member of the team, leaves them wondering if they really are too old for this shit, particularly when Barney sets about drafting a younger team of Expendables to get the job done and eliminate Stonebanks.

Along a similar line, the series has actually done well to mix it up behind the camera, with Stallone ceding to directors Simon West and now Patrick Hughes for the sequels. It's the same nuts-and-bolts old school action that we've come to expect by now and Sylvester Stallone's influence as co-writer and franchise mastermind (sorry, haha) hangs heavy, but at least Hughes mines some spectacle from what could have looked more pedestrian. Heaven knows that three films in, this is the least iconic franchise out there.

The Expendables movies have always traded on the iconic status of their stars- since the heyday of Stallone et al, the rise of comic book movies in Hollywood taught actors to fight and bulk up rather than fostering action genre giants. The USP of this series was the team-up of these guys, but since then, comic book movies have appropriated that too, in the likes of Days of Future Past and The Avengers, and it has left the series wanting in terms of iconic features and characters of its own.

The lack of distinction is so apparent in The Expendables 3 that Stallone has even dispensed with Barney Ross' goatee. At least before he reminded me of a melted Tony Stark, whereas clean-shaven Barney looks like old Stallone from any number of other old Stallone action movies. The action setpieces don't carry any weight because nobody is actually expendable- you're just meant to cheer for the old heroes, crowded alongside the likes of Terry Crews, Randy Couture and even Jason Statham to contrast just how iconic they are by default.

Weirdly, the third film doesn't even have that residual iconography- the inciting incident is Barney's decision to lead a younger crew to allow his mates to retire in peace. Statham's Lee Christmas is rightly indignant about being told he's too old, especially when Barney still plans to lead the young bucks against Stonebanks. Instead, Barney goes on a nationwide recruitment drive with a new character played by Kelsey Grammer, whose involvement in this film could be used as a textbook definition of the adage "one of these things is not like the other." The idea that Frasier Crane was ever an Expendable is slightly hysterical, but in getting their money's worth out of Grammer with a series of leaden road trip scenes, the novelty wears thin fast.

It's all the more baffling given how we know that this "geri-action" series is all about youth being no substitute for experience, so it's entirely predictable that the older guys will eventually have to rally and save the day. Even the film seems to have little investment in the new recruit, amongst which UFC star Ronda Rousey is the only notable highlight. She's not the most natural actor, but she's credible (nay, incredible) in a scrap and she's the only one of the youngsters who leaves an impression. However, just like Nan Yu's token lady in Expendables 2, it means we have to endure another cringeworthy moment where Rousey tells Stallone that if he were a few decades younger, she'd be all over him. Ick.

To the film's credit, virtually all of the big new actors get what they're in for, which makes the film's two hour runtime pass a lot more quickly. Wesley Snipes is introduced in the film's cold open jailbreak and after dispensing with the inevitable in-joke about tax evasion, proves to be the most clued-in of the lot in his sporadic appearances thereafter. Harrison Ford is still a shadow of his charismatic self, but he's at least more engaging than the "greedy and lazy" Bruce Willis, whose role he basically supplants. And surprisingly, Antonio Banderas threatens to steal the show as a chatterbox Expendable-in-waiting, in a Herculean effort to liven-up the lethargic action heroics with his Tigger-like performance.

Moreover, there's a typically demented performance from Mel Gibson, who quickly makes for the most effective antagonist in the series as Stonebanks. Nicolas Cage was apparently tagged for this role to begin with, but Gibson on his worst day can still out-crazy Cage on his best, with either understated malice or explosive rage. As usual, his actual villainous plan is thinly drawn- this is a series in which macho grudges always outweigh international crisis and it's always going to end with a flippant post-mission drink.

Finally, it's utterly baffling that The Expendables 3 is pitched for the PG-13/12A market- how many 12 or 13 year olds do they think are interested in seeing the third film in a series that could have been made before they were born? This, amongst other plot contrivances, makes it seem like it's just pandering to please everyone. And yet, in a series that is seriously lacking in any iconic beats, this approach still yields some of the best moments and characters (mostly courtesy of Snipes, Gibson and Banderas) of the trilogy. Even though it's by no means a good film, that might still make it the best of a bad lot.

The Expendables 3 is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen The Expendables 3, why not leave a comment below? 
If you haven't seen any of these movies, let me save you some time and say that this is much more fun...

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

1 comment:

Thomas Watson said...

I admit I enjoy these on a really superficial level. But there is so much potential and they just never use it. Look at the Ocean movies - you can take an ensemble cast and make a great film. Or two or three.