Uniting a virtual cattle call of famous action superstars of the 1980s, '90s and beyond, 2010's "The Expendables
" and 2012's "The Expendables 2
" should have been delirious, pyrotechnics-heavy fun. Well, there were certainly explosions, but both films were done in by flaccid scripting, dreary plotting and the kind of haphazardly interminable pacing that would inspire even a one-legged tortoise to exclaim, "Get on with it!" "The Expendables 3" castrates the previous entries' R ratings to a PG-13, and the choppiness of some of the editing in the would-be violent scenes is readily apparent. Even taking this disappointing ploy for under-17s into account, the latest installment is the best of the lotnot that anyone should be bragging. The meandering nature of the barebones narrative continues to test one's patience, but a beacon of light arrives in the form of two voraciously inspired acting turns that transcend the throwaway material.
Elite mercenary group the Expendables have no sooner broken out imprisoned former member Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes) from a military prison convoy that they are onto their next mission in Mogadishu, Somalia. It is here that leader Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) discovers a dark figure from his past, thought-dead arms trader Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), is alive and well. After Barney witnesses one of his men, Caesar (Terry Crews), nearly killed in the line of duty, he is approached by CIA operations officer Max Drummer (Harrison Ford) to stop war criminal Stonebanks by any means necessary. Not wanting to see his remaining colleagues get hurt, Barney dismantles the rest of his seasoned team and sets out to put together a new, younger Expendables group.
"The Expendables 3" is more of the same, and whether that is a good or bad thing depends on what each individual viewer thought of the first two movies in the series. Director Patrick Hughes and writers Sylvester Stallone (2013's "Homefront
") and Creighton Rothenberger & Katrin Benedikt (2013's "Olympus Has Fallen
") are wildly inconsistent from one scene to the next, each moment worth taking note of compromised by five or ten that are so stilted in dialogue, performance and editing it is difficult to believe the film was made by professionals and is finding its way onto thousands of theater screens. Much of the time, actors stand around awkwardly, looking like they are being fed lines. Arnold Schwarzenegger (2014's "Sabotage
") does just that while puffing on a cigar. Harrison Ford (2013's "Ender's Game
") appears to not be sure how he got there while saying things like, "That's gotta hurt!" and "Drummer's in the house!" As Doctor Death, Wesley Snipes (2004's "Blade: Trinity
") receives a memorable introduction (when someone asks why he got locked up, he replies, "Tax evasion"), but then fades into the background. Lead Sylvester Stallone (2013's "Bullet to the Head
") conveys concentration and a desire for vengeance by squinting his eyes as the camera pulls in for a close-up. In one scene where Barney and retired Expendables ally Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer) drive through the desert at dusk, the greenscreen effects are so unbelievably shoddy it reminds of the rear projection work one might find in an "I Love Lucy" episode, only less convincing.
Three-dimensional characters are in short supply (read: nonexistent), but that would be okay if the story moved with the breathless showmanship of the go-for-broke action pics Schwarzenegger and Stallone made three decades earlier. Instead, the wheels spin incessantly and the filmmakers are content to cast as many recognizable veterans as possible without giving them anything of note to do. The exceptions to this rulethe few performers who break free from the threadbare restraints of the project at largeare Antonio Banderas (2012's "Ruby Sparks
"), putting his underserved comedic spark to energetic use as an excitable sharpshooter desperate to join the Expendables, and Mel Gibson (2013's "Machete Kills
"), as villain Stonebanks. Whereas many of the supporting players are along for the ride, these two look to be acting their hearts out. Essaying a truly great villain, Gibson is both despicable and seductive, commanding attention as his character sets out to commit untold atrocities without blinking an eye. In the most riveting segment of the film, Stonebanks is briefly captured and faces off against Barney in a war of words, taunting and goading his old partner while making it exceedingly clear that he is in full control. That the two of them throw down their guns during the climax for a bit of hand-to-hand combat strikes as ridiculously out of character. Stonebanks is smarter than that.
"The Expendables 3" is bloated at 126 minutes, its long-windedness a letdown for a franchise that has yet to capture a confident, clip tone and rhythm. The further it goes, the more it falls victim to this lugubriousness. As Barney and right-hand man Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) stand back in the ending moments to watch their youthful protégés cheerily karaoke to Neil Young's "Old Man," there is the sense that this is the start to a passing of the torch. It would be a bittersweet, semi-wistful closer if only these protagonists were developed enough for the viewer to have any stake in what their futures hold. Sure, "The Expendables" movies have plenty of explosions (mostly of the CG variety, sadly), but what good are they when there is little to care about surrounding them?