You’re either going to see The Expendables 3 or you’re not. You can’t be on the fence about this franchise. And just as nothing I say is going to convince an action-flick agnostic to saddle up with Sylvester Stallone & co., there’s also no way I’ll be able to keep an aficionado of macho mayhem away. So let me just say that this latest rah-rah red-meat installment is the biggest and best surprise of the series. It has its flaws, but it’s mostly a big, dumb, gruntingly monosyllabic hoot.
While the first film had the secret weapon of novelty (all of your favorite Reagan-era action heroes together in one movie!), the second was a tedious drag. It was a parody of an idea that was itself a parody. Not to mention, it gave Stallone an ill-advised soul patch under his bottom lip that I couldn’t stop staring at. So going in to The Expendables 3, my expectations were somewhere around my ankles. Not only because I was unsure what was left for this merry band of mercenaries to do besides blow up more crap, but also due to the film’s softer, PG-13 rating. Who wants a bloody orgy of over-the-top violence watered down?
Right off the bat, Expendables 3 put my concerns to rest as Sly’s marble-mouthed ringleader Barney Ross, chrome-domed Cockney killing machine Jason Statham, cauliflower-eared MMA brawler Randy Couture, and erstwhile Rocky foe Dolph Lundgren swoop down via helicopter to bust one of their own out of a prison transport train. He’s a former brother-in-arms played by none other than…Wesley Snipes. Fresh out of the hoosegow himself for tax evasion in real life, Snipes is still the lethal live wire he was back when he was advising us to ”always bet on black.” Running atop a speeding locomotive and swinging around with the ageless grace of a quicksilver parkour specialist, Snipes hasn’t lost a step in either his Blade-honed combat skills or his rascally sense of humor. And he’s just one of the film’s seemingly endless string of special guest stars.
With Snipes on board, our heroes head off on what should be a walk-in-the-park mission in Mogadishu. But things go very wrong very quickly, and one member of the team is badly wounded. The mastermind behind the ambush is an old foe long thought to be dead named Conrad Stonebanks, played with lip-smacking delight by Mel Gibson. Whatever you might think of Gibson, let’s at least acknowledge that it’s a pretty inspired idea to cast him as a villain in a big, splashy summer movie. The actor seems to understand this better than anyone and he plays up his sadistic, loose-cannon villainy like he’s on a Hawaiian vacation. He’s an unrepentant baddie tossing off manic arias of profanity and dishing out bareknuckle beat downs. In a way, he’s the perfect movie villain—someone we can all feel good about loathing. And for the record, he’s excellent.
The movie is essentially a globe-trotting cat-and-mouse shoot-‘em-up between our backslapping brosephs and Gibson’s Stonebanks, with some famous long-in-the-tooth movie star waltzing into the frame to chew the scenery every 20 minutes. Arnold Schwarzenegger returns as Trench and gets a laugh every time he opens his mouth (”Get to da choppah!”); Kelsey Grammer turns up as one of Sly’s old allies whose specialty seems to be uncorking deadpan digs; Harrison Ford wanders in as a perennially cranky CIA contact who gives the men their top-secret mission; and Antonio Banderas steals just about every scene he’s in as a motor-mouthed, eager-to-please assassin who just wants to join the team. He’s like a school kid frantically begging not to be picked last for dodgeball.
The action sequences and tough-guy one liners are exactly what you’d expect. Some hit the bullseye, some don’t even graze the outer ring. The film’s biggest problem is the detour it takes midway through. After the botched job in Somalia, Stallone’s Barney is wracked with guilt and decides to disband the gang instead of putting them back in harm’s way. So he recruits a younger group who are basically the Expendables Lite. It’s an interesting idea, but this tech-savvy new funky bunch is an uncharismatic posse of interchangeable drips, including Kellan Lutz, Glen Powell, Victor Ortiz, and ultimate fighting badass Ronda Rousey. There isn’t a decent actor or compelling presence among them. When they’re on screen, you keep looking at your watch waiting for The Terminator, The Transporter, Ivan Drago, Blade, Zorro, or Indiana Jones to come back and kick Mad Max’s ass. Sometimes there really is no substitute for age and experience. B