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Non-Review Review: The Expendables 3

There is something almost laudable about The Expendables as a movie franchise. Like science-fiction conventions do for other genre performers, The Expendables provides retirement planning and income for a bunch of performers who might otherwise have passed their sell-by date. It’s vaguely reassuring to know that sometimes life (and ass-kicking) begins at fifty, and The Expendables is endearingly sincere and upfront about this function – giving action stars who might seem over the hill one last go around.

That goodwill is stretched to breaking point with The Expendables 3. Nobody expects a particularly insightful or well-constructed script for a film like this, but the screenplay is a mess. Structurally speaking, The Expendables 3 feels like it is being held together by rubber bands – rubber bands that are being stretched to breaking point with the film’s two-hour runtime. There is a tighter and exciting movie to be found in The Expendables 3, but the movie awkwardly lumbers past earnest and into indulgent.

Going to town on this one..

Going to town on this one..

It is perhaps a bit disingenuous to suggest that the fat could be trimmed from The Expendables 3. By its nature, a lot of the flavour in the film comes from the fat. The Expendables is designed as a showcase for performers who anchored classic action movies, and so the script bends over backwards to make sure that every character gets a moment or a one-liner, but also that the more limited members of the ensemble are never stretched past breaking point. So Antonio Banderas gets a lot of material, Randy Couture doesn’t.

The script is quite candid with the audience. This is an invitation to attend a champagne party for a cheesy action movie hall of fame. So we get lots of hamming it up and lots of time allocated to how awesome these cast members are. We get a greatest hits selection of one-liners, as the script can’t resist the urge to wink at the camera. “Let’s get to the chopper,” Arnie suggests, helpfully. Asked about an earlier comment, he responds, “I lied.” Facing death, a war criminal asks, “What about the Hague?” Sly responds, “I am the Hague.”

Knife to see you...

Knife to see you…

It is the kind of script writing that could easily grate, and the movie stretches it across two whole hours. Asked why CIA handler Bruce Willis hasn’t shown up, new middle-man Harrison Ford replies, “He’s out of the picture.” The movie opens with a dramatic prison break, with the team springing Wesley Snipes from lock-up. When one member of the team asks what Wesley was in for, he replies, “Tax evasion.” The one-liners threaten to do as much damage to the fourth wall as any rocket launcher.

And yet, despite it all, there’s a raw sincerity to these sequences from The Expendables 3. The moment where Sylvester Stallone refuses to leave Wesley Snipes behind feels like a piece of earnest camaraderie that stretches beyond the corny lines in the dodgy screenplay. The Expendables truly is like a new home for old dogs. It is a place where actors go when they don’t necessarily have that many other options, and where even a tough case like Mel Gibson can be given some small semblance of a second chance.

He'll be Outback if you need him...

He’ll be Outback if you need him…

The script acknowledges this in an awkward, almost painful fashion. Bypassing the standard “break up the team and bring them back together” sequel plot with The Expendables 2, Sylvester Stallone gets right down to business here. One bad job sees our hero forced to dissolve the team, sending our grizzled old-fashioned heroes back into the world so that Sly can play with younger and hipper supporting characters.

“You’re not the future any more,” Sly tells his colleagues in a moment of profundity, as if counselling his fellow veteran action stars. “You keep doing this, it’s only going to end one way: you in a hole in the ground and nobody giving a sh!t.” It sounds as if Sly is making a case for management of a successful movie brand rather than retirement from life as an international mercenary. The key is to diversify, not to dilute the brand to the point where it loses all value.

The house that Sly built...

The house that Sly built…

It is all very on the nose, but it does feel like Sly is trying to say something worthwhile about these old action veterans and the successful franchise he has built to house them. It is cheesy, and awkward, and more than a little cringe-inducing, but it also seems strangely genuine. It isn’t the most insightful or verbose exploration of what it means to grow old, but it does seem to come from somewhere sincere. It would be better if it were written well, but the thought goes a long way.

The problem is in the execution. In theory, the plot of The Expendables 3 writes itself. Sly has a mid-life crisis, disbanding his team of old fogeys after a disastrous raid. He recruits a new team, one of young and cool mercenaries who like like they wandered in from a Mission: Impossible audition. These kids don’t just fire machine guns at stuff, they like work at computers and know about alarms that sort of thing. Maybe they abseil down a building or something, because that’s cool, right?

The grass is always greener...

The grass is always greener…

Anyway, those kids get themselves kidnapped and held hostage. Stay with me here. So then Sly has to go back to the old team and rescue them. Therefore proving, scientifically, that old-school action heroes are totally better than any of those young kids you might find. So not only are our old action heroes still capable of blowing stuff up, right, but they’re actually much better at then these whipper-snapper kids. You get me?

It’s hardly the most surprising or unpredictable of plots. The problem is that The Expendables 3 runs through it in what feels like super slow motion, taking two hours to tell the audience what they already knew when they picked up the ticket: old action heroes are still cool. The film takes forever to go anywhere, and seems particularly proud of itself when it does. It is very odd that The Expendables 3 feels most indulgent when it isn’t showcasing the action charms of its middle-aged action stars.

All fired up!

All fired up!

More than that, the decision to focus on the young team means that we spend about an hour of the runtime watching him recruit the team from scratch, plan a mission, and then have that mission backfire spectacularly so he can find himself back at the beginning and learn the important life lesson that comes baked into the premise. The film struggles to fit all these characters in, and the result is a movie that seems unnecessarily over-stuffed.

Every moment the four generic no-name walking-plot-point youngsters are on-screen is a moment that (say) Terry Crews isn’t. We barely get a chance to know Wesley Snipes new recruit Expendable (“Doctor Death”), because the script has to both introduce him and then start Sly’s long dark mid-section of the film. Snipes’ character development – such as it exists – unfolds entirely in one scene on a plane because the film needs to get to the action sequence that starts the plot moving.

Da Choppah!

Da Choppah!

This is to say nothing of Mel Gibson’s deliciously-named-yet-soul-destroyingly-bland bad guy Stonebanks. His back story is vaguely interesting and quite appropriate for Gibson. He is a former member of the Expendables who was perhaps even more ambitious than his fellow action heroes, but suffered a tragic fall from grace. However, Gibson never gets a chance to chew the scenery as wondrously as Jean Claude Van Damme did in The Expendables 2. Instead, we learn that he likes art and is a war criminal. That’s about it.

The Expendables 3 is not as painfully self-important and terrible as The Expendables. At the same time, it never cuts quite as loose as the goofy but enjoyable sequel. Instead, The Expendables 3 feels like a passable seventy-minute action film that was extended to two-hours, and ended up so convoluted and messed up that it can’t even hit the necessary buttons in all that extra time.

2 Responses

  1. “This is to say nothing of Mel Gibson’s deliciously-named-yet-soul-destroyingly-bland bad guy Stonebanks. His back story is vaguely interesting and quite appropriate for Gibson. He is a former member of the Expendables who was perhaps even more ambitious than his fellow action heroes, but suffered a tragic fall from grace. However, Gibson never gets a chance to chew the scenery as wondrously as Jean Claude Van Damme did in The Expendables 2. Instead, we learn that he likes art and is a war criminal. That’s about it.”

    Ugh, too bad. The villains in the first two movies were pretty bad actors (though often “so bad it’s good” especially in the second movie), but Mel Gibson isn’t – of the entire Eighties Action Star generation, he’s probably my favorite, actually. He’s the kind of actor I could’ve seen rising higher than “so bad it’s good” to “actually pretty good” with the right material.

    I’ll still go see it, but it sounds like they wasted an opportunity.

    • Yep. Van Damme is not the most versatile performer, but I actually cheered when he executed a guy by roundhouse kicking a dagger into the guy’s heart.

      Gibson doesn’t get that much to do here, which is a shame, because his character is quite interesting in paper – particularly as an analog to Gibson. Gibson was one of the last true action movie stars, his career extending into the nineties and even into the cusp of the twenty-first century. He was also one of the most ambitious and accepted – he was even a successful director of popular and successful films. Then committed a massive breach of trust. Given the way that The Expendables 3 leans on the fourth wall, it’d be great fodder for a scene or two meditating on that loss of trust and those bad choices, in the same way that Sly advocates for giving Wesley Snipes a second chance in a deliciously on-the-nose manner.

      But, instead, we get a rather bloated and extended middle section where Sly recruits a bunch of Mission: Impossible castoffs for the leads to rescue. So Gibson becomes a stock bad guy in the way that Van Damme and Roberts were stock bad guys. The difference is, as you note, that Gibson is actually a very good actor. Not only is he a better actor than Van Damme or Roberts, but he’s also a lot weaker when it comes to the sort of campy theatrical mugging that they do so well and that a shallow two-dimensional baddie needs so much. (Which sounds like an insult, but it’s not. I love Van Damme, and Roberts works very well if applied properly. Roberts was the absolute best choice for Maroni in The Dark Knight, because the role was so perfectly inside his wheelhouse.)

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