2014's The Expendables 3 is frustrating and heartbreaking to watch. For this third instalment of the action franchise, Sylvester Stallone has assembled the finest cast of the series to date, with fan favourites like Mel Gibson, Wesley Snipes and Harrison Ford joining the ensemble, which makes it all the more deflating and angering to witness the picture's limitless potential being squandered. With a fucking PG-13 rating and a distractingly digital look, The Expendables 3 feels closer to generic modern action junk than the '80s action classics it strives to emulate. Not to mention, Stallone's ego has reached critical mass, resulting in a trilogy capper that has its moments but ultimately falls short at every opportunity.
After breaking teammate Doctor Death (Snipes) out of prison, the Expendables gang - including Barney Ross (Stallone), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Toll Road (Randy Couture) and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) - head to Somalia to disrupt a black market arms deal. But the crew are attacked by Conrad Stonebanks (Gibson), a deadly former Expendable gone rogue, who shoots Caesar in the ass, leaving him fighting for his life in hospital. Barney doesn't want to put the rest of his guys in danger, cutting them loose and bringing in Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer) to recruit a fresh team of mercenaries. With the assistance of Thorn (Glen Powell), Mars (Victor Ortiz), Smilee (Kellan Lutz) and Luna (Ronda Rousey), and with intelligence provided by C.I.A. Agent Drummer (Ford), Barney goes after Stonebanks. Also wanting in on the action is Galgo (Antonia Banderas), a flamboyant wannabe mercenary, while Barney also brings in extra muscle in the form of old pal Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Oh, and Yin Yang (Jet Li) shows up as well, to appease the lucrative Chinese market.
There's nothing particularly wrong with the story per se, as it seems to reinforce the worth of the older Expendables by showing the younglings getting captured. But the execution is awful, with the big names being pushed aside in favour of the charmless Twilight stand-ins. (Lutz was actually in Twilight, just FYI.) The core audience who attend the Expendables movies pay to see the likes of Statham, Lundgren and Snipes, so why would we want to spend the second act with bland Calvin Klein models instead? It would have been far more effective if Statham and co. were actually given something to do, rather than disappearing entirely. For instance, Stonebanks could have sent men to eliminate them, which would both motivate their decision to re-join Barney for the finale, and lead to some potentially incredible action beats in an otherwise flabby, action-free mid-section.
The Expendables 3 is PG-13, because fuck all of the adults over the age of 17 who want to see their favourite action stars on the big screen. Apparently Stallone "owed it" to the younger generation to deliver a softer, more gentler action extravaganza this time around, as opposed to catering to the fans who made the first two Expendables pictures such a box office success (with R ratings) in the first place.
The film's major set-pieces fall hopelessly short of their potential. The action beats are staged with suitable finesse, and hundreds of dudes are killed, but the PG-13 rating robs the deaths of any brutal impact; as a result, the whole thing feels hopelessly vanilla as opposed to giddily satisfying. It's especially frustrating to watch Trench unleash the trademark AA-12 shotgun, with the powerful bullets leaving no visible wounds. Rather than puffs of blood or viscera, this war zone is very clean and sanitised, with puffs of white smoke whenever someone is shot. Despite the competent fight choreography, there are no memorable deaths here, a tremendous drawback. An extended "unrated" cut of the movie is also available, but it nevertheless remains bloodless. To be sure, the extended cut is the version of choice, as the editing is more cohesive and it reinserts a few additional badass action beats that should never have been trimmed in the first place, but the lack of true R-rated content is genuinely deflating.
Another mortal sin of The Expendables 3 is that there's no tension to any of the action scenes, which observe the protagonists killing scores of bad guys without ever being in danger themselves. It would have been far more interesting to see a few of the team-members getting killed, or at least suffering wounds. How much more badass and satisfying would it be if the Expendables barely made it out alive, and all were soaked in blood?
And what of the climactic throwdown between Stallone and Gibson, you ask? Forget about it. What should have been a duel for the ages is instead a forgettable, all-too-short brawl mostly filmed with stunt doubles, in which Barney has the upper hand the entire time. Again, Stallone's ego is completely out of control.
Speaking of Stallone's ego, it really is noticeable. Barney is the one leading the young dudes, after all, and he's utterly indestructible. He survives an RPG hit which throws him off a bridge and into rough waters below, for instance, and he manages to avoid capture while the young guys are taken hostage by Stonebanks. And at the end, everybody cheers upon seeing that Barney is alive, and Luna even comes onto him. Seriously?
Bringing Aussie director Patrick Hughes (Red Hill) on-board was a potentially terrific decision, as it represented the chance for an Expendables movie to be an auteur effort. Alas, with nearly twenty goddamn producers, The Expendables 3 is clearly a studio product, with Hughes merely a cheap puppet whose strings are pulled by the bean-counters. To be sure, The Expendables 3 is the slickest and most polished of the series thus far, owing to the bright digital photography as opposed to the more drab visuals of the earlier movies. However, digital effects are cheap and awful. Cheesy CGI has been a staple of the Expendables movies, but The Expendables 3 takes it too far - a prison exploding in the opening sequence looks like a PS1-era video game, and a helicopter skirmish during the climax is abysmal. Brian Tyler is credited for the movie's soundtrack, but he clearly did fuck all in terms of composing for this go-round. Not that Tyler is a bad composer, but literally every piece of music used in The Expendables 3 is recycled from the first two movies. It's lazy and distracting. And speaking of the soundtrack, both prior Expendables movies feature classic rock songs, but this third entry foregrounds trashy new music, and not even popular stuff (because that would be too expensive).
Gibson is easily the best catch of the series so far; he's superb as Stonebanks, a sinister villain whose tongue is as dangerous as his trigger finger. He owns the screen whenever he appears, which is the best compliment one can give a thespian considering the below-par script. One of the best scenes in the flick involves Barney and Stonebanks in a van, with Stonebanks humiliating his former colleague in front of the young Expendables. Gibson is simply too good for this material, and it reminds you of why Gibson needs to be in more movies. Another superb newcomer is Snipes. The actor is alert and energetic here, cracking jokes and killing bad guys, making this his most enjoyable screen performance in years. It's therefore a shame that Snipes isn't given much to do beyond the first act. Ford, meanwhile, is a riot as the gruff Max Drummer, making his limited screen-time count. However, Banderas is a mixed bag. He's at times amusing, but for the most part he feels like this franchise's Jar Jar Binks. It's a shame that Banderas wasn't called upon to play something closer to his iconic Mariachi role. And, unfortunately, the franchise's primary mainstays - Statham, Lundgren, Couture and Crews - are simply here, with very little to do. Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger (who was available and on-set for more than he was for the past two movies) is also wasted; he gets a few note-worthy one-liners as expected, but he doesn't do much else. Even more heartbreaking is the presence of Jet Li, who's on-screen for less than five minutes and does little else than stand around firing a weapon. Why even include Li if he can't even flex his phenomenal martial arts skills? And in the final scene, Schwarzenegger and Li act like a gay couple. What the fuck?
On top of all its other sins, The Expendables 3 also has a huge problem in its young newcomers. While it's appreciated that someone like Taylor Lautner wasn't included, the young-bloods here are simply appalling. They were clearly included for the eye candy to set up the planned spin-off including these guys, but it's just not good enough. The budget was clearly blown on all of the big names, so nothing was left to recruit worthwhile names for these roles. Actors like Dwayne Johnson or even Scott Adkins (wouldn't be the first time an actor has played two different roles in the same franchise) would have been far more interesting. Another issue with the movie is that pretty much all the big names play heroes. Gibson is the main villain here, and he's not given the support of any noteworthy henchmen. The first film had Gary Daniels and Steve Austin, while the second movie had a very badass Scott Adkins. Here, Gibson is supported by nameless extras in battle fatigues. Robert Davi also pops in for a brief cameo, achieving precisely nothing.
This reviewer has read an early draft of the screenplay credited to Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, which is fairly similar to the finished product in a number of ways, except that it was vehemently R-rated and extremely violent. But of course, Stallone and his money-hungry producers stepped in to change the screenplay to suit their PG-13 desires. The Expendables 3 is the movie which broke me. Never again will a cast of this calibre unite for a motion picture. This was an opportunity to create both a phenomenal trilogy closer for the Expendables franchise, and a kick-ass action film to satiate fans for decades to come. Instead, it's little more than a mediocre footnote in each of the actors' careers. They blew it. It might satiate unfussy viewers as it can be entertaining, but I can only see wasted potential. If an Expendables 4 was to materialise (very doubtful considering the less-than-impressive box office returns), it would need to reinvent the series, similar to what Fast Five did for the Fast & Furious franchise. And for the love of God, make it R-rated.