With its third entry, the Sylvester Stallone-led Expendables franchise finally becomes the live-action Saturday morning cartoon it was always destined to be. Constrained by a PG-13 rating (the previous two films were R-rated), the series’ over-the-top violence becomes even more unreal; here, miniguns are emptied into crowds of henchmen who crumple conveniently out of frame and knives are thrown at out-of-focus targets. The character’s ridiculous names—Hale Caesar, Yin Yang, Toll Road, Trench—finally make sense: This is an off-brand G.I. Joe movie, only with more scenes where characters talk about their feelings.
The problem with the Expendables movies, including this one, is that they’re not very good at action; despite the presence of most of the genre’s biggest stars, the series has yet to produce a memorable—or even energetic—action sequence. Taken on their own terms, they’re ensemble adventure films; their shoot-outs and showdowns are purely interstitial, serving only to link scenes where the characters hang out in their workshop or sit in the back of a cargo plane, shooting the shit before it comes time to shoot the bad guys.
In that regard, The Expendables 3 is a major improvement over its predecessor, whose sad procession of stiff in-jokes climaxed with an appearance by Chuck Norris, the stiffest in-joke of them all. The unwieldy cast—a kind of action-star Menudo, which members age into instead of aging out of—is both the main selling point of the Expendables movies, and their most persistent weakness. Shrewdly, Expendables 3 shifts much of the focus to three new characters who, for once, aren’t based on established screen personas: knife-wielding medic Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes, who makes a tax evasion crack, but otherwise sticks to playing his character as a booming kook); Galgo (Antonio Banderas, who more or less steals the show), the motor-mouthed, dorky, sweet mercenary that nobody wants to hire; and big bad Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), a founding member of the titular mercenary crew who has since reinvented himself as an arms dealer and all-around war criminal.
As always, there’s a tension between the cartooniness of the materia—emphasized here by the tame violence and Red Hill director Patrick Hughes’ flattened, non-anamorphic compositions—and Stallone’s tendency to use the franchise to extrapolate on aging, violence, and regret. On the one hand, this is a movie where a shot of an armored prison transport is accompanied by on-screen text that reads “armored prison transport,” where characters shave with paddle-sized bowie knives and drink from gas-can-shaped flasks, and where several fictional countries figure into the plot. (Stonebanks’ hideout is in the sublimely named Izmenistan—“izmena” being the Russian word for betrayal.) On the other, it’s a movie where the plot is largely motivated by one man’s fear of outliving his friends, with a centerpiece monologue—which recalls Mickey Rourke’s improvisatory rambles from the original Expendables—about moral relativism and an ending that finds the characters singing along to Neil Young’s “Old Man.”
The plot centers on world-weary lead Expendable Barney Ross (Stallone) disbanding the team and hiring a crew of young whipper-snappers (Kellan Lutz, Glen Powell, Victor Ortiz, and Ronda Rousey, none of them remotely memorable) to apprehend Stonebanks so that he be tried in The Hague. There’s a queasy irony to the fact that capturing a war criminal involves mowing down hundreds of faceless combatants, and it isn’t lost on Stallone and his co-writers; however, they hedge their bets by having Stonebanks be the one to voice these concerns.
Expendables 3 could be a straight-up cartoon action flick in the manner of Joe Carnahan’s underrated The A-Team, but it lacks the necessarily elastic sense of style. (Hughes does get a few good shots in during an early chase through a Somalian harbor, though.) It could be a serious consideration of violence and its effects on a group of combat-hardened men; Stallone’s dialogue certainly suggests that he wants it to be one. Heck, it could even be both. Unfortunately, it’s neither; its only ambition is to put a group of charismatic stars together in a room, and let them crack wise. Their back-and-forths are entertaining. It’s just about everything else that feels lacking.