I make zero apologies for my enduring love of ’80s big-muscle action flicks fueled by minimal plotting, dialogue dispersed through a cheese grater, and so many random explosions that even Michael Bay would be worn out. There is something inherently tribal and visceral about watching one roided-up action hero save the world single handedly, one continent at a time.
That said, offering up a stable full of aging cinema sweat-bombs for multiple adventures can be a very dicey proposition for any audience to accept. When Sylvester Stallone gathered his closest aging icon buddies for the first Expendables, this was nostalgia at its finest. A throwback for you, your dad, and all of your friends in between to gather all the adrenaline you could muster and reflect on that long forgotten time when action heroes could not even spell CGI.
By the time Expendables 2 rolled around, there were enough remaining octogenarian stars to throw together a solid action flick, as well as keep the same historical momentum flowing. Now, Barney Ross and friends hobble into The Expendables 3 with our curiosity deeply faded and with an ensemble cast of seemingly every actor to have starred in an action film in the last three decades. Can Stallone continue this ride long after we have taken off our well-worn nostalgia glasses?
Turns out the answer is a boisterous ‘HELL YES!’
Traditional film critics can continue to rip this franchise apart as much as they want. The Expendables 3, much like its predecessors, is a film designed for people that love big, dumb, and violent action movies. The only character development you will find is the length of longing looks each walking energy drink decides to give his weapon of choice. By now, you are fully aware whether or not this franchise works for you.
For the third go-round, Stallone’s Barney Ross uncovers a truth that Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), one of the founding members of The Expendables and a man Barney himself thought to have killed, is alive and kicking ass as a vicious sociopath around the globe. After one of his own narrowly cheats death, Barney decides to avoid risking the lives of his normal crew and instead hire a few young mercenaries, whose lives are a little less valuable to Barney. Naturally, this plot setup demands things to go south and in no time flat, the old guard are called upon to save those rascally kids.
What makes Expendables 3 work is not the overabundance of action powerhouses like Stallone, Gibson, Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford, Antonio Banderas, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham, insert name here. It works because even with allllllllllll of the actors involved with this overstuffed tin can of a film, every single one of them are somehow gifted with their own heroic moment. To have this ensemble and still give characters, even cardboard cutouts, their own distinct voice and chance to shine is what makes this series both extremely impressive and ridiculously fun.
The new guard add a nice counterbalance to the aging regime, yet only Ronda Rousey’s Luna truly establishes herself as the character most worthy of gaining entry into the elusive Expendables. Kellan Lutz, Victor Ortiz, and Glen Powell are all amiable enough as new recruits, but Luna is the newbie I would follow into another franchise. Kelsey Grammer also drops off a glorified cameo and offers up a respectful George Kennedy impersonation as Bonaparte, the guy who brokers this young merc talent when buyers like Barney have the cash.
To stand out in this lot takes serious talent, and of our heroes no one stands out more than Wesley Snipes as Doc. After a daring prison escape in the opening minutes of the film, Snipes savagely chews every single frame he is allowed to grace, daring Hollywood to rev up another Blade sequel. Antonio Banderas as a chattering assassin and Harrison Ford, filling the apparently easily filled shoes of Bruce Willis as Barney’s new CIA contact, are the other easy standouts in a film stock-full of charisma. If there is one Expendable who could have used a little bit more screen time, it is the always fantastically invigorating Terry Crews as Caesar. Please give this man his own franchise before he himself fades into the limelight.
Yet when all is said and done, it all boils down to the villain in a film like this. With this many gods of heroism on display, we need a villain that we know is fully capable of dispatching them without a second’s thought. While the first film has the cheeky campiness of Eric Roberts, and the second had the charismatic flair of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Expendables 3 is the first film in the series to boast a huge action star who also just happens to be a powerhouse actor. In Conrad Stonebanks, we finally have a threat that is cold blooded and vicious enough that we not only want our team to remove his head at the seams…we NEED them to. Gibson has long been a fun actor to watch, and Expendables 3 finally gives him the opportunity to showcase what might have happened with Martin Riggs if Murtaugh had never bothered inviting him to Christmas dinner.
The Expendables 3 does suffer a bit during the middle of the film as it offers up its own drawn-out version of The Dirty Dozen by way of a stroll down exposition alley. Thankfully, director Patrick Hughes was apparently using this downtime to sketch out the absolutely electric final 30 minutes which plays out like every practical effects action lover’s wet dream. Fisticuffs, MMA fighting, random gunfire, explosions, small armies, tanks, and even a helicopter chase! Even when the film offers up too much a of a campy throwback (Arnold yelling ‘Get to da CHOPPAH!’), these last 30 minutes are easily the best action beats in this now trilogy of films and will lead to a great deal of audience fist-pumping.
This is not high art nor does the third film in the series take us on a deeper journey than the previous films. This is the capper on a film series that is solely interested in its audience walking out of that theater with a smile on their face. The Expendables 3 offers up a cast with effortless chemistry, pulls no punches with the action and when this film is moving, this is a train I never want to get off.
3.5 out of 5 stars.