The opening sequence of THE EXPENDABLES 3 sees Wesley Snipes kill a military despot-type baddie by running an armoured train into him. This sets the tone for the film, that basically if this franchise ever took itself remotely seriously, then those days are long long since past.
In their third outing, Barny Ross’s (Sylvester Stallone) team of grizzled mercenaries are going through a rough patch. After liberating an old ally (Wesley Snipes) from captivity, they are dealt a personal blow when an adversary long presumed dead (Mel Gibson) takes out one of their team. Not willing to risk the lives of any more of his friends, Ross sets out to recruit some new blood to help him settle his very personal grudge.
The story from set that received most publicity in the press (next to the early leak of the film online by hackers) was Bruce Willis’ sudden abandonment of the franchise over money. This left bad blood between himself and Sylvester Stallone to put it mildly, with Sly brazenly calling him “greedy and lazy” for demanding so much for what would amount to only a few days of work, and consequently Willis’ character Church barely gets a mention in the film. Stallone must have been tempted to twist the knife a little more, though he does still give a throwaway line of meta dialogue to Harrison Ford that essentially functions as a massive middle finger to Willis.
The filmmakers seem to have unearthed a decent sense of humour from somewhere this time, with gags aplenty that go beyond laddish banter. The first film was just glum and took itself fatally seriously, and the second got a little more playful, but the jokes just weren’t good enough. Here, after killing that baddie with a train, Snipes demonstrates that he can apparently get a really clean dry shave using Dolph Lundgren’s ridiculously huge knife, and we see him take a chunk out of his beard before a noticeable cut to Stallone and Jason Statham for a couple of minutes, then Snipes reappears proudly rubbing a pristinely smooth chin. That’s a decent sight gag. We also have references to Snipes’ tax evasion, Arnie’s supposed retirement and even a (somewhat tasteless) gag which I think makes fun of Stallone’s partial facial paralysis. Basically, everyone in the cast seems up for a little joshing regarding their personal and professional blunders, personas and appearance.
It’s also quite amusing that Snipes is supposed to be playing one of the original team of Expendables whereas Statham’s Lee Christmas joined the team later, and a big thing is made of the former having far more experience with a knife than the latter, despite the fact there’s what? Five years difference in age between them? So either Doc is meant to be older than he looks, Christmas is meant to be younger, or I really shouldn’t be giving all this so much thought.
Snipes is a likably charismatic addition to the team, and it’s nice to be reminded how skilled he is at blending the genuinely tough physical stuff with the odd sly wink to the audience. Antonio Banderas is also good, providing pretty much all if the laughs, and seems to have arrived as the only actor who has bothered to form a fully-rounded character. Gibson as the brilliantly-named Conrad Stonebanks makes for the most entertaining villain of the series (though this isn’t really saying much next to Eric Roberts and Jean-Claude Van Damme sleepwalking through their roles in the previous films).
The action is plentiful, fun, and well-paced, but with the occasional clumsy CG transition, and a still-neutered level of violence for the sake of the film studio’s profit margins. Sharp editing does help here though, improving on the second movie’s often bewildering gore-avoidance, so at least this time we can tell what’s meant to be going in, even if we don’t actually see it all.
And blow me down if there isn’t some actual cinematography in this one! Seriously, they actually bothered to hire a director and a DP who take the time to say something, anything, with their camerawork, and this could be a pretty good springboard for better things for the director, relative newcomer Patrick Hughes (he has recently been attached to the completely unnecessary remake of THE RAID).
Stallone even admits (gasp!) that The Expendables might be getting on a bit in years, and puts in a line for one of the new young recruits that describes the established cast as “A bunch of has-beens trying to be hard”. Speaking of the newbies, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if they get much more work in movies out of this, particularly the MMA fighter Ronda Rousey.
It’s all still dumb, undemanding stuff, but that’s OK sometimes. The finale is 20 minutes of carnage, featuring Arnie saying “CHOPPAH!” from a chopper, Banderas trying to flirt mid-battle, Ford in a flying machine and Statham and Snipes getting their martial arts on. In short, it’s everything you pay to see in a movie like this.
It’s still unforgivable that Jet Li has such minor role, and when he does finally turn up he just shoots a couple of people. The final scrap between Stallone and Gibson is dull too, but it does result in a so-bad-it’s-good one-liner that I’m sure Sly will be asked to repeat to fans for many years to come.
I’m not going to pretend there’s anything on offer here but choreographed destruction and old action stars aping how cool and omnipresent they used to be – there isn’t – but at least Stallone and his writers have come to realise that they can’t really sell themselves as credible action heroes anymore, and they make up for the lack of commentary on anything that’s actually relevant to contemporary society by making the central premise as ridiculous as possible. It’s big, it’s certainly not clever, but it’s also a quite a lot of fun. I’m not clamoring for another one, but I’m pretty glad than one of these things sort-of worked. SSP