The Expendables 3 review

The Expendables 3 is not a movie. It’s a playdate — and it’s time to leave.

Directed by Patrick Hughes from a script credited to Creighton Rothenberger, Katrin Benedikt, and Sylvester Stallone himself, The Expendables 3 is two hours-and-change of smashing old action figures against each other, always to destructive results. Sometimes the destruction is fun to behold. Most times, it’s not. Watching The Expendables 3 is not unlike watching someone else play with action figures: Hard to follow, pretty boring, and kind of embarrassing.

But we know this by now. This is not our first Expendables rodeo. The franchise is four years old, but really, it’s decades in the making. Like a seasoned toy collector, Stallone and his Expendables cohorts collect all of the old, fading action movie heroes of yesteryear, and drop them in the playpen for one more meeting of mayhem. It’s the cinematic equivalent of revisiting an old stash of toys in the attic and dumping them out onto the floor for one last afternoon of nostalgia. The toys are creaky, their joints loose, at risk of falling apart if played with too roughly. But it doesn’t matter. The siren song of nostalgia is too powerful to not throw these G.I. Grandpa Joes against each other in a final rollicking round of playtime, before bringing them out to the yard sale, or putting them back on the shelf for good.

The Expendables 3 is at its best when playing with old toys that haven’t been dusted off the shelf in a while.

It was a fun idea at first. But even as far back as the first Expendables in 2010, it was clear that things weren’t the same — that some toys should be left on the shelf, that some things are better remembered than revisited. And yet, here we are: Playdate number three.

The story, so much as there is one, involves Expendables founder Barney Ross (Stallone) wrestling with sins of the past: Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), an old friend turned foe that Barney left for dead years ago, is actually still alive, doing all kinds of bad-guy stuff. When Stonebanks badly injures one of the Expendables, Ross goes into panic mode and fires all of his friends out of fear for their lives. He then assembles a crew of young bucks he doesn’t care about to go after Stonebanks, leading to further endangered lives, panic attacks, and cool-guy explosions.

The Expendables 3 is at its best when playing with old toys that haven’t been dusted off the shelf in a while — the Wesley Snipes action figure in particular. He’s Doctor Death, “the Knife Before Christmas,” shouldering all of the energy and enthusiasm of the film’s first 20 minutes, complete with a bizarre, repeated catchphrase (“jing-a-lang, jang-a-lang”) and an imaginary friend. (Is Doctor Death’s Sally the same as Felicity’s Sally? The world may never know.) Snipes is an absolute delight, relishing the opportunity to get back into the world of big-screen bravado — but he fades into the background after the first act, as attention wanders to Ross’ haul of newer toys.

The Expendables 3

The newer toys aren’t good, by the way. Kellan Lutz is the poor man’s Chris Pratt as rebellious, authority-challenging John Smilee. Mixed martial artist Ronda Rousey has the film’s best fight scenes as nightclub bouncer turned mercenary Luna, but she’s also the worst actor in the mix, which says a lot. Glen Powell’s Thorn spends the final action-packed act climbing an elevator shaft for absolutely no reason. And there’s some other young merc named Mars? Apparently?

The young guns are a mistake, a total distraction from the reason why the Expendables movies work, if they ever work at all. This audience doesn’t care about the fourth-stringer from Twlight. The audience cares about seeing Antonio Banderas in action again, this time playing Galgo, the so-called “bridegroom of death,” who can’t shut up about how good he is at killing people. The audience wants to see old man Harrison Ford, viewing The Expendables 3 as a training grounds of sorts to see if he still has any Han Solo charm in him. (He doesn’t, by the way, at least not here as CIA spook Drummer. But he does deploy one of the film’s few F-bombs: “This happened on my watch, you f—ed up, and now I’m wearing it.” It’s pretty great.)

The Expendables 3 is fun. At all other times, it’s a total slog.

Instead, Stallone surrounds himself with so many new toys that there’s little meaningful time spent with the favorites. Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, and Terry Crews barely show up. Jet Li puts in just enough effort to get his name and face on the poster. Jason Statham throws knives from time to time, but he’s mostly on the sidelines while Stallone yuks it up with klutzes like Lutz. Even Gibson’s Stonebanks only starts chewing scenery at about the 70-percent mark; when he finally gets a good, crazy line (threatening to cut open Lutz’s “meat shirt so I can show you your heart”), it’s way too far past the point of interest.

When Snipes, Banderas, Ford, Gibson, and even Kelsey Grammer are allowed their time to shine, The Expendables 3 is fun. At all other times, it’s a total slog. Early in the film, after the injury of an ally, Barney Ross somberly tells the rest of his buddies that “nothing lasts forever. We’re part of the past. If we keep this up, the only way this ends for any of us is in a hole in the ground, and no one will give a s–t.”

With The Expendables 3, we’ve officially arrived at the hole in the ground. Give the s–t accordingly.

The Expendables 3 is in theaters now.

(Media © Lions Gate Entertainment Inc.)

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