It is with a sense of surprise and relief that I salute The Expendables 3 as a half-decent movie, which justifies giving the ultimate-action-movie-mix-tape gimmick another spin for the sake of getting it right.
Directed by Patrick Hughes / Written by Creighton Rothenberger, Katrin Benedikt, Sylvester Stallone/ Starring Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Wesley Snipes, Mel Gibson, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Arnold Schwarznegger, Harrison Ford / Cinematography by Peter Menzies Jr. / Music by Brian Tyler / Production by Nu Image, Millennium Films
Looking back on my childhood, I can recall myself and my two closest friends traipsing through streets and marshlands, discussing trashy action movies – the ones we had watched, the ones our parents had not yet allowed us to watch and the ones we would make given unlimited power and resources. We took great delight in devising the silhouette of a plot in order to hang ingenious Bad-Guy Deaths and dream cast lists on it. In our ten-year-old minds Bad-Guy Deaths had unlimited options; any object or mechanism that could cut, pierce, immolate, mangle or crush a human body was a potential murder weapon. But dream cast lists were much trickier, much more carefully thought out and limited to the actors who fit the B-movie action aesthetic of the eighties and nineties. Over the course of the Expendables series Sylvester Stallone has tried to bring the shared fantasies of millions of like-minded, blood-thirsty boys to the screen and give his audience a two-for-one deal on the ultimate B-movie actioner and a kind-hearted parody of B-movie actioners. It’s not surprising that it has taken three attempts to find a creative team and cast that could realise this vision with some semblance of fidelity. It’s debatable whether or not it was worth the wait, but The Expendables 3 tops the first two instalments as an enjoyable romp that does exactly what it says on the tin.
Much like the first two films, The Expendables 3 begins with Stallone’s mercenary leader, Barney Ross, taking a job that finds the Expendables in way over their heads, escaping by the skin of their teeth, retreating to a biker bar where the waitresses wear cut-off shorts and indulging in some male bonding before the impression of a plan forms in the haze of cigar smoke and Bud suds. After the mission-gone-awry, Barney is approached by the CIA to bring the psychotic war criminal Stonebanks (Mel Gibson) to trial at the Hague, but won’t risk the lives of his bosom buddies to do it. Instead Barney recruits four plucky youngsters to get the job done with their computer knowhow and their original hips. But Stonebanks is a crafty devil and soon has the young Expendables strung up as bait to lure the old team to a showdown in the brutalist ruins of fictional post-Soviet shit hole, Uzmenistan.
The usual suspects of the series are joined here by Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas and Harrison Ford, who was drafted to replace Bruce Willis after a public dispute over Willis’ fee. To watch the movements and mannerisms of these new cast members is akin to visiting a big cat safari park. Wesley Snipes seethes with jaguar-like menace under his calm, fluffy exterior. As a villainous ghost from the Expendables’ past Mel Gibson electrifies the screen with the hungry, piercing expression of a Bengal tiger. Antonio Banderas almost steals the show as a sort of deadly Pink Panther cartoon. Contrasting these fine performances is that of Harrison Ford. Where Snipes, Gibson and Banderas are entertaining feline hunters, Ford is more of a decrepit basset hound, delivering most of his lines with a vacant stare that suggests he may be performing at gunpoint or under hypnosis.
The posters for The Expendables (2010) promised “the greatest action cast ever assembled”, which was somewhat misleading given the perfunctory appearances of Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarznegger (then still in office as the Governator), both of whom did only one scene without throwing a punch or blowing anything up. Posters for The Expendables 2 (2012) made no mention of “the greatest action cast ever assembled” or even the second greatest action cast ever assembled. Giving everybody a chance to gun down hordes of hapless henchmen, The Expendables 3 (2014) delivers not only the best take yet on the greatest action cast ever assembled but also an acceptable script, mostly strong performances and an explanation for the increasing quirks of Schwarznegger’s wardrobe throughout the trilogy. But this wouldn’t be an Expendables movie without cheap CG effects, indifferent cinematography, berets, dreary macho posturing, five o’clock shadows, berets, interchangeable Bulgarian backdrops, berets, a lot of crummy jokes and berets. It would be absurd to claim that the Expendables series is still little more than fan service on an epic scale. However, the success of this third film lies in its willingness to embrace the inherent naffness of older B-movies and placate fans whose tastes have matured a little, with some genuinely funny moments in contrast to the Christmas-cracker-level gags, atmospheric moments of menace, and even a poignant recurring motif of dead soldiers’ dog tags dangling on their chains.
- Mel Gibson is easily the finest villain in the series but I’m sad that he did not have a recognisable actor as his lieutenant. In the first film Stone Cold Steve Austin, one of the biggest stars in the history of the WWF and WWE, was putting the hurt on our crinkly heroes. In the second Jean Claude van Damme’s Vilain had accomplished martial artist and choreographer Scott Adkins for back up, whose feral glare and natural screen presence helped nudge the The Expendables 2 in the direction of watchability. For this third instalment there should have been a more recognisable actor cast as Mel Gibson’s right-hand-heavy. In the end, Ivan Kostadinov logs a smidgen of screen time as Stonebanks’ head bodyguard in a curtailed scrap with Jason Statham.
- Almost in keeping with the time honoured the-black-guy-always-dies-first rule of action movies, Terry Crews is taken out of the action almost as soon as Wesley Snipes arrives, which suggests that there’s only room enough for one black hero in the Expendables’ universe.