The first Expendables movie was a fun idea. Sylvester Stallone brought together a number of 80s and 90s action movie stars for an Ocean’s 11/ Magnificent Seven ensemble adventure featuring plenty of action, guns and explosions calculated to recall the halcyon days of the genre. Audiences enjoyed themselves, the film made money and everyone was happy. Naturally, a sequel followed. But because one tends to try and crank up all the elements that made the first film successful for a second film it led to them shoehorning several things in that would periodically grind the movie to a halt. (“Look everybody! It’s Chuck Norris!”) For this third installment, Stallone not only brings in some new old faces but flips the formula a bit by also adding some new future possible action stars into the mix.
Expendables 3 opens with a rather fun sequence in which grizzled old soldier Barney Ross (Stallone) leads his band of aging mercenaries in rescuing a former team member (Wesley Snipes) who had been imprisoned for the past eight years. Moving directly on to a high-paying, high-risk job, the group discovers that Ross’s co-founder of the team, Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), is not as dead as previously thought but has become one of the most dangerous arms dealers in the world. When one of the team is gravely wounded in the ensuing melee, Ross disbands his current group, electing to assemble a new team of young hot shots to go after Stonebanks. But when the mission goes wrong, it may be up to the old timers to step in and show the younger generation how things gets done.
If you had fun with the first two films, you’ll probably enjoy this latest installment of the franchise. But, as the title implies, the film is pretty expendable if not entirely ephemeral. If you’re looking for something deeper than just the visceral fun of watching well put together action sequences hung on a skimpy skeleton of a plot while munching popcorn for two hours, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Although the film certainly has the opportunity to thematically explore a few things, such as the idea of aging soldiers and having the mistakes of your past come back to haunt you, it never takes those chances. If you want to see an old warhorse try and find his place in a world he doesn’t rightly recognize, you should go watch Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan or John Wayne’s The Shootist, as Stallone doesn’t have time for that kind of thing here.
To its credit, the franchise still manages to have some sense of self-awareness about itself. Wesley Snipes’ character quips that he was in prison for “Tax evasion” and Harrison Ford refers to Bruce Willis character as being “out of the picture” following that actor’s too high salary demand to reprise his role as a CIA official who frequently contracts the Expendables. I suppose even Mel Gibson’s casting as the nominal villain of the piece could be reflexive from some of the bad press the actor has gotten over the last few years over his personal life. And what should we make of Schwarzenegger’s character’s announcement that he was getting out of “the business”? But perhaps Stallone sums up the franchise’s whole metatextual raison d’etre when he tells his group that once they were the best, but that “nothing lasts forever” and “We’re not the future anymore, we’re part of the past.”
Unfortunately, the film carries a bit too much familiarity with it. Harrison Ford’s appearance in one action sequence bears a faint echo to another such moment in Star Wars. Schwarzenegger still mangles the word “chopper” (“Get to the choppa!”). The former communist block abandoned facility that the film’s finale takes place in recalls the last (and worst) Die Hard film. Much like the cast, the franchise is starting to show its age.