The conceit behind The Expendables series is actually rather brilliant. Resurrect a series of action stars of the past, mix them in with some of the present, and create a massively destructive ode to the action movies of days gone by. You take a series of actors who have all experienced some degree of popularity as the core group and toss in a few newbies in each entry. Let their charisma do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to characterization and dialogue, and then toss in some gun- and fistfights. I won’t lie, the theory is absolutely sound and it’s built for people just like me, people who enjoy a certain degree of paint-by-numbers action and who developed that affinity by watching actors like Stallone and Schwarzenegger punch and shoot their way through the 1980’s and 90’s.
So why, then, is the series so utterly unengaging? Because I have now had the misfortune of seeing all three, and at no point did I ever find them even slightly memorable. I saw the first one twice, so I sort of remember that one — Dolph Lundgren’s character had a drug habit, and Jet Li suffered some jokes about his height, Statham beat up a guy with a basketball, and they stormed a drug lord’s palace. I think. The second one? Almost nothing comes to mind other than Van Damme and Baby Thor were in it. As for The Expendables 3, I saw it less than 12 hours ago and it’s already fading.
Let’s get the story out of the way before I forget it completely. Stallone’s team is down to five guys (and I’m not going to bother with their characters’ names because, seriously, why would I?) — Stallone himself, Jason Statham as his best bud, Terry Crews (who is tragically underused given that he’s probably the film’s best shot at genuine comic relief), Dolph Lundgren, who basically just glares and sticks his jaw out, old-but-new guy Wesley Snipes, and Randy Couture who, this time around, serves almost no purpose at all. A job they’re doing goes sideways, and it turns out that the villain is one of Stallone’s long-thought-dead former teammates, played capably enough by Mel Gibson, who is actually probably trying harder than anyone else, but then, he’s got the most to gain here. Stallone has to recruit a new team, this time signing on strapping youngsters Kellen Lutz (who does a decent enough job as a rebellious tough guy), welterweight boxer Victor Ortiz (who does almost nothing of note), MMA fighter Ronda Rousey (who has hands down the most satisfying hand-to-hand fight scenes). and Glen Powell (yeah, I don’t know who the hell he is either). Finally, Antonio Banderas is along as well as a manic blabbermouth.
Anyway, things go sideways again, and Stallone has to lead his original team in to rescue his new team, and then there’s a giant shoot-em-up staged in a dilapidated building in a bombed out fictional Eastern European country. The good guys live, the bad guys die, the end. It’s possibly the laziest script I’ve ever seen committed to the screen, with little opportunity for nuance or subtlety, but then again, given the series’ acumen, that’s kind of the point. But what is so baffling is how utterly boring the entire affair is. As I mentioned above, the theory is sound, yet the execution is so shoddy, so lackadaisically assembled, that there’s really nothing satisfying about the film. It’s the least entertaining of a series that was barely entertaining to begin with. The entire project has been Stallone’s baby, and wither his performance goes, so does the story. Stallone is practically asleep this time around, his lines delivered in long, drawn-out drawls and his dialogue filled with nothing but rote cliches. The story is oddly similar — drab, uninspired, and simply not terribly interesting. It’s hastily cobbled together from better ideas, and the glue that should be holding it all together — the performers, which are the film’s only chance at success — aren’t up to the task either.
The films have always pegged their hopes on two things — action and chemistry. The chemistry, unfortunately, has fizzled more and more with each entry. The reason I even remotely remember the first one is that the actors all at least seemed to be enjoying themselves. Yes, the jokes often fell flat and the dialogue was wince-inducing, but there was enough of a genuine sense of camaraderie that it was almost — almost — forgivable. There’s no such chemistry here. The actors’ lines bounce off of each other with resounding thuds, listless and aimless. The jokes are horrendous, with the only real comic relief coming from, of all places, Schwarzenegger and Banderas (Kelsey Grammar’s handful of minutes aren’t bad either). The actors just look bored (particularly Harrison Ford, who mails in yet another performance), and that’s likely due to the fact that a) none of them are particularly skilled actors and b) director Patrick Hughes doesn’t really appear to know what to do with them. That manifests itself in a number of ways — the staging shots of the actors are awkwardly assembled, with people seeming to not really know where they belong, and with heavy, cumbersomely serious lines being blurted out at weirdly inopportune moments.
As for the action itself, that part is the most worrisome. The death toll in The Expendables 3 is astronomical. I’m talking literally in the hundreds in each action scene. It’s actually a little disturbing, and made stranger by the film’s PG-13 rating, which Stallone purposefully sought to try to attract younger viewers. He achieved by making the action completely bloodless. You’ll never see a bullet or a knife actually enter a body, and you’ll almost never actually see anyone die, or even see a corpse for more than half a second. Yet the cast mows down hundreds of people over the course of the film, with a eventually numbing assault of bullets and rockets and grenades and whatever else. You come to crave the fight scenes, because it’s a break from the relentless gunfire that is never choreographed with any sense of style or panache, substituting a body count for coherence.
I want to like The Expendables series. It seems like it’s tailor-made for people like me, blending together ingredients from my past and present to try to capture both a modern sensibility as well as a sense of nostalgia. Yet it’s so presented so lifelessly and with such vacuous disregard for intelligence, and without any kind of real charisma that not even its nonsensically gruesome action sequences can salvage it. The Expendables 3 is a hapless, dull exercise in wholesale slaughter… that will somehow still make you want to take a nap.