Review: The Expendables 3 (2014)

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Director: Patrick Hughes
Screenwriters: Sylvester Stallone, Creighton Rothenberger & Katrin Benedikt
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Mel Gibson, Wesley Snipes, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Antonio Banderas & Kellan Lutz
Runtime: 126 min // Certificate: 12a

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xD0junWlFc]

It’s quite fitting that the attempts to soften the violence, town down the profanities and dispense with the gore in order to obtain a more family-friendly certification are ultimately what are responsible for emptying two rounds into the back of this already ailing formula’s head. The awful quips, the uncomfortable politics and the hyper-machismo that are the staples of the 80s action classics that Stallone’s Expendables franchise has always tried (and often failed) to emulate are present as ever, but they’ve been watered down and softened to such a fatal extent that this latest sequel doesn’t even pack the cheap, mindless thrills of its predecessors.

Unlike the previous film, which at least dispensed with the formality of even having a story and instead focussed almost exclusively on shit jokes and action sequences (which, let’s be honest, is all anyone really wants from these films), The Expendables 3 tries to breathe a semblance of seriousness into the franchise with a “plot” that involves Stallone’s Barney Ross going through yet another mid-life crisis. That Stallone has been flogging the “old man seeking meaning in the confusing modern World” routine for almost a decade now is neither here or there. After all, this is Stallone; he only has two stories in him, and the other one – “young man seeking meaning in an old man’s World” – is no longer feasible for a bloke whose face is held together by nothing but paper clips, staples and sheer will nowadays.

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What this all means in practice, of course, is that rather than getting to watch all our old favourites doing what they (used to) do best, we instead have to sit through an altogether tedious story about Ross trying to cobble together a new, younger team to take down one of his greatest foes – an arms-dealer, psychopath and ex-Expendable by the name of Conrad Stonebanks (Gibson; Lethal Weapon). That none of the new recruits are famous for their action film credentials doesn’t bother Stallone one bit, but the fact that they’re all utterly interchangeable and forgettable perhaps should. We have the token woman, whose sole purpose is to prove that the formula isn’t sexist (though funnily enough, she’s so poorly written that it actually proves the opposite…), the rebel, the arms expert and the geek, all of whom are but pale imitations of the people we actually want to see.

The presence of these new characters wouldn’t be much of an issue were the old guard a. used effectively or b. remotely interested in what they’re doing. Alas, neither of these things is true. Stallone appears to have gone on something of an ego-trip this time around, taking centre stage at the expense of people like Statham (Crank) and Lundgren (Rocky IV), both of whom are reduced to pointless supporting roles alongside newcomers Snipes (Blade), Banderas (Desperado) and Ford (Air Force One). The return of Arnie (The Terminator) provides some minor comic relief, especially when he tells everyone, not once but twice, to “get to the choppahh!”, but it’s a cheap, desperate thrill that sums up exactly why The Expendables 3 feels like it’s all gone disastrously wrong.

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Nonetheless, there is some fun to be had, as there always is in a Stallone vehicle, but the gags are so few and far between, not to mention painfully contrived, that it has a terrible air of embarrassment and shame about it. Still, a few self-referential jokes about Snipes’ character being in prison for tax evasion and Bruce Willis’ character being “out of the picture” might make you chuckle, while Arnie’s near homoerotic relationship with Jet Li (The One is bizarre but amusing. If anyone steals the show, however, it’s Banderas, who seems to be the only one who recognises the franchise for the massive pisstake that it is. Gibson makes for an entertaining villain, Stallone does his usual thing and it all comes together quite nicely in an epic (albeit tame, bloodless and somewhat soulless) final act, but it’s all cheap, second-rate and utterly unmemorable.

At one point towards the end of the film, Harrison Ford declares that he “hasn’t had this much fun in years”, but his dead eyes betray the falsity of those words. You stare into Ford’s eyes and you see a barren, hollowed-out husk staring back at you. You see a man who wants a reassurance that is never coming; a reassurance that his best years are still to come, and that the glory days haven’t even started. In this respect, Ford is perfect for this film. The franchise is as good as dead. It’s finished. It no longer works, or possesses any charm. The combination of new characters and toned down violence is fatal. In essence, it just doesn’t feel like an Expendables film at all. The formula, which was once simplistic but enjoyable, is now unrecognisable. If Stallone will insist on carrying on with this, then he needs to take it right back to basics, otherwise it’s only going to get even more embarrassing and cringe-worthy, and not in a good way…

★★

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