Film Review: ‘The Expendables 3’

The latest, longest and least necessary entry in this increasingly expendable action franchise.

In the moviegoer’s hierarchy of needs, a PG-13 “Expendables” is about as essential as a Joel Schumacher remake of “Tokyo Story.” Or, to put it in terms more appropriate to its target audience: You need “The Expendables 3” like you need a kick in the crotch, and while this running-on-fumes sequel may not be quite as painful a thing to experience, it will waste considerably more of your time. From train-crashing start to back-slapping finish, Lionsgate’s latest and longest showcase for Sylvester Stallone and other aging slabs of B-movie beef — the marquee names this time around include Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford — smacks of desperation and teen-audience pandering, from the literally bloodless action to the introduction of a younger, hotter backup team of fighters (call them the Hip Replacements). It’s an obvious, half-hearted ploy to keep the beleaguered series going, when it would be far wiser to heed one character’s advice: “You know, I’m getting out of this business and so should you.”

The Stallone-directed first “Expendables” (2010) grossed an impressive $103 million in the U.S. en route to a total worldwide haul of $274 million; its 2012 follow-up, helmed by Simon West, took a hit domestically ($85 million) but more than made up the difference internationally, for a global cume of $305 million. But even without factoring in franchise fatigue and the law of diminishing returns, it’s hard to see the new movie, from Australian helmer-for-hire Patrick Hughes, extending the series’ winning streak — due in part to an online leak that has already resulted in more than 2 million illegal downloads, a number that will only continue to rise between now and Lionsgate’s Aug. 15 Stateside rollout. Not to condone piracy or anything, but emerging from “The Expendables 3” (which, at 127 minutes, runs considerably longer than its predecessors), you can’t help but envy those streamers for experiencing the picture under optimal circumstances, with volume controls and fast-forward buttons at the ready.

Credited to three writers, which is at least two-and-a-half too many, the script kicks off with a foolhardy mission involving a helicopter, a speeding locomotive and the first of many outsourced-vfx explosions. Once more we’re tagging along with gang leader Barney Ross (Stallone), second-in-command Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), and their ragtag team of battle-scarred fighters, who are regularly hired to do the government’s dirty work in faraway places. The Expendables’ ranks have taken a major beating of late, and so Barney decides to stage a prison break and bring back one of the gang’s founding members, Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes), who’s so competitive and lethal with a blade that he refers to himself early on as “the knife before Christmas.” Zing!

Doctor Death isn’t the only original Expendable dragged in from some previously unknown and thoroughly uncompelling backstory. Surfacing in time for a chaotic setpiece in Somalia is Barney’s old frenemy Conrad Stonebanks (Gibson), a hard-to-kill supervillain who manages to slip through their clutches, gravely wounding weapons specialist Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) in the process. Realizing that his trusty teammates — who include Swedish sniper Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren) and demolitions expert Toll Road (Randy Couture) — are getting too old to keep risking their lives like this, Barney ditches them and, at the behest of CIA officer Max Drummer (Ford), recruits a brand-new crew of younger, fresher Expendables. They’re played, pretty unmemorably, by Kellan Lutz, Glen Powell, boxing champion Victor Ortiz and, in the token-female role, mixed martial artist Ronda Rousey — all of whom face the unenviable task of establishing a secondary rooting interest in a movie where even the leads have trouble holding attention.

Naturally, Christmas and company are none too thrilled to find their makeshift family so unceremoniously disbanded for this bunch of newbies. And so “The Expendables 3” tries to mix in a few tears with all the testosterone, honoring the depth and resilience of male friendships forged in combat (at one point, you may wonder if you’ve wandered into “Fist Bump: The Movie”), while acknowledging the looming specter of the men’s mortality. It’s a theme that would seem to blend well with the series’ main objective, which is to pay loving, somewhat valedictory tribute to as many fading ’80s and ’90s action heroes in the same movie as possible. As an actor proudly notes in the press materials: “We have Rocky, the Terminator, Indiana Jones, the Transporter, Mad Max, Desperado and Blade.” He seems to have left out the follow-up caveat: “And we gave them virtually nothing of interest to do or say for two hours!”

The previous two movies, although barely defensible, were at least enlivened by a sly awareness of their own awfulness, and got by on the strength of their no-nonsense, R-rated brutality. But that grisly sense of purpose is nowhere to be found in “The Expendables 3,” which, for clearly commercial reasons, has opted for a more audience-friendly PG-13 rating — a gutless decision that drains the action of its excitement, its visceral impact and its glorious disreputability. By the time the movie finally arrives at an incoherent endgame set in some fictional Middle Eastern hellhole, where editors Sean Albertson and Paul Harb try their damnedest to make sense of a whirlwind of action involving rolling tanks, speeding motorcycles and dive-bombing helicopters, it’s at once impossible to follow what’s going on and impossible to care in any event.

Stallone asserts his position as the master of this flailing circus by giving himself the film’s one genuinely funny line, while Kelsey Grammer adds a touch of class to the proceedings as a mercenary who helps Barney with his new recruits. He doesn’t see much action (Dr. Frasier Crane isn’t one of our most enduring meathead icons), but following his roles in “Transformers: Age of Extinction” and the Starz series “Boss,” it’s fun to see Grammer extending his reach into tough-guy territory. But perhaps to no one’s surprise, it’s Gibson who comes the closest to creating a pocket of viewer interest whenever he’s onscreen. As he did in last year’s “Machete Kills,” the Australian star seems to relish the opportunity to slyly riff on his troubled real-life persona with a derivative but effective portrait of villainy, and to remind us of what how much charisma he still exudes in front of the camera.

Watching Gibson snarl sure beats watching Ford grimace — or, for that matter, watching Arnold Schwarzenegger pop into the frame every few scenes or so like a 250-pound jack-in-the-box. This is the sort of numbskull non-entertainment that considers it worthwhile to fly in a martial-arts superstar like Jet Li and have him sit around firing a machine gun, pausing every so often to deliver the most awkward line readings of his career. Still, maybe better to be marginalized than overexposed: One of the cast’s highest-profile additions is Antonio Banderas as Galgo, an ingratiating, over-eager assassin whose habit of sharing personal anecdotes nonstop is meant to provide long-winded comic relief (although listen closely for a tragic, potentially loaded reference to Benghazi). Banderas is trying way too hard, but that’s borderline refreshing in a movie where too many people seem to be doing the opposite.

Here’s more with Justin Chang on “The Expendables 3”:

Film Review: ‘The Expendables 3’

Reviewed at Lionsgate screening room, Santa Monica, Calif., Aug. 1, 2014. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 127 MIN.

Production

A Lionsgate release presented with Millennium Films of a Nu Image production. Produced by Avi Lerner, Kevin King-Templeton, Danny Lerner, Les Weldon, John Thompson. Executive producers, Trevor Short, Boaz Davidson, Jon Feltheimer, Jason Constantine, Eda Kowan, Basil Iwanyk, Guymon Casady. Co-producers, Robert Earl, Samuel Hadida, Victor Hadida, Guy Avshalom, Zygi Kamasa. Co-executive producer, Lonnie Ramati.

Crew

Directed by Patrick Hughes. Screenplay, Sylvester Stallone, Creighton Rothenberger, Katrin Benedikt, based on characters created by David Callaham. Camera (FotoKem color, widescreen), Peter Menzies Jr.; editors, Sean Albertson, Paul Harb; music, Brian Tyler; music supervisor, Selena Arizanovic; production designer, Daniel T. Dorrance; supervising art director, Tom Brown; art director, Ivan Ranghelov; set designer, Vasil Vasilev;  set decorator, Kelly Berry; costume designer, Lizz Wolf; sound (Dolby Digital), Vladimir Kaloyanov; supervising sound editor, Christopher Eakins; supervising sound designer, Stuart Provine; sound designer, Ryan Collins; re-recording mixers, Chris David, Gabriel J. Serrano; special effects coordinator, Allen Hall; senior visual effects supervisor, Ajoy Mani; visual effects producer, Scott Coulter; visual effects, Worldwide FX, Prime Focus, the Resistance VFX, Mirada, Atomic Fiction, Ghost VFX, Hammerhead Prods.; stunt coordinators, Brad Martin, J.J. Perry; fight choreographer, Perry; assistant director, Nick Satriano; casting, Avi Lerner.  

With

Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Antonio Banderas, Jet Li, Wesley Snipes, Dolph Lundgren, Kelsey Grammer, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kellan Lutz, Ronda Rousey, Glen Powell, Victor Ortiz, Robert Davi.

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  1. I never saw the first or second Expendables. Saw #3 and was entertained from beginning to end, had some good laughs along the way, did not notice a lack of After Effects blood.

  2. Michael says:

    I walked out. So tired of aging stars phoning it in.

  3. Tom says:

    The latest, longest and least necessary review in Justin Chang’s career. ZING!

  4. JD says:

    I more or less disagree with this harsh review. I liked the 1st two movies, especially the 2nd one in particular the over the top violence and bloodshed.
    Good parts;
    1) The 1st 20 mins or so and the last 30 minutes were the best parts.
    2) It was funny with Banderas, Ford and snipes being hilarious.
    Bad parts;
    1) Justin is right re the new young additions. They are bad, really bad and they seriously make the movie drag in the middle.
    2) While its great to see Gibson back in a high profile role, bar one great talky scene in the middle, he was not given enough to do or say and unlike the showdown between Van Damme and Stallone in the last film, Gibson’s showdown with Stallone pales in comparison.

    I enjoyed the movie but I just wished that Stallone had not messed with a formula that did not need changing.

  5. Tom says:

    Who would pay money to see Stallone at this point? These “movies” are awful.

  6. Yeats says:

    As stupid as this film is, it never pretends to be anything but what it is. If you want to see Sly, et al, say some wooden lines and blow up some junk, you are in for a good time. Mr. Chang knows this yet he seemed hell bent on savaging this film as though his expectations were higher. Rarely do I see reviews where the writer in question so clearly has an axe to grind.

  7. Sly and anyone participating in this torture porn movie (torture is on the viewer) should be tried at La Hague tribunal for crime against human brain cells. terrible FX, terrible Script, terrible acting, terribly boring action sequences. The only people who could love this are the ones who thought Sabotage was a kick-ass movie.

  8. With so many high-profile actors this needed a 150 minute running time to be the definitive mercenary movie similar to the The Dirty Dozen The one director who could develop the definitive script and directing chops in this genre is Tarantino! If Tarantino is unavailabe get John Woo! They,just don’t make them like the The Dirty Dozen anymore.

  9. Joe Wilson says:

    People who like this kind of movie will spit on the reviews and gladly throw down their money to see this film just like they did for the first two. True ,it aint shakespere , It is what it is folks , like it or not . I would go just to see UFC champ Rowdy Ronda Rousey !!!!! As far as the downloads go I doubt many people stopped watching when they stole it .

  10. John says:

    Why would you waste your money on something crap like this, if your so curious watch it for free, thats what I did and you will see how bad it is. Worst movie ever, its a torture to watch thats how bad it is. Something like this does not even deserve to be shown in a cinema. If I were you, I would give the money you would spend on this movie to a homeless person instead, at least then you would be doing someone good. So what if this movie does not earn a big box office, it should not because its terrible and it just goes to show that the makers don’t care about quality, but only about the money and more money, which they already have a LOT of anyways.

  11. cadavra says:

    I’m still going to go, but I’m disappointed to hear that they’re giving so much footage to the newbies. The whole point of this series is to see the geezers strut their stuff! Why bench them for most of the show?

  12. frankie342 says:

    James Cameron’s vision of aliens it was an inspiration on a film
    called southern comfort about working together as an unit and
    it’s interstellar cast of colonial space marines trained by Vietnam
    veteran al Matthews and Michael Beihn was drafted in to play
    corporal Dwayne Hicks after James Remar Left due to obvious
    reasons and the chemistry worked well but the expendables
    would have being better in the 80’s but not as much in todays
    standard and the reused the same set from a good day to die
    hard (aka die hard 5) the expendables was one lame throwback
    to another to the likes of Rambo commando and star wars et.
    all they had to throw in an Milla Jovovich clone to add for this
    testosterone adrenalized film and Stallone is working on a draft
    for an fourth entry to the ageing franchise plus an spin off
    trilogy titled the expendabelles but Lundgren was dry lack of humour
    not like he did back in his HE-MAN day’s of the 80’s may no wonder
    It leaked on the internet so people can see how bad it was to save
    them an excruciating 2 hours of action cheese and lame inside
    jokes about avoiding taxes referenced by Wesley snipes by going to cinema at least 80’s action films was great
    and not over shadowed by computer animated effects I did see
    the trailer planning to see it on DVD but the 80’s actioners were
    the best I would be amazed for part four they will add Nicholas
    cage john Travolta Christian slater brad pitt tom cruise and
    George Clooney and lastly Keanu reeves I hope not .

    FRANKIE LOVE ROCK SMALES

    SMALES TV UK

  13. I”m not looking for high art, I’m looking for DUMB,EXCITING,EXPLOSIONS,bad jokes,etc.. In short it looks like fun and I can turn my brain off for an hour and half.. I’m there opening weekend.

  14. Max Barber says:

    It’s not Scorsese. It’s fun, dumb, action. C’mon!

  15. George Valentin says:

    Thank you, Variety, for giving the warning about this fizzle of a movie. I will trust Variety’s review and stay away from the theater.

    • jedi77 says:

      If you needed a review to make up your mind, you weren’t going in the first place.
      This is not a review film, it’s a dumb action film, and to top it all off it’s PG-13.

      The first one was pretty bad, the second unbelievably bad and the third just might be even worse. But for some reason I’m going to go see it anyway, simply because it’s a good excuxse to meet and hang it with the guys I know.

      • frankie342 says:

        I agree and it do my head in at times where people are reviewing
        a product on amazon just before it is released and why don’t these film
        distributors come up with an alternative when releasing films the option
        is go and see it at an cinema or pay per view the event where you
        have to pay and view it on your pc and let people judge on the film
        either way people slated terminator 3 but I rather loved it to say
        I have seen it about four times and never take these reviewers
        who gets paid to review them seriously after all it’s ones opinion
        if you like to go and see a film that you hoping for weeks then
        you get your bucks worth not everyone loves the same thing
        I can not wait to see terminator 5 and i’m a fan of the franchise
        but there is no harm of trying things once in life .

        FRANKIE LOVE ROCK SMALES

        SMALES TV UK

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