For those of us Demolition Man fans, the best part of The Expendables 3 comes early, as Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes trade brief sneers of recognition when the former, with some help from Jason Statham and Dolph Lundgren, breaks the latter from a high-tech prison train in the film’s opening scene. The pleasures of this series have always been incidental — occasional in-jokes, random bits of extended banter, a surreally nasty kill or two. But as movies, the first two films barely held together. Just jamming a bunch action clichés together doesn’t really amount to much if you don’t do anything interesting with them. But those first two movies look like Seven Samurai next to The Expendables 3, a sad, bad, parade of uninspired cameos and listless violence.
Almost everything in The Expendables 3 seems to revolve around the dispersal of recognizable faces. After an attempt to undo an arms deal in Mogadishu (at least, I think it’s an arms deal in Mogadishu) goes awry and leaves a member of his covert black-ops team horribly wounded, Expendables chief Barney Ross (Stallone) disbands the crew and secretly starts assembling a newer, younger one with the help of retired fellow traveler Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer). Their target is Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), who once co-founded the Expendables but has since turned into a sadistic, chichi arms dealer. Among these young guns is Galgo (Antonio Banderas), an overeager sniper who desperately wants to join Barney’s crew, but is dismissed as too old. Meanwhile, a very shouty Harrison Ford replaces Bruce Willis as the CIA honcho who gives Barney his assignments. Kellan Lutz is in there somewhere, too. There is simply no way to do justice to the sheer number of people on the screen.
There’s no way to give them anything meaningful to do, either. The Expendables 3 at times feels like one of those star-studded pageant movies, like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. But those movies were often vignette-based, giving their characters individual moments to shine. The joke with this latest Expendables flick has been that the cast is so big, they can hardly fit on the poster. Well, more troubling, they can hardly fit into the movie. These are actors who mostly thrived in the age of the lone-man-against-the-world action spectacular. Lining them up in groups and having them machine-gun their opposing number of bad guys isn’t exactly using them to the best of their abilities. (You may also start to wonder why any of these guys need muscles, if all they’re going to do is stand around and shoot.) Dialogue isn’t exactly their strong suit, either. Between Stallone’s grunts, Schwarzenegger’s robotic delivery, Banderas’s thick accent, and Ford’s yelling, you may not even hear much of this very loud movie. Gibson, for his part, does have some fun as a slick, sneering psycho who likes to buy bad expensive art as much as he likes to kill people, but that’s about it.
The action mostly sucks, too. When Barney and Bonaparte are rounding up their new crew, they visit a New York City nightclub where one of their new prospects, Luna (MMA star Ronda Rousey), works as a bouncer. As they watched with admiration as she beat down several misbehaving clubgoers on the dance floor, I realized that I, the viewer, wasn’t seeing anything: Just some awkward close-ups and reaction shots and some choppy editing designed to let me know that somewhere, somehow, ass was being kicked. Presumably, an MMA star knows how to fight, so this isn’t your usual phenomenon of a director cutting around an actor’s inability to pull off a move or a stunt. Is it incompetence? Is it the fact that this Expendables movie, unlike the others, is PG-13? Or is it that nobody involved in this movie gives a damn about anything anymore? And are we suckers for even expecting them to?