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Entries in Expendables 3/The [2014] (1)

Saturday
Aug162014

The Expendables 3 (2014)

Wan in 3

As a theatrical experience, The Expendables 3 is a two-hour commercial for its own home video release. Not content to make truckloads of money, Lionsgate aims for an ocean liner this time out--watering down their hard-R action franchise to a more, I guess, family-friendly PG-13 rampage. That's a problem on several levels, not the least of which is watchability.

The opening sequence (in which Sylvester Stallone and his gang of mercenaries bust Wesley Snipes out of prison) cuts around the violence so drastically as to play like a Scholastic Game of Thrones flipbook. I love well-staged action, and can follow along with the most out-there execution and editing, but the over-the-top violence in this thing has been outright sanitized--coherence be damned. Faceless characters are shot, stabbed, and blown up in moments so quick that sound effects seem to occur before the visuals.

What's worse, there's no refuge for the audience during the non-exploding moments, which comprise much of the run-time. Writers Stallone, Creighton Rothenberger, and Katrin Benedikt mistakenly assume that we care about these characters enough to watch them alternate between banter and sulking for fifteen minutes at a stretch. Three movies in, and none of these characters are funny, interesting, or insightful, beyond meta musings about 80s action stars all appearing on screen together. 

I don't remember the other Expendables movies being this bad. In fact, I barely remember the first two at all. In double-fact, I had to re-read my own review from 2010 to recall that I'd not only liked part one, but apparently enjoyed the hell out of it. The sequel--which was even more outrageous than the first, thanks to Jean-Claude Van Damme's career-best performance--helped me realized what that first movie should have been. Perspective is key, you see, and sometimes ugly.

Speaking of which, once the inevitable "Uncut and Unleashed" version hits Blu-ray, I suspect this Mickey Mouse theatrical cut will be instantly forgotten--assuming people bother with Part Three at all. There's just nothing memorable here. The gag, I suppose, is that everything follows the template of bad 80s action movies. That's not a strong enough premise to sustain two hours of muscle-bound, monosyllabic machismo shooting up God-knows-whom and bitching about growing old.

The writers throw us a small bone by introducing a team of young recruits, but neither the actors nor director Patrick Hughes can make them compelling. What to do when we're presented not with characters, but a real-life boxer, the ninth vampire from the left in Twilight, and a UFC fighter whose primary emoting tool is stink-face? The answer is: look at your watch or leave.

If there's a reason to see The Expendables 3, it's for Mel Gibson's turn as the villain. A cross between Heath Ledger's Joker and Philip Seymour Hoffman's Owen Davian from Mission: Impossible 3, the actor reminds us of why he was once a mega-star. The filmmakers get one thing right in letting Gibson breathe and play (stopping just short of merely having him reprise his character from Machete Kills). Despite whatever personal problems he may face off-screen, Gibson shows everyone else in the movie how it's done--including, I must say, the venerable-but-clearly-memorizing-lines-for-Star Wars Harrison Ford.

But you may ask, "What about Antonio Banderas?" He plays an outcast, blabbermouth gun-for-hire that could have been (and should have been) digitally overlaid with his Puss in Boots avatar from the Shrek series. One might consider his character semi-dimensional because his back story involves the Benghazi attack--which kinda makes this movie a political thriller, too.

At its core, The Expendables 3 suffers from a split personality. On one hand, Stallone and his action-star cohorts want to present a rip-roaring throwback to their glory days. On the other, they want us to feel for these characters, to understand them as men. Thanks to the softer rating, the film doesn't even come close to the graphic-yet-cartoonish violence of the action classics it wants to copy (or even its brand-name predecessors). And, as I said before, the Expendables aren't actually characters at this point. Maybe if one or two or all of them died throughout the course of this bombastic slog, it would be easier to become invested--or at least surprised.

Yes, after three movies about allegedly disposable warriors, it's disheartening and maddening to see all the marquee players raise a toast at the end of what was supposed to be their "last" outing. How great would it have been to see a bloody, teary-eyed Arnold Schwarzenegger drop Stallone's fragmented corpse in front of the Li'l Expendables before heading off on a world-saving suicide mission with a firm, "I won't be back!" But that would require stakes--as well as a taming of ego that none of these hulking, putty-faced supermen could muster.*

If you're looking for a bloody good time this weekend, skip the box office and check out Sabotage instead. It's a bit of a mess, too, but a damned interesting one. It's The Expendables meets Se7en meets The Wild Bunch, starring a Schwarzenegger who's actually dialed in. Yeah, it's macho, occasionally incomprehensible, and full of skin-crawling sexism, but it's also the kind of harsh yet entertaining commentary this fossil of a genre needs. The Expendables 3, by contrast, is barely worth commenting on.**

*I don't mean to be crass, but Stallone ditches the trademark Van Dyke he wore in the first two pictures--drawing even more attention to his face's epic, losing battle against aging.

**Lofty words from someone who just used nine hundred of them to talk about a movie. What can I say? It's my job.