Big guns, big biceps, big names, big body-counts. Doesn’t The Expendables write itself? Evidently not, according to the first two entries in a series designed to show that grandpas with guns still got it but ultimately proving that despite some ardent nostalgia some things are best left in the past. The first Expendables had enough names that mattered (at one time or another) to make an impression even if the final product relied too much on star power and hype and not enough on coherent or entertaining action. The follow up proved serviceable if utterly forgettable aside from perhaps Schwarzenegger proclaiming he had shoes bigger than Smart cars and, really, who wants to remember that? For an idea that makes so much sense on paper The Expendables hasn’t ever really made much of an impression…until now.
Following the serious injury of a long time brother-in-arms, mercenary leader Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) decides to call it quits for the rag-tag team of aging action heroes and begins recruiting younger inexperienced killers to engage in a risky mission to take down former comrade and current war profiteer Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson). But even if the old team aren’t willing to let Barney move on without them, Strongbanks has his own plans to shake up Ross’ revenge.
The Expendables 3 is without doubt the most consistently entertaining and interesting entry to date. The willingness Stallone and director Patrick Hughes (who previously helmed the criminally underseen Red Hill) show to shake up the formula, introducing younger characters and using them in ways to increase stakes rather than including them at the expense of the core cast, gives the team an opportunity to move through the set up at their own pace. It’s admirable that half of The Expendables 3 is laying out all of the puzzle pieces that will build together to show one mammoth final set piece and at no point does the movie lumber or feel slow. It moves at a brisk dart that makes it difficult not to feel engaged despite the inclusion of a lot of new faces and names.
Of the new appearances this is probably the strongest The Expendables has ever been with its comeback catering. Antonio Banderas is superb as an overenthusiastic motor mouth whilst Harrison Ford grumbles his way through his role as a government spook/chopper pilot in a suitably guilty manner, giving off the impression that he knows how ludicrous the whole project is and is enjoying the chance to let loose in a dumb action flick. Snipes is on reliable form as a kooky medic and it’s always great to see him riff off Stallone but the standout turn comes from Gibson as the hyper self-aware arms dealing villain. Embracing the vilified status that the actor holds in real life his Strongbanks is consciously despicable but able (and willing) to justify his actions with a chilling clarity and being unafraid to skewer perceptions with glimpses of warmth. Gibson’s personal life is his own affair but it’s been far too long since he’s had a chance to shine like this on the big screen and his natural charisma is a welcome addition.
As far as action goes The Expendables 3 is reliably scattershot. The whole experience suffers from choppy editing of a sort endemic to the 80’s action flicks that the series cribs from but that doesn’t really hold up today. At its worst the action feels stuttered and jarring, especially during early sequences which have interesting ideas but never really capitalise on the most creative way to shoot or show them. At its best, though, the action is absolutely marvelous particularly the third act which does an astounding job or jaunting back and forth between six small battles that basically make a miniature war. Hughes ensures that you always know what’s happening to who and it is with this expansive pulled back approach to the violence that The Expendables 3 thrills like it never has done before and does so for a good thirty minutes.
Other problems persist but are minor niggles in contrast to the stunning third act; some appropriately goofy development and one-liners fall deeply into the ‘take it or leave it’ camp and the CG littered throughout the set-pieces is consistently atrocious. They’re problems that hold the film back, for sure, but if you have been waiting for The Expendables to finally blow up, it’s difficult to imagine this franchise going any more nuclear than this.
Although certainly not without it’s problems The Expendables 3 makes some changes and widens it’s scope to act as a significant improvement on both of it’s predecessors.
The Expendables 3 is out now in cinemas everywhere. Image rights; Lionsgate