'The Expendables 3': Film Review

A winning formula appears to be faltering, even with an infusion of new blood.

Sylvester Stallone’s action-hero franchise adds Wesley Snipes, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, Kellan Lutz and Ronda Rousey to the cast of the third installment.

A franchise with half a billion dollars in global box office was inevitably going to spawn another sequel that’s no doubt widely anticipated by fans, who may be disappointed to discover that the law of diminishing returns is inexorably setting in with the third iteration. Or maybe not, considering the fairly flexible standards applied to the avowedly pulpy series thus far.  

Although The Expendables 3 remains faithful to the series’ B-movie roots, what becomes increasingly clear is that the issue of franchise fatigue isn’t so much attributable to the initially inspired template that put highly recognizable, aging action stars back in the game as it is to increasingly formulaic plotlines. With no higher purpose than generating cash and allowing for a few shared laughs among old buddies on repetitive assignments to take out tyrannical despots and nefarious arms dealers, the Expendables lack the dimensionality of enduring screen characters, despite the iconic roles many of these actors have played in other films. 

Opening in the same mid-August frame as the two previous films, Expendables 3 seems unlikely to hit the $28 million-plus debuts of either of its predecessors — but nor will it be significantly affected by the one million-plus downloads of a recently pirated version of the film either, leaving a sizable remainder to be made up from overseas territories and ancillary.

The latest Expendables outing finds CIA contractor Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) back in the pilot’s seat of his decrepit seaplane with his familiar team of mercenaries onboard, including Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren) and Toll Road (Randy Couture). They’re on a mission to rescue one of their own, knife expert Doc (Wesley Snipes), one of the five original Expendables, who’s been locked up in a black-site prison for the past eight years. Once Doc is safely reunited with Ross and the rest of the team following a kinetically staged opening shootout on a speeding armored train, they set course for the port of Mogadishu in Somalia, where heavily armed Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) awaits their arrival.

Their black-op mission to apprehend a notorious arms dealer falters when they discover their target is actuality Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), one of the Expendables co-founders, who Ross was convinced he’d killed years earlier when Stonebanks went rogue. Outnumbered and out-gunned, they abort their attack, barely escaping and forced to allow Stonebanks to slip away. Back Stateside, Ross confronts CIA handler Max Drummer (Harrison Ford), who gives him one final chance to apprehend Stonebanks. Convinced the Mogadishu incident demonstrated that his comrades are past their prime, Ross forces his current team of Expendables into retirement and assembles a new crew. 

Retaining the services of mercenary head-hunter Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer), he recruits a younger, fitter, more tech-savvy team, adding ace sniper Mars (Victor Ortiz), computer hacker Thorn (Glen Powell), martial artist Luna (Ronda Rousey) and former Navy SEAL Smilee (Kellan Lutz) to go after Stonebanks in Bulgaria, where he’s ensconced with an army of mercenaries and preparing a deadly reception for his old cohort Ross.

Stallone has undoubtedly assembled the largest cast of action stars from the past 30-plus years with Expendables 3, which is quite an entertaining accomplishment in itself, but makes for an unwieldy configuration with only 103 minutes of screen time to play them off against one another. The biggest misstep involves sidelining the original cast members while Ross convenes a new group of Expendables, which consumes an unwarranted amount of plot without commensurate payoff. None of the newcomers has the experience or credentials of the film’s real stars, which are the factors that make their performances so effectively economical and ironically amusing.

A couple of the key cast additions do manage to impress, particularly Snipes as the blade-wielding, borderline psycho former military medic Doctor Death and Banderas as comically motor-mouthed wanna-be mercenary Galgo. As the evil gunrunner, more actual acting is required from Gibson than many other characters, but he’s frustratingly ineffectual, hamstrung by unimaginative scripting. Looking far too serious for a role that ironically requires rather more emotional shading, Ford comes across as stiff and humorless, but proves convincingly skilled when the Expendables need aerial backup. The returning cast largely reprises their old roles without much additional resonance, and even Schwarzenegger as Ross’ unreliable collaborator Trench and Jet Li repeating his turn as occasional Expendable Yin Yang really don’t contribute anything new.

Stallone himself sometimes looks weary with his mercenary-in-chief character and though his scripting does get off a few zingers, too much of the carefully crafted dialogue lands flat. Co-writers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt appear to primarily enable Stallone’s penchant for liberally unleashing firepower, only marginally contributing to enhancing character development with an excessive emphasis on exposition. 

Australian director Patrick Hughes takes on the sizable responsibility of coordinating the sprawling cast, as well as the film’s numerous combat-intensive set pieces, tasks that are simplified somewhat by substituting Bulgarian locations for a wide variety of settings. Hughes and cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr. handle the assignment skillfully enough, but without much imagination, sticking to a conventional action style that is more about the quantity of explosions than nuances of execution. 

It’s a technique that creates an uninvolving degree of detachment as momentum begins running low for The Expendables, perhaps necessitating a significant rethink for the inevitable sequel that will follow.

Production companies: Millennium Films, Nu Image

Screenwriters: Sylvester Stallone, Creighton Rothenberger, Katrin Benedikt

Producer: 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

Director of photography: Peter Menzies Jr.

Production designer: Daniel T. Dorrance

Costume designer: Lizz Wolf

Editors: Sean Albertson, Paul Harb

Music: Brian Tyler

Rated PG-13, 103 minutes