The Expendables 3 review

What began as the somewhat amusing high-concept premise of teaming up affectionately remembered, older action stars, and perhaps not much more, has now spawned two sequels and will soon, I have no doubt, be a wider franchise with further sequels and a number of spin offs.

The Expendables 3, which is hardly exceptional but by far the best of the films to date, is a definite move towards further franchise building, most obviously with the inclusion of a younger team of Expendables. None of these new players – Kellan Lutz, Ronda Rousey, Glen Powell and Victor Ortiz – are box office stars or well known as actors and Rousey and Ortiz come from careers as fighters. Unfortunately, none of them does a great deal here to impress themselves upon their new audience; to be fair, they’ve hardly been given room to shine amongst the cluttered cast.

This is particularly unfortunate with regards to Rousey, who is not only the only woman in the Expendables but the one performer here to display any noteworthy action skills. Her first set piece, in which she is recruited by Barney (Sylvester Stallone) and Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer), isn’t as well shot as one would hope and is and rather woefully edited. It’s not the grand entrance she maybe deserves.

At the end of that first fight, Rousey gives a scowl – she does this a lot, and it’s never convincing – then a ‘hmph’ and sharp exclamation of “Men!” I can see what the filmmakers were getting at, and this is clearly intended as a positive moment for a female character in a male-centric film, but it really does nothing to address the underlying gender problems in the Expendables films. It also doesn’t help that Rousey is expected to simply repeat the same act again near the end of the film.

It’s a great relief that Rousey’s later action scenes are better and there’s a longer sequence in which she takes out a number of soldiers that was shot with a good eye for showcasing her skills, and for ensuring that the audience can actually appreciate exactly what is going on.

This sequence, and many others that make up the film’s twenty-five action minute climax, are cut rapidly but are shot and edited with enough clarity that audiences should easily keep up. The framing is crucial and cinematographer Peter Menzies Jr. uses a good mix of wide shots and close-ups to keep things both dynamic and clear. This really is to be appreciated as the staging, shooting and cutting of a fight scene too a very fast beat is a delicate balancing act that many action filmmakers and editors get horribly wrong. Indeed, there are a fair few examples of such failures, or at least partial failures, in the first half of this very film.

It would be interesting to see the shooting schedules to try and ascertain what went wrong with some of the action in The Expendables 3. There’s a serviceable opening on a train, a very patchy assault on a group of gun smugglers, a pretty terrible kidnapping sequence that seems to have been heavily inspired by the Mission Impossible films – both Ghost Protocol and The Expendables 3 share a second unit director – and then a fantastic and lengthy final battle. It’s almost as if everyone involved was trying to find their feet and it only really came together for the largest and longest action set piece.

A shaky first half followed by a more cohesive and successful final battle actually echoes the plotting. We follow our ‘heroes’ from a position of weakness as they are broken down completely and then built back up. This is not a particularly complex or nuanced piece of storytelling – the structure is reminiscent of numerous simplistic video game narratives – but it does the job, for the most part providing a solid framework for the action.

Despite the many wobbles and filmmaking issues present in the first few set pieces, every action sequence in The Expendables 3 is a vast improvement over the first two films and a clear sign that hiring Patrick Hughes was a smart choice. With assistance from veteran 2nd unit director Dan Bradley, Hughes has filled the film with multiple vehicular chases and crashes, hand-to-hand brawls, knife fights and plenty of bullet-filled exchanges. Oddly though, there is a noticeable lack of blood. It would appear that slitting lots of throats and filling up human bodies with hot lead is considered far less troublesome when the real world consequences of this violence has been removed.

But surprisingly, The Expendables 3 does actually attempt to discuss the consequences of all this mayhem through dialogue. There’s one verbal tug-of-war between Barney (Stallone) and the film’s villain Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), in which the former argues that killing lots of people for the right reasons is basically fine and unproblematic, and the latter suggests that maybe it might just be a little more morally complex than that.

Then into this debate steps Max Drummer (Harrison Ford), a government agent who is keen to ensure that Conrad is tried in The Hague for war crimes rather than just shot in the face by Barney and his gang of mercenaries. This debate regarding capital punishment could have made for pretty meaty substance but, unfortunately, it’s given a far too simlistic conclusion and tossed aside in a moment that seems very much in line with Stallone’s Rambo (2008), and, thanks to badly-timed callback to another of Stallone’s films, brought down to the level of a dumb gag.

The screenplay’s other thematic concern is, once again, the idea that these guys might just be a little too old for what they’re doing. Unlike the first two films, which ultimately had nothing to say on the subject, this film does manage to connect to this idea as an effective emotional undercurrent. Hughes understands that there’s a lot of life in Stallone’s face and that, when given the chance, he can actually act. The camera often lingers on his battered, weary face and sad eyes just long enough for you to actually feel rather sorry for him.

The Expendables 3 is by no means a serious drama, of course, and there’s much more time time given over to comedic elements. Unfortunately, this is mostly unfunny banter between the characters and the routines get old very quickly. It’s especially tiresome when the banter comes loaded with a reference to something outside of this film – such as a line from another movie, or a certain actor’s infamous imprisonment.

But there is a comedic secret weapon hidden away, ready to bounce out in the sprightly form of Antonio Banderas. He’s proves so entertaining and enjoyable to watch that he all too often highlights how weak the other supposedly comedic elements are. Banderas has many back and forth exchanges with Stallone and he manages to make them actually hilarious. Most remarkably, these scenes are eventually revealed to be embedded with an effective pathos.

Compare those moments with the banter between Stallone and Christmas (Jason Statham) and it only highlights Christmas’ position as simply a grinning buffoon who laughs at an equally unfunny alpha male figure. He’s Richard Hammond to Barney’s Jeremy Clarkson.

The Expendables 3 is a definite improvement over the first two films even if it’s not a complete success. There is definitely enough here to make for an enjoyable and entertaining experience, mostly the extended, climactic action spectacle and everything that Banderas is doing. I am now genuinely interested to see what will come next – I just hope whatever ever that is, it features even more from Banderas.

The Expendables 3 will open across the UK on Thursday 14th August and the US one day later, or Friday 15th.