Critics like to complain about sequels and franchises doing the same thing over and over again, but sometimes it takes a movie like “The Expendables 3” to give you a new appreciation for repetition and formula.
The first two “Expendables” installments played as a cross between “Grumpy Old Men” and a generic 1980s action movie, with stars slightly past their shelf date strapping on the automatic weapons and jumping out of helicopters, all the while complaining that they’re getting too old for this s–t.
“The Expendables 3” decides to shake things up by having Sylvester Stallone‘s Barney suddenly grow a conscience about leading his best friends into certain death, leading him to cut off ties with his aging cronies and replacing them with a team of whippersnappers.
The idea that any movie with a “3” in the title is going to overhaul its audience is a faulty premise; by this point, “The Expendables” are like cilantro or black licorice or anchovy pizza. You either know you like the flavor, or you know you don’t.
Once you take the grizzled seniors out of the picture and replace them with the United Commandos of Benetton, “The Expendables 3” loses the one thing that makes it special. Not helping matters much is the millennial mercenaries themselves, a personality-free gaggle of youngsters who, apart from one two-second conversation about “Captain Planet and the Planeteers,” only get to express themselves as a new generation by knowing about computers and calling Stallone “old man” a lot.
The film begins with a rousing rescue mission involving a train full of soldiers barreling toward an impenetrable fortress, which prompts a typically physics-be-damned show of strength from Barney and his crew: Christmas (Jason Statham, the series’ MVP of both ass-kicking and quip-uttering), Gunner (Dolph Lundgren), and Toll Road (Randy Couture). Their rescue-ee turns out to be one Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes), who’s spent a long time in prison because of a botched assassination, although he jokes that he really got sent up “for tax evasion.”
There are plenty of winky asides like that peppered throughout “The Expendables 3,” particularly if you were paying attention to the circumstances under which Bruce Willis was invited not to return, but the movie doesn’t elbow you in the ribs nearly as often as “The Expendables 2.”
Our violent quintet is then off to take down an arms-dealing drug dealer, but at the moment Barney is supposed to gun him down, he freezes, realizing that the big bad is none other than Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), a former comrade who’s supposed to be long dead. That hesitation sets off any number of problems for Barney, beginning with the severe wounding of his cohort Caesar (the always-game Terry Crews).
With CIA agent Drummer (Harrison Ford) providing intel, Barney goes in hot pursuit with the junior varsity Muppet Babies, including daredevil hacker Thorn (Glen Powell), weapons expert Mars (boxer Victor Ortiz), brawling lady Luna (MMA fighter Ronda Rousey), and brooding veteran Smilee (Kellan Lutz, whose greatest performance remains the spoofy version of himself on “30 Rock”). Naturally, once the newbies get captured, it’s up to the old guard to save the day.
Not that bringing in a fresh crew couldn’t have injected some life into the world of the “Expendables,” but the script (by Stallone and “Olympus Has Fallen” writers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt) make the new characters so utterly generic that even the old characters, no great shakes to begin with, seem rich and deep by comparison.
The vets, from Snipes and Ford to Kelsey Grammer and Arnold Schwarzenegger, coast through the film, treating it like the lark that it is, but Gibson at least seems to have realized that his current state of pariah-dom makes him an eminently hissable villain. Going to even darker places than he did in “Machete Kills,” Gibson doesn’t hold back on the sneery swagger, apparently figuring that if much of the audience already hates him, he can use that emotion to his advantage as a performer. Beats being ignored.
Director Patrick Hughes (“Red Hill”) keeps things efficient and understandable — even when there are several (bloodless, PG-13) gun battles taking place simultaneously in the relic of a once-grand hotel, we always know where everyone is in relation to everyone else, which is more than one can say about any of the “Transformers” movies.
Still, while he throws together some terrific fight scenes, Hughes and editors Sean Albertson (“Warrior”) and Paul Harb (“Grudge Match”) could have trimmed some of the later skirmishes that go on a bit too long, to say nothing of the film’s wrap-up sequence.
And this is a minor quibble, but it has to be mentioned: What exactly is the point in casting martial arts legend Jet Li (reprising his role as, no kidding, Yin Yang) in an action movie if all he’s going to do is shoot a gun? It’s like making Fred Astaire appear in a musical as a mob victim whose feet are encased in cement.
“The Expendables 3” is silly and overblown, yes, and it could definitely do without Antonio Banderas‘ motor-mouth routine (not to mention an out-of-nowhere reference to Benghazi), but it’s less silly and overblown than “The Expendables 2,” for whatever that’s worth.
If you’re along for this franchise’s ride, and don’t mind taking an extended snack-bar break during the second-act appearance of the children’s crusade, you’ll get what you came for.