Review | ‘Expendables 3’ is Dependable Fun, Despite Its Action-Star Overload

Despite being so overloaded with so much action-hero ammo that it occasionally jams up and misfires, The Expendables 3 is otherwise a generally on-target exercise that maintains the franchise firepower.

The film marks an interesting evolution in Sylvester Stallone’s late-career series, a surprise success story that comes decades after his Rocky and Rambo heyday. And the writer/producer/star knows better than to mess with a successful formula: Gather as many aging, former A-list action stars as the budget can afford, add a few fresh faces and let everyone shoot up the scenery.

This time, Stallone piles on the star power for biggest assembly of Expendables yet. Most of the familiar faces, like Arnold Schwarzengger and Jason Statham, are in place, and for every player that doesn’t return (like Bruce Willis), there are hydra-like multiple replacements: Harrison Ford, Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas, Kelsey Grammer and, in a much juicier (and, frankly, more fun) bad-guy role than he got in Machete Kills, Mel Gibson. In addition, there’s another quartet of fresh young faces, most notably Twilight eye candy Kellan Lutz and the first female Expendable, MMA champ Ronda Rousey.

Whereas the first film focused on straight-up action fueled by the novelty of its Ocean’s Eleven-of-explosions lineup and frequently charming banter, and the second raised the camp level, this installment moves a little closer to center, delivering the highest degree of action but fewer wisecracks. And honestly, those attempts at wit usually miss the mark: The expected zingers between Stallone’s team leader Barney Ross and Statham’s second banana Lee Christmas are in need of HGH (humor growth hormone); Ford is briefly forced into some painfully unfunny dialogue; and while Banderas is initially pretty amusing as an overly needy and loquacious wannabe-Expendable, the bit is exhausted all too soon.

However, that doesn’t mean the film isn’t quite often fun. For fans of both the franchise and of the bullet-riddled genre it both sends up and worships, there are plenty of enjoyable elements.

Plots in Expendables movies are especially memorable or really all that important, but this one starts rich in possibility. After adding a new member by liberating from a long incarceration the knife-wielding, slightly addled Doc (Snipes, in an initially intriguing, colorful role that unfortunately fades into the background too soon), Ross’ crack team of goodhearted mercenaries – Christmas, Gunnar (Dolph Lundgren), Toll Road (Randy Couture) and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) – run afoul of an operation led by the intensely focused, and decidedly deadly, Stonebanks (Gibson), a believed-dead former Expendable who feels so burned by his relationship with the United States that he’s reinvented himself as a ruthless arms dealer.

When one of Barney’s team is left at death’s door following their first clash, he and Stonebanks become laser-focused on their personal vendettas. However, concerned another throwdown could prove fatal for his remaining buddies, Barney turns his back on the team, shutting them out and assembling a younger, presumably more expendable, squadron of Expendables. Facilitating this is Bonaparte, a worldly, worn-around-the-edges talent broker played with a winning twinkle by Grammer, who leads Barney to his fresh-faced cannon fodder: Smilee, an ex-Marine with a chip on his shoulder (Lutz); Luna, a beautiful, curvaceous nightclub bouncer (Rousey), Thorn, a high-tech expert (Glen Powell); Mars, a weapons expert (boxing champ Victor Oritz); and the unwanted, verbose tagalong Galgo, who’s trying to find a place in the world after losing his own team of commandos.

Barney’s friendly rival Trench (Schwarzenegger) also turns up, apparently whenever he needs a sympathetic ear and/or someone to fly his plane for him. And with Willis’ Mr. Church now enigmatically out of the picture, Ford steps in as the Expendables’ new government handler Drummer. With one or two exceptions, every scene Ford appears in is granted with a degree of genuine gravitas that I would never have expected in an Expendables film. Stallone, one of the few men actors whose action-star cred approaches that of the man who played Han Solo and Indiana Jones, finds a nice chemistry for their interactions.

So that’s a lot of Expendables, and to a degree the crowd-scene feel does gum up the rapid-fire machinery from time to time. The original team from the first two films ends up sidelined for a lot of this one, even with the addition of Snipes, to such a degree that it sometimes feels as if they’re watching along with the audience. And the newbie Expendables get little screen time to establish themselves as much more than one-note characters, although Rousey makes an impressive film debut. She’s not much of an actress yet, to be sure, but she definitely has screen presence.

Bullets fly, stuff blows up, buildings implode. Ford and Grammer are good fun, Schwarzenegger is clearly having fun, and Banderas squeezes as much enjoyment as he can out of an ultimately tiresome shtick. But the main attraction comes in the effective clash of wills between Barney and Stonebanks, both early, as Gibson’s razor-sharp dialogue contrasts with Stallone’s blunted, less verbal persona, and later, when the film deftly delivers a physical showdown worthy of the stars, collectively, of Rocky, Rambo, Mad Max and Lethal Weapon.

In the end, The Expendables 3 proves dependable, doing its damnedest to deliver that visceral, old-school action-flick feel with a few too many corny quips along the way. And, like some of its bulky cast, it often appears a little too beefed up for its own good.

The Expendables 3 is playing now nationwide.

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