The Expendables is an odd franchise, in that it is not so much focused on good storytelling and nuanced character development as it is banking on the nostalgia for schlocky 80’s action movies, and the love that people have for the likes of Stallone, Lundgren, Schwarzenegger, etc. It’s not aiming very high, artistically speaking, but they are aware of the type of movie they’re going for. I very much enjoyed the first film, and loved the second one. They had problems for sure and big ones too, but I was able to get over it simply due to how much fun I had seeing all those action heroes from my childhood kicking ass and taking names. So, it was natural that I would be excited for the third installment. And considering the absurdly large cast including people like Antonio Banderas, Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson, I was keeping my hopes up despite the new PG-13 rating.
The film begins with a set piece where the Expendables break out a former member of the Expendables referred to as Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes). After rescuing him, the team goes to Mogadishu to stop an arms trade, which turns out to be headed by Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), a former Expendable gone rogue. Stonebanks shoots Caesar (Terry Crews) leaving him critically injured. Blaming himself, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) thinks it would be best to let his crew go and find a new, younger crew to face off against Stonebanks once and for all.
It’s incredibly easy to simply blame the many, many, many problems of The Expendables 3 on its PG-13 rating, but there is simply too much going wrong on other levels that I will address before I get to the how the rating change affected the film (and boy, do I have quite a bit to say about that). If I were to pitch you the basic ideas behind this installment of the franchise, it is actually interesting, clever and could easily lend itself to becoming the best of the series thus far. It’s about how a man past his time looks to a new generation in an exploration of contrast between old action movies and new ones, all of which is centered on a revenge story that keeps the action personal and intense. That sounds great, and in theory, could have made an Expendables movie that is actually about something other than testosterone-driven action schlock, but still satisfying those needs at the same time. It’s unfortunate that the script is so lackluster and dull that it never seems to take full advantage of its surprisingly smart set up. Instead, the script brings in forgettable character after forgettable character going through scenes that often seem to be there just for padding the runtime, regardless of whether or not the actions they take are in tune with their character, like I never would have figured the Barney Ross of the first two films to simply let of his old crew so coldly. In terms of scenes that don’t matter, there’s a scene where Stonebanks goes to an art exhibit of some kind, goes on about how a certain painting is ugly and stupid, but then buys it for three million before giving an ominous glare at no one in particular. Then there is a scene about ten minutes later or so where you see Stonebanks and his crew bring his painting into his house (I guess, I don’t recall seeing the place again for the rest of the movie), and then gives an ominous glare at no one in particular. These scenes establish nothing, they contribute nothing, and they don’t come back or are referred to ever again. Sure it’s an Expendables movie, and to expect a script that could be Oscar caliber would be ridiculous, but the script for Expendables 3 is especially sloppy compared to the first two.
What was even worse though is the direction by Patrick Hughes, especially during the action sequences. Not only did I have a hard time what was going on, but there are multiple times where I had no clue where characters were in relation to each other. It certainly doesn’t help that the cinematography is dull and uninspired and the editing is an absolute nightmare. It all becomes apparent in the first major action set piece the film begins with, where The Expendables rescue Dr. Death from imprisonment. Practically every other shot feels so disconnected. The length of the train feels different at times, the number of bad guys on the train is unclear at times, and it’s just a mess from start to finish. The younger additions of the cast feel completely left on their own without any direction, likely due to a habit of letting the older cast do their thing, but given the circumstance the actors seem directionless, which the effect of might’ve been lessened if the film at least looked and felt like a film. Instead, it’s one of the ugliest looking big budget actions films since…well, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I guess. First, there is the atrocious CGI, and I mean atrocious, like Asylum levels of bad. You’d think the lack of CG blood spurts would give more effort to the other effects, but nope. There are CG explosions, CG helicopters, CG debris, CG driving scenes (one with a particularly bad and obvious day-for-night effect that is used multiple times throughout the film), CG people and even a CG parachute. Every single one of these effects is jaw-droppingly bad. I was able to kind of get over the CG blood spurts from the first two, and at least they were better integrated with more practical blood spurts in the second one, but goodness gracious, it’s like they only took a few days with these effects.
Now, regarding the PG-13, I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a movie, clearly meant to be R-rated, so brutally butchered down to a PG-13. It’s so obvious that everyone should be able to notice it, there’s the awkward cuts to odd angles, the sheer lack of blood, jarring cutaways, and all of this culminates to action scenes being boring and tedious, as it just feels like watching a bunch of adults playing pretend. While I do (sort of) understand the decision behind making the film PG-13, many of the actors’ solo work have not been very financially successful, however to counter that, the Expendables franchise has done fine. The last one made just over $300 million on a reported $100 million budget, more than the first one which was around $270 million on an $80 million budget. These movies are doing just fine and do not really show any signs of dying down. It just shows a complete lack of respect to the target audience, and a severe misunderstanding of what makes people excited for these movies in the first place. Having said that, if this had to be PG-13, some competent direction would have been able to use that rating to its fullest effect, Patrick Hughes just wasn’t able to do so. Just this year, Brett Ratner was able to get away with some surprisingly graphic violence with plenty of on-screen blood in Hercules, and Darren Aronofsky was able to imply a lot of brutality with his portrayal of violence in Noah, and both of these films were PG-13. The sign of a really good director is his or her ability to work within restriction, and by the looks of Expendables 3, Patrick Hughes has really dropped the ball (say hello to the director of the Raid remake currently in development, everybody).
Any good aspects of the film are mainly reduced to character moments and overall performances. The returning cast is good as usual. Wesley Snipes looks like he’s glad to finally be in a real movie (if you’ve seen any of his direct-to-video work, you’ll know what I mean). Mel Gibson makes a great turn as a villain and steals every scene he’s in. Antonio Bandera looks like he’s having the time of his life in a role that could have easily bordered on annoying territory, but his sheer energy and charisma makes it all work, and he seems to understand the kind of movie that Expendables 3 should have been. Harrison Ford essentially takes the place of Bruce Willis’ character from the first two films, and Ford is able to muster up more life in his performance than anything Bruce Willis has done in the past couple years, which isn’t saying much, but still. He also gets the one F-bomb, and he uses is fine. Unfortunately, the new, younger cast members are completely flat, boring to watch and cannot hold their own among their more experienced colleagues.
The Expendables 3 is not only an unfortunate misfire in how it handles its story, but it’s severe lack of what everyone goes to these movies to see is bad enough to kill the franchise. While it wouldn’t be surprising to see an “Unrated” version coming out on the film’s DVD/Blu-Ray release, whatever additions made to the film will not be able to save it, and it would still be the worst of the franchise so far. The film suffers mainly from its focus on boring new characters portrayed by even an even more boring set of younger actors that almost perfectly encapsulates the problem of the film. It should’ve been a warning sign that the trailers were cut like a Fast & Furious film trailer, even down to the font used. It’s desperation to bring in a younger audience and the embarrassing attempts at cutting their action scenes to a PG-13 go against the appeal of this franchise and the type of films that it is supposedly paying homage to. And despite some fun characters and good moments, it’s dragged down by bad direction, bad writing and really bad action. If by some miracle the fourth is greenlit, a return to what made the films so much fun to begin with might be able to salvage the franchise, unless it’s written by Skip Woods and directed by John Moore like that certain 2013 action movie that was rated R after a PG-13 predecessor.
Side Note: A couple weeks ago, Mercenaries was released. It’s the Asylum knockoff of Expendables 3. What makes this film really interesting compared to their other mockbusters is that Mercenaries has an all-female cast. It stars Zoe Bell, Vivica A. Fox, Nicole Bilderback and Kristanna Loken, who play a group of elite combatants put together by Cynthia Rothrock’s character in order to infiltrate a women’s prison in a foreign country in order to rescue the President’s daughter who is held captive by the evil commando played by Brigitte Nielson. Yeah, the story is generic and of course, the production value is typical of any Asylum film, but in all honesty, Mercenaries was not just a better looking film than Expendables 3, but it’s a better action movie overall. It is only occasionally when the Asylum knockoff is better than the Hollywood movie it’s knocking off, but Mercenaries managed to be a very fun movie compared to its bigger budget Hollywood counterpart. It’s also an interesting way to do the supposed “Expendabelles” (ugh) movie before it even gets going. So, if you enjoy watching Asylum movies, then consider checking out Mercenaries.