The first two Expendables films had a solid rooting in good story-telling and nostalgia. The one thing Sylvester Stallone the writer, director and actor understood about the first two films was that you could mix in some nostalgia for the glory days of the action film if you told a linear, cogent story. Stallone the writer has always had a knack for writing a good screenplay if you could reel him in from a directing standpoint. He does have an Oscar for perhaps the greatest screenplay ever written in Rocky, after all.
Stallone does have a writing credit for Expendables 3 but it’s curious how much of the film he actually wrote. As it stands it’s easily the worst written film of his career alongside being one of the worst films of his career, period, in a career that has spawned such “classics” as Rhinestone, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot and Oscar. The Expendables 3 is such a profound misfire that it’s hard to imagine the franchise getting any worse if a fourth film in the franchise come to fruition.
Barney (Stallone) and his gang of misfits (Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Dolph Lundgren, Jason Statham) start the film out by rescuing one of their former members (Wesley Snipes) from a prison train in an elaborate sequence. Newly recruited back into the fold, the gang is given a task by their latest CIA handler (Harrison Ford, replacing Bruce Willis). Sent to kill an international arms dealer (Mel Gibson), they wind up on nearly defeated with Caesar (Crews) in the hospital clinging to life.
Now there are a handful of ways this film could go.
1. Barney Ross (Stallone) and his crew track down Conrad Stonebanks (Gibson) in the same violent manner they took down Garza (David Zayas) and Munroe (Eric Roberts) in the first film.
2. Barney recruits even more mercenaries for one big job, uniting Trench Maueser (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and McQuade (Chuck Norris) with their own groups of mercs for one super group of violence.
3. Barney fires his current team, recruits a team of rank amateurs (and Antonio Banderas) for a suicide mission that fails hilariously. Apparently Frasier Crane isn’t the best at recruiting mercenary talent for suicide missions. When that fails he reunites his old team for one big dumb action sequence, thus creating a bigger team of Expendables to pool from when contract negotiations for Expendables 4 get onerous.
If you guessed the third you’re right. Barney’s plan is to fire his old team, under the delusion that he doesn’t want to replace them after their deaths (like he did previous members of the team, as alluded to by Snipes in his inclusion) as he hires a mercenary recruiter (Kelsey Grammer) to get him a brand new team of untested rookies (Ronda Rousey, Victor Ortiz, Kellan Lutz, Glen Powell, Antonio Banderas). They all come complete with introductions, too, and the film hinges on a repeat of the first. Barney’s replacements get held hostage by Stonebanks and it’s up to the old Expendables team to bail out people they don’t know because of their friendship with Barney.
The film’s problem is purely from this profoundly awful plot line. Stallone has a fairly easy, duplicated formula he’s used in the first two films as a screenwriter (and director on the first). They had fairly simple, easy to follow plots that showcased something interesting that Stallone was trying to say about aging men of action. Stallone the writer had found some inner truth and Barney Ross was an interesting, insanely flawed man trying to do the right thing after a lifetime of doing plenty of bad ones. There was a nobility to him; Ross may be an inherently bad man but he saw that he could do some good things when his instincts say to let God sort it out.
Stallone is trying to say something similar, about the nature of their profession catching up to them in the same way it does to criminals. No mercenary has a happy ending, dying in combat or in prison, and Ross wants more for the guys he fights with than that. Years of replacing people in his band of misfits has left him not wanting to see the last of the old guard, of guys he views as friends instead of co-workers, die next to him like so many others. There’s something to be drawn out of this, of the old guard reflecting upon mortality like old men instead of feeling as invincible as they were in their youth.
Unfortunately Stallone takes all of this and fashions it into a gigantic turd. Even an inspired performance from Mel Gibson to lighten things up as the main villain, and Grammer nearly stealing the film in a minor role, can’t take away just how terrible this film is as a whole.
The film seems to think that just because someone looks cool doing something else it means they should be in this film. One shudders to think that if this were an ’80s film Stallone would’ve gotten the Empire Carpet spokesman in it, somehow, but that’s the only way to really describe the casting. This is a cast of old hands from the prior films, with Schwarzenegger and Jet Li returning for minor roles, and a handful of newcomers that are uniformly terrible. It’s one thing for Ortiz and Rousey to be bad, as they’re both professional fighters and not trained actors, but this is a franchise that makes the Fast & Furious franchise look like a prestige picture by comparison.
This is a film so focused on all these characters that the charms of the first two, of this small band of characters in this untenable situation, that it becomes a glorified cameo fest. The film is so focused on making everyone seem so awesome and cool that we stop caring about all of them. There’s only so many times we have to be reminded that Rousey is a woman, for starters, before it goes from terrible to beyond awful fairly quickly.
This is a case where Stallone wanted so many people in it that instead of properly using them in cameo parts that the film gets bloated beyond repair. The charm of the first two was that formerly big stars had smaller parts in the necessary way. You don’t need 100 scenes with Chuck Norris, but him being a part of two action sequences made it special. Same with Jean-Claude Van Damme; it was how they were used that made them feel bigger than the limited screen time they actually had. We don’t need an introduction to a bunch of disposables and that’s exactly what this film feels like: disposable.
The Expendables 3 isn’t quite Stallone playing a character who wants to be a country star, ala Rhinestone, but it’s profoundly more embarrassing of a film. The first two films had a sense of joy to them; this one has a sense of obligation. It shows because there’s no joy, or enjoyment, to be found in this film.
Director: Patrick Hughes Writer: Creighton Rothenberger, Katrin Benedict and Sylvester Stallone based off character created by David Callaham Notable Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronda Rousey, Mel Gibson, Jason Statham, Terry Crews, Wesley Snipes, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Antonio Banderas
Scott Sawitz is an Inside Pulse original. He's also been featured on The Ultimate Fighter.com, Fox Sports.com, Nerdcore Movement.com, CagePotato.com, Inside Fights.com and Film Arcade.net (among others). When Scott isn't writing about film he's making his own. Check out Drunk Justice Productions right here.