Still not really very expendable
Back when the first Expendables movie came out, I had great expectations. Following the impressive return to form Stallone had shown in his latter Rocky and Rambo sequels, I expected a gritty, modern Dirty Dozen-esque outing with an ensemble cast. To date, I don’t feel that Stallone has made good on that promise.Attempting to put together a semi-coherent script which allows for the participation of over a dozen different characters – just on the side of the ‘heroes’ – must be a daunting task, and I think that Stallone struggles to admit or accept that fact, instead being all too keen to incorporate the next game big name into the fray, irrespective of how it might twist and screw the already flimsy story.
This time around the plan was clearly to address the age of the remaining Expendables team (not that anybody has really died, despite the name), and the fact that, sooner or later, they are going to have to step down – or risk dying on the battlefield – and let a younger group take up the mantle.
The trouble, aside from the fact that his team are really more like the Invincibles, is that I don’t think that anybody really wants to see a younger generation of Expendables recruits. That’s not why we were interested in the 80s throwback action series, chock full of old action icons, in the first place.Unfortunately, despite a promising start – mainly thanks to an almost-back-on-form Wesley Snipes – things soon derail into out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new territory, leading to an, at times, tedious middle act where we are introduced to each and every one of a series of dull as lead new recruits, before they go on a mission to capture a scenery chewing Mel Gibson (also back on form).
It’s not until the final act where things pick up steam, but even then, frenetic shaky-cam and the restrictive rating – coupled with the sheer fact that there are simply too many participants in one big orgy of a fight sequence – give the action a diluted feel. And, unfortunately, without enough decent action, and without enough screentime for the old crew, the two biggest reasons why you go to watch these movies are simply left unfulfilled.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s still some fun to be had in this outing; Snipes has a good introduction, Banderas is a hoot, the action – particularly Stallone’s contribution – is not utterly devoid of impact; and the end result still offers some satisfaction, but we’re still a way from getting The Wild Bunch of 80s throwback action. And, from this movie, we appear to be now heading in the wrong direction.
The story has Stallone’s remaining crew – a dwindling quartet including Statham, Couture, Crews, and Lundgren – break Snipes’s old, original, Expendables vet out of a black ops prison in order to go on some ill-conceived mission to recover some bombs for the CIA. Everything goes awry when they spot one of the original Expendables founders – Gibson – who went rogue years back, and who Stallone thought he had killed a long time ago, but who is alive and well now working as a vicious arms dealer. Deciding that he doesn’t want to put his old boys’ lives in jeopardy any longer, Stallone randomly ditches the remaining members of his team in favour of fresh blood, who he thinks will be more ‘expendable’ when it comes to the suicide mission of getting Gibson. Of course we all know that he’s going to need the help of everybody he can put together – old and new – to actually take down this old adversary.
What starts with a bang, soon devolves into a tedious recruitment video; a rare instance where we'd have been better served by a 5 minute montage.
Perhaps not wholly unlike the second Expendables chapter, this third outing kick-starts with a fantastic opening action sequence which best much of what takes place later on in the movie. The trouble is, it appears to have been an afterthought – introducing Snipes’ character. Now Snipes was never written into the original script, and it soon becomes glaringly obvious that his inclusion is a crowbarred element which tears what little fabric the script has, apart at the seams. It’s hard enough trying to swallow Stallone’s sombre dismissal of his old crew members in favour of a bunch of new recruits (on the face of it, because he appears happier to see them all die than watch his friends go down) but the idea of him breaking Snipes out of prison only to almost immediately dismiss him as well, just doesn’t make any damn sense. Nor does it sit right, even for those more forgiving of any script shortcomings.
It’s clear that, on paper, Stallone had something here. His ideas were not without merit. His themes of ageing veterans being replaced by fresh blood had some potential. But he’s not a strong enough screenwriter, nor does he have behind him a strong enough direction, to make good on that intention, and the end result just feels like an excuse for having all the old familiar actions icons – the people you paid to see in this movie – relegated to the sidelines for the entire middle section of the film.
Aside from the shockingly underused Jet Li, he does attempt to afford several of the new characters with a defining moment and, for the most part, this works. But nobody wants to see an extended recruitment sequence where he travels around with Frasier trying to pick up fresh blood. It’s also never particularly believable that any of these new guys have an actual deathwish, nor that Stallone’s leader would actually be content to sacrifice any of them, so that whole plot strand falls apart too. Indeed, despite a reasonably staged Mission: Impossible – style stealth assault, the mid-section suffers from tedious time-wasting and the sheer dominance of characters (and actors) who have very little personality. If these are the future of the Expendables then this series is going to die a death pretty quickly, long before any of the actual Expendables do.
As stated, Snipes is a huge coup, but massively underused, and both him and Banderas provide some welcome laughs. Although the new faces are redundant, the female addition is an inspired choice in terms of action skills – Ronda Rousey isn’t just a pretty face and, whilst her acting skills are understandably limited (but not bad for a debut) she kicks ass impressively. They should have just made her a new member, rather than a replacement member. Ah well.
Then there’s Gibson. Following his engaging villainous turn in Machete Kills, Gibson provides a formidable opponent here, and makes for a very convincing founding-Expendables-member-gone-rogue. Unfortunately, although not unexpectedly, he’s somewhat underused, and the end result is that, as with Snipes, you just want more from him. There’s one strong scene, where he spits venom at Stallone and his new crew, showing that there is no difference between what the two mercenaries do, and it’s a highlight in the movie. Unfortunately, what could have been a really strong story point is just as soon dismissed and never raised again. I’d have liked to have seen a story that really did blur the lines between good and bad – the number of dead bodies that pile up (without any dodgy CG blood, to make this more suitable for children, of course) would seem to indicate that there is very little difference between both sides – but unfortunately Stallone doesn’t really stay focussed on this, and dips back into his ensemble action instead.
There's a tale within the tale, of how Gibson's Expendable went bad, which sound infinitely more interesting than anything this story has to offer.
Ensemble action is what we came here for, but seeing a dozen different intercut action sequences, each shot with Bourne-style shaky-cam vigour, is just painful. The impact of each individual scene is damaged by the intersplicing with the others. You’ve got Statham fighting one guy, Snipes kicking another, some new bloke shooting people with a shotgun, Banderas having a ball, Rousey wrestling people to the ground and Stallone doing his quick-draw routine, to name but a few of the ones I could remember in the blurry cacophony. Indeed my favourite moment – where Stallone takes out four guys in classic Eastwood’s Man with No Name fast-shooting style – is a tiny, easily-forgotten scene which just highlights how good this could have been with a smaller focus and a few fewer cooks in the kitchen.
Personally, I’d have loved to have seen the Expendables tale where Stallone and his team went to take down Gibson’s character when he first went rogue (now that sounds like a proper Expendables story, where members of the team actually died) but, instead, this series is veering more and more in the direction of Expendables-lite, probably at the Studios request. If Stallone wants to retain any credibility, I hope he brings it back. And ditches that damn kids' rating too.
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