By this point, I would have been entirely unsurprised if "The Expendables 3" was somewhat lazy, unfocused, and entirely too pleased with itself. That is, after all, the way the series works. The second film may have improved on the first film, but that didn't make it a "good" movie suddenly. It was just an agreeably not-good movie. And by now, I figured that was what I would expect any time they squeezed out another one of these.
And, to be clear, I think this new chapter in the series also has some weird issues, but it does indeed feel like each time they make one of these, they get closer to getting it right. I'm impressed that this is the direction they're heading, instead of just getting lazier and more diluted. None of the films have the same tone, and none of them really feel like part of a series. Instead, each film has sort of reinvented the idea of what an "Expendables" film really is.
This time around, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) spends most of the movie spooked about mortality. Seems like it's a little late in the game for a professional mercenary to start worrying about life and death once he's in his 60s and so full of steroids that it looks like you could put him in a juicer and then directly inject whatever came out, but okay. I'll roll with it. His reaction to the injury of Caesar (Terry Crews) in the opening action sequence is to fire the rest of the Expendables for their own safety, then hire a bunch of young people he doesn't care about at all so they can join him on a mission against his arch-enemy, the MOST DANGEROUS MAN ALIVE!!!
So that goes well.
I think my biggest problem with the film is that the only reason there is an act three is because Stallone's character makes such wildly bad choices in act one and two. The only reason he has to put his best friends in harm's way at the end of the film is because he tried so desperately not to put them in harm's way in the middle of the film. It's sort of sad and hilarious at the same time, and it makes the film feel very oddly structured.
What the movie gets right is tone. The film is lighter than the first two, and even its darkest moments are played with a bit of a moustache-twirling wink. Mel Gibson is the bad guy, a founding member of the Expendables who eventually went bad. He was thought dead, so when he shows back up at the start of the film during the mission that goes sour on the original team, it is a shock to all involved. While I don't think Gibson will ever be able to carry his own action series again (due at least in part to his age), I think Gibson's perfect as the bad guy here. He shows up, he snarls, he says shitty things to make Stallone angry, and then he exits stage left to set up for the next encounter.
The script, credited to Stallone and Creighton Rothenberger & Katrin Benedikt, packs in so many characters that it doesn't even try to develop them. Instead, everyone runs past the camera, shouts their one line, and then blows something up. It's like going to see one of those arena shows where Batman and Robin ride around in the Batmobile and all their most famous villains run in and out. It's a pageant, full of large men with giant armaments blowing things up. It's the sort of movie where eight or nine people fight an entire army that has an entire battalion of tanks, and they actually turn it into a fair fight, and if that sounds good to you, then you'll probably like the film.
While the romance between Barney and Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) was the motivating factor in the first two films, they've settled into their relationship by this point, and Statham's barely in the movie as a result. Instead, there's a lot of energy spent dealing with the new Expendables. Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammar) is the specialist who Barney turns to who helps him find the right candidates for the team. That includes Thorn (Glen Powell), Mars (Victor Ortiz), Luna (Ronda Rousey), and Smilee (Kellan Lutz), each with their own specialty.
I'm always fascinated by movies where you've got a performance that feels like it's part of another movie entirely, and that's the case here with Galgo (Antonio Banderas). He's gone even more over the top than in the "Puss In Boots" films, playing a guy who desperately wants to be on a team, and who can barely contain his joy once he's finally turned loose to kill. It's the sort of performance that goes beyond "good" or "bad." It's so big and ridiculous that you're either going to roll with it or you're not, but there's no arguing that Banderas hit the target he was trying to hit.
I also want to single out Wesley Snipes for some praise. The way they introduce him is fun, breaking him out of prison, and the way they handle his introduction to the team is very much a case of breaking the fourth wall and basically saying to the audience, "Hey, sorry I've been away for a while, but I'm back now, and I hope you'll let me have some fun again." From that point on, featuring what may be the only time I've ever seen Snipes play humble in his entire career, he's back in full Wesley Snipes mode, and he seems to be having a great time.
Harrison Ford stepped in when Bruce Willis dropped out, and I'm actually surprised by how well Ford seems to snap into the ensemble and the tone of the thing. He looks like he's enjoying being a pilot on film, and like he doesn't take anything about it seriously. Right attitude, sir.
Technically speaking, director Patrick Hughes and second-unit director Dan Bradley do a good job staging the film's three major set pieces. There's a sense of well-built gags amidst the mayhem, and because the emphasis isn't on hyperviolence, there's a little more clever to it this time instead of just focusing on bloodshed. Because the stakes are so low and so personal, there's never anything about this that feels like it is truly urgent or dangerous. It's a romp. It's just a bunch of action stars blowing things up for the sake of fun, and there's never a moment's doubt that by the end of the film, everyone's going to be together and completely intact.
There's almost nothing to say about this film critically. It is forgettable fluff, but well-delivered, and it suggests that they'll be able to keep making these as long as they can prop up the cast, and with the younger generation making a decent showing this time out, they may even be able to hand it off when the time comes.
"The Expendables 3" is in theaters on Friday.