The Expendables 3 showed me something I never thought I’d see in an Expendables movie: An effort being made. Here is a textbook example of how, with just a little thought put into important elements like story, character, theme, and dialogue, even the most tiresome and gratuitous genres can be entertaining. Unlike its predecessors – slavish, intelligence-insulting retreads of testosterone-pumped ‘80s action films – this new movie shows respect to its cinematic origins without being so restrictively tethered to them. Its PG-13 rating, a downgrade from the previous films’ respective R ratings, may have necessitated a reduction in violence, but this is made up for with an increase in conversational sequences that believably expand on character. And although the dialogue is rife with puns and one-liners, its construction is far less lazy this time around. Some lines are, in fact, quite funny.
This isn’t to suggest that the franchise has magically transitioned from unwatchable dreck to fine art. Indeed, the film has deep flaws, some of which are carryovers from its predecessors. Star/co-writer Sylvester Stallone, for example, is still unable to play his character on more than one emotional level; he almost never cracks a smile, he delivers every line as a monotone mumble, and when he plays a moment angry, there’s no noticeable shift away from neutrality. Just like before, any scene featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man for whom the word “acting” is loosely applied, brings the film to a screeching halt, while Jason Statham once again shows his refusal to set his sights away from the routine of action choreography and wiseass remarks. And, of course, we must further endure the embarrassment of awful character names like Lee Christmas, Hale Caesar, Yin Yang, and Toll Road.
Some flaws are exclusive to this new film. The most glaring example is the introduction of the first female Expendable, played by MMA fighter Ronda Rousey; it’s tempting to believe a statement has been made about women taking a punch as well as any man, but we who are slightly more cynical understand that this character is merely a masturbatory fantasy for adrenaline junkies. And then there’s a final action sequence that’s not only excessively long but also just a bit too generous with rapid-fire shots of explosions, artillery fire, and hand-to-hand combat. Had I been involved creatively, I would have lobbied hard for this sequence to be trimmed by at least half, since even one shot of someone getting clocked across the jaw is enough to get the point across. Take it any farther, and you’re just being self-indulgent.
But now I wish to discuss how the film was different enough that I could look past its obvious shortcomings. Let us begin with the casting of actors who are not only new to this series but are also surprisingly engaging in their roles. There’s Kelsey Grammer as Bonaparte, a weary, retired mercenary who can travel the world over and locate new Expendables with ease. There’s Wesley Snipes as Doctor Death, one of the original Expendables, introduced as he’s being busted out of prison; a former medic and an expert with knives, his reason for being sent to prison in the first place will be even funnier if you know anything at all about Snipes’ real-life legal troubles. There’s Antonio Banderas as Gaigo, a Spanish war veteran and sharpshooter; an incurable motormouth, his boyish eagerness to become one of the Expendables borders on sheer hyperactivity. But there’s a side to this character we don’t initially see, one that quite unexpectedly elicits sympathy. And then there’s Harrison Ford as Max Drummer, a fighter pilot and the CIA’s unofficial Expendables manager; always communicating through low growls, he has a tendency to appear and disappear without warning.
The single best casting decision was Mel Gibson as the villainous Conrad Stonebanks, a former Expendable who went rogue and became a ruthless arms dealer. To give you an idea of how thoroughly Gibson owns this character, consider one of his earliest appearances in the film, in which he enters an art gallery and stares at one of the paintings; the expression on his face would be mask-like, except the intensity in his eyes betrays the blandness of his smile. We can see the storm raging within. Also consider his dialogue, a rather clever mixture of action-movie corniness (“Why don’t you cut me loose? I’ll open your meat shirt and show you your own heart.”) and bitter yet astute observations that steer parts of the story into morally ambiguous territory. Refreshing, for a movie like this to acknowledge that the world exists in shades of gray.
Even the overall plot, though made primarily for your entertainment, gives me reason to believe that the filmmakers were aiming just a little bit higher. It concerns lead Expendable Barney Ross (Stallone) taking a new team of young Expendables on a mission to bring Stonebanks to justice, leaving his original brothers in arms behind for fear of them losing their lives. He may have already lost Caesar (Terry Crews), who Stonebanks critically wounds early in the film. You wouldn’t think a posturing, masculine fantasy of this caliber would even bother addressing themes of aging, family, generational gaps, finding common ground to stand on, and mentoring, but in its own goofy, chest-beating way, that’s exactly what The Expendables 3 does. Here’s hoping the next chapter of the saga, assuming one is in the works, will continue this trend of rising quality.