Monday, September 1, 2014

The Expendables 3

Alternate Title:  The Dying of the Light

One sentence synopsis:    A group of elite mercenaries must defeat the private army of an arms-dealing madman who once helped found their organization.

Things Havoc liked: There's a certain innocence to the Expendables project, a series of films that cobbles together all the great action stars of yesteryear for one massive blockbuster extravaganza. Seeing all of the greats from the 80s and 90s and today mashed into one film under the flimsiest of pretexts for the purposes of action, action, action, is exactly the sort of thing I go to the movies to see. And since damned few people are willing to go with me to see Indie flicks anymore (despite my assurances that we probably won't wind up sucked back into the temporal vortex of Under the Skin), once in a while it's good to drag everyone into a big-time film that the whole family can enjoy.

Once again, the Expendables are back, with Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham and Dolph Lungren and Terry Crews and Randy Couture shooting, hacking, and blasting it up in the accustomed manner, and as before, with a host of new classic action stars added in, along with some newcomers of unproven talent. As with the last film, which included Jean-Claude Van Damme as a scenery-chewing camp villain and Chuck Norris as a Sergio-Leone-style man-with-no-name whose appearances were complete with theme music, the new additions of classic stars are the best things in the film. Wesley Snipes, a man I've not seen since he was arrested and jailed for Tax Evasion some time ago, plays, appropriately enough, a psychotic escaped convict whose performance seems like an over-inflated pastiche of his classic turns in movies like New Jack City or Passenger 57. Harrison Ford, who starred in many action movies in his day, but different ones, takes on the role of a stern CIA chief-turned Helicopter pilot with the gruff, seen-it-all grumpiness that he has so often used as a replacement for giving a damn turned up another five notches. Better still is Antonio Banderas, an actor I can never see enough of, who this time is playing a hyperkenetic over-talkative wannabe ladies' man whose desperation and patheticness is clearly visible. Banderas is incredibly awesome in this movie, slaughtering hordes of faceless mooks in what looks like rapturous glee at having been allowed to come along on the adventure, striking exactly the right note for a film like this one.

But the best thing about this movie, unquestionably, is Mel Gibson, who may be insane, but whom we should not ever forget is a talented and immensely entertaining actor. Since his well-publicized foibles in the news and tabloids, Gibson has taken to playing camp, scenery-chewing villains in various movies, including the otherwise underwhelming Machete Kills. Here he doubles down, playing a ranting, screaming, maniacal mercenary arms-dealer who, of course, has personal history with the Expendables and intends to see it resolved violently and through the most ridiculous manner possible. This is clearly an excuse for Mel to play a Bond villain, but that's not exactly a bad idea, as GIbson's strong point has always been playing characters on the edge of psychotic breaks (Lethal Weapon, Braveheart, Mad Max). That he does the same thing here in a movie designed to be over the top and absurd is precisely the correct choice.

Things Havoc disliked: Unfortunately, it's nearly the only one.

Let's get this out of the way right now, the Expendables is the male equivalent of a chick flick, a film series designed to appeal to the nostalgia primarily of adult men (and some women, I suppose) who remember the glory days of pure action movies in the 80s and early 90s and wish to revisit such things along with the icons of the day. They have, up until this point, satisfactorily aped the conventions, foibles, tropes, and feel of these films of yesteryear, in no small part because they were made by the same men responsible for the above matters. And yet whether because the success of the previous two installments went to Stallone's head or because someone else interfered, this time round, the filmmakers decided they had to "modernize" things, not merely with a new cast (we'll get there), but by making the movie PG-13.

Yes that's right, The Expendables 3 is PG-freaking-13, something I had considered so unthinkable I didn't even bother to check ahead of time. And like the tired Die Hard movie sequels of the past decade, the result of this is to completely neuter a film series whose entire purpose for existing is to be completely over-the-top and absurd. No blood. No cursing. No moments of "Oooooooh" as a villain is dispatched in a particularly inventive manner, in short no artistry whatsoever is permitted to enter this film, and if you dare respond to me that artistry is impossible in an action movie, I will never let you read one of my reviews again. The film feels castrated without its R rating, eschewing all of the elements that made the first movie good and the second one very good in favor of tired dialogue, boring exposition, bad acting, and lazy stuntwork. There are simply only so many times that you can watch the heroes shooting bloodless mooks from long range without becoming bored, which is the whole reason why the classic action movies existed in the first place.

Oh and speaking of the above dialogue, exposition, and acting, I give you the "new" generation of Expendables, shoehorned into the plot for reasons so stupid that I won't recount them here. With ONE exception, all of these people are both entirely unknown, being drawn variously from the UFC (which at least makes sense) to the stars of romantic teen dramas and even cast members from Twilight, and with that same one exception every one of them is WRETCHED. It's not that they're wooden and unable to emote, that's a requirement to get into this film after all, but it's that they don't know how to recite bad dialogue well, which like it or not, was always a strong suit for the action stars of the 80s and 90s. Particularly bad honors go to Rhonda Rousey, an MMA champion in her first role who, based on this performance, has a long career ahead of her as an MMA champion. She may actually be the worst actress I've ever seen, but reflecting on that list is likely to lead to madness, so let's leave it at that. Rousy however can at least walk the necessary walk. Kellan Lutz, of freaking Twilight, can neither act nor fight, and is so bland that I forgot which character he was supposed to be playing. The rest of them are also unremittingly awful, save only for the slight exception of, of all people, championship Welterweight boxer David Ortiz, whose performance and fighting skills are actually about on par with that of the rest of the cast. It's not that Ortiz is a good actor, mind you, but he knows at least how to act well in a bad movie, and be entertaining. Action careers have been made on less than this.

But there are simply no action careers to be made here, for this film is simply incompetent. After a pair of reasonably interesting action sequences on a train and in Mogadishu (?), the film applies the brakes for about an hour as Kelsey Grammar (?!?) shows up for an extended "let's go recruit the team" sequence. Grammar has no action credentials behind him, but he does a fine job and is not the problem. The problem is that the movie seems to want to pack ALL the action into a single ludicrous fight scene at the end of the film, which would be at least a defensible choice if we weren't all half-asleep by that point. And when the action comes, it is boring. Waves of mooks, each unable to shoot straight to save their lives, which I recognize to be a staple of the genre but not to this extent and not to this length. This isn't over-the-top, this is a parody of over-the-top action, until we enter what I call "XXX" territory, wherein characters start doing stunts and "radical" things not because it makes any sense in the fight, nor even because it looks awesome, but because it will provide a nice trailer shot. Without recourse to the creative freedom offered by an R-rating, this film is therefore reduced to spending damn near an hour-long action fight just watching our heroes mow waves of soldiers down with automatic weapons with the occasional grenade thrown in to liven things up. How Stallone, who made the originals and dozens of other action films in his day, could possibly have produced something this boring, this bland, this tired from his once-vibrant franchise boggles the mind.

Final thoughts:   I assume that nobody is shocked to learn that Expendables 3 is a bad movie. I wasn't. But what astonishes me is how tired it is, how unlike its predecessors, how brittle the fun and hollow the laughter is that it engenders. Coming at the tail end of a series of action films I was highly eager to see, this movie is a shattering disappointment, and may, I fear, draw closed the last moments of the era of the great Action movie. A failure like this cannot help but make me nostalgic for the loss of such a titanic genre, in the way that other critics lamented the death of the Western, for this film, moreso even than such futile efforts as Escape Plan or Machete Kills, indicates to me that this genre, at long last, may be finally dead.

But then, movie genres have their day, as directors and actors do. And if we have lost the action film of yesteryear, perhaps it was only to replace it with the Superhero film of today. The tastes and whim of Hollywood evolve, and leave us with new sights and memories of the old. Perhaps it's simply time to let this genre go, and look to what lies ahead. Perhaps next time, when Stallone or Schwarzenegger or whoever else declares they're going to beat on, paddling against the tide, in some effort to recapture the spirit of a bygone age, it might serve us better to curl up in a chair at home, pop in Aliens or Rambo or Terminator 2, and as Fitzgerald would put it, bear ourselves back ceaselessly into the past.

Final Score:  4/10


  1. wow that was a very fair and accurate review coming from a non korean perspective. However you are very correct about not understanding some cultural aspects in the movie which a korean person would. As a korean person I understood those scenes and they did have an effect on the storyline of the movie. Awesome review.

    1. I... presume this was supposed to go with The Admiral and not the Expendibles, but thank you very much! I try to be as fair with movies from a cultural context other than my own as I can. I got the impression from the movie that things I would have regarded as oversights were probably nothing more than Korean cinematic conventions, and the director not bothering to tell the audience explicitly things that they by that point already knew.


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