The third installment in what is now the Expendables trilogy is, as one might expect, a globetrotting actioner on the surface, with Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and his titular flock of freelance mercenaries going up against the thought-dead Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), a former Expendable turned arms dealer. And like its predecessors, The Expendables 3, as directed by Patrick Hughes, is also some sort of toothless, perhaps unknowing parody of the action genre, with each line of dialogue caught in an awkward pause between straight-faced and winking. Indeed, from the very beginning of this franchise, the central conflict has never been between our heroes and whatever foreign militants have stuck their stingers in their collective asses, but rather the tug of war between Stallone’s dueling self-images: wanting to be both the wise, weary veteran and an ageless, front-lines combatant, both resolutely over it and the very best in the game.
So, it should come as no surprise that Hughes’s empty-headed bonanza, with its tinny, tough-as-fuck dialogue and unimaginative set pieces, serves as a 128-minute velvet-gloved stroke of Stallone’s ego. Seemingly every character has to be measured against Ross and his legacy and, in the case of his ask-questions-later brethren, the ones who have known him the longest are most deserving of respect. The line would begin with Doc (Wesley Snipes), a knife-happy operative Barney has to bust out of train-jail, and Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer), a seasoned talent scout for assassins, hackers, and bruisers of all feathers; as always, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s implacable Trench is skulking around the edges of the narrative. It’s with these fellow performers that producer, star, and co-writer Stallone most earnestly attempts to exude camaraderie to increasingly dismal effect, as he seems more caught up with driving home the next plot point (often ad nauseam) than he is with conveying genuine comfort, warmth, or anything that isn’t a cock joke or money talk between these brothers in arms.
The entire film speaks to Stallone’s view of filmmaking as a thankless full-time job. Early on, Jason Statham’s Lee Christmas asks how much they’re getting paid mid-chase, to which Barney answers, “Not enough.” Part of Barney’s basic “appeal” is his quasi-humble, just-doing-a-job philosophy of covert warfare, which certainly doesn’t match with the heroic image that Stallone ultimately affords his character. For all the talk of the team, Stallone is unquestionably front and center in Hughes’s strictly serviceable shooting. It’s telling that, at one point, Stonebanks pays a few million for a celebrated painting despite seeing no compelling artistic value to the piece. This moment is meant to signal Stonebanks’s cynical disposition, but his opinions mirror Stallone’s no-frills style, a concept of filmmaking as chiefly the assembling of a market-approved product. As a result, The Expendables 3 is all store-brand efficiency, a bloated deluge of gunfire, explosives, and jokes that would make Al Bundy blanch, done on the cheap and filmed impersonally.
Stallone’s premiere goal may be to celebrate the workmanlike, largely physical delights of the action genre, but for all the brawn on display, the film never slows down to take in the thrill and talent of hand-to-hand combat. Instead, it employs frequent cutting to a myriad of different angles, eliminating any chance of watching the action unfold clearly. The action sequences are loud, but rarely galvanize the film any more than the sour dude talk that’s been sandwiched between the stunts. And the inclusion of a younger Expendables tier, led by Victor Ortiz, Kellan Lutz, and Ronda Rousey, doesn’t quite qualify as an olive branch. Outside of their introductory roll call, the younger characters serve solely as bait in the plot’s final turning point and, in one eye-roller, attest to Barney’s virility. Though sold as a paean to those brawny cinematic performers derided by critics and beloved by audiences, The Expendables 3 ends up being nothing more than a rigid totem to Stallone as the ultimate tough guy, and like its star, the film only musters the charm of that guy at the gym who keeps on telling you how to tighten up your squats.