Film review: The latest chapter in The Expendables comes up short

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Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas run the show in the third action-packed installment of The Expendables. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate. Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas run the show in the third action-packed installment of The Expendables. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.

Four years and three installments into the Expendables series and we’ve reached what is typically the nail in the coffin for action franchises: the PG-13 sequel. While the rating is essentially meaningless in this age of bloodless gun battles and cramming in as many “shits” as you can but using only one intentionally placed “fuck,” the shift from R to PG-13 typically reflects the series’ low point, signaling when the people making creative decisions are more interested in reaching a wider audience than in continuing the spirit of its predecessors. Just look at the RoboCop remake, Alien vs. Predator, Terminator: Salvation, and Live Free or Die Hard-—OK, that one was kinda fun.

But pandering to audience expectations is really what The Expendables is all about, so who can say whether the lower MPAA rating is a tongue-in-cheek parody of an inherently goofy series or just the result of its own self-referential nature? Some things are markedly worse than the previous entries, from the iPhone app quality of the special effects to the messy fight choreography and spatially baffling set pieces. But it’s certainly not short on what it came here to do: kick ass, chew bubblegum, and beg the question whether it’s in on its own jokes.

There is absolutely zero point in talking about the plot of a movie where Arnold Schwarzenegger makes two separate “chopper” references. The whole point of the series is to find new additions to the crew. Antonio Banderas steals the show and may be worth the price of admission. Wesley Snipes’ apparent happiness to be free and working is infectious, providing a nice counterbalance to a hilariously bored-looking Harrison Ford. Mel Gibson is a fitting villain (as in real life), starring as a former Expendable turned weapons dealer who never misses an opportunity to flip out (as in real life). But the crop of youngsters takes over the screen for way too long, essentially erasing the movie’s sole reason for existing: muscles, guns, and grizzled stars of yesteryear kicking ass.

By its own standards, it’s not awful, but it is more of the same with diminishing returns. If and when the fourth entry to the Expendables makes its way to theaters, the best thing it can do for itself is get out from under Stallone’s wing and move into one of the other fantastically silly subgenres of ’80s action flicks. Bruce Willis was the master of smirky sarcasm, and we rooted for him because he was the only one who could see how much of an idiot everyone else was being. Most of Schwarzenegger’s best films are razor sharp parodies that work because his very presence is intended as a grotesque, exaggerated parody of an everyman. He’s so clearly not a New York construction worker or small-town sheriff that the movie is inherently self-parodying while not skimping on the excitement.

Stallone movies, meanwhile, are a much tougher nut to crack. Where the rest of the decade was dedicated to knowingly preposterous, funhouse mirror versions of action entertainment, Stallone always seemed to take on even the most idiotic movies with complete sincerity. Watch an interview with him and you’ll know he’s an intelligent guy —hell, he wrote Rocky—but even when there is a jokey tone to the movie he’s in, the joke he’s making and the one the audience is laughing at are always two different things. The robot in Rocky IV isn’t funny, but the expectation that anyone in the world would find it cute is hilarious. And he sure seems convinced of his integrity in Rambo III, the most accidentally anti-war film of all time.

In the end, you probably already know if you’re going to see The Expendables 3 without reading a single review, and there’s really nothing wrong with enjoying the movie. But for the next installment to work, it needs to answer two huge questions: why cast legendary martial artists only to give them guns, and why bother making a movie PG-13 when all of the references are 30 years old?

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  • Andrew Tannenbaum

    “whether the lower MPAA rating is a tongue-in-cheek parody of an inherently goofy series or just the result of its own self-referential nature?” is a great sentence. I’m still fathoming it.
    I also enjoyed the analysis of parody and its progression from Willis to Schwarzenegger to Stallone – Arnold is in on the joke, but Sylvester isn’t… Yet we don’t feel embarrassed walking out of Stallone movie, when we might – so somehow the joke of Stallone on himself is a joke on everybody – including those who would observe us. Who is not exhilarated? His gift, as you mention, is in fact of a high degree. I guess we just have to let some things go.
    I enjoyed this review – the writing is on a literary level and is in excellent taste. These always seem to be accompanied by pure observation.

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