Featuring Sylverster Stallone, Jason Statham, Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford, Terry Crews, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lorne Michaels, Dolph Lundgren, Kelsey Grammer, Judge Reinhold, Orson Welles, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Sting, the entire starting lineup of the 1998 St. Louis Rams, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Walt Disney's cryogenically frozen head!
The wonderful thing about The Expendables series is that no matter how far you lower your expectations, it still finds a way to disappoint you. When I saw The Expendables 2 in theaters a couple years ago (on an OKCupid date, no less) I hadn’t seen the original, but I knew enough about the franchise to assume that it would be dopey, ‘roided out, gratuitously violent fun. And I was right about everything except for the fun.
None of these action stars are particularly good actors, but the old action movies they headlined were still great because they usually had a supporting cast full of talented character actors to carry some of the emotional weight of the story. The Expendables movies, on the other hand, are so frontloaded with old action stars that there’s no room for anybody who can really act, which is why much of the space between shootouts in The Expendables 2 is filled with closeups of stone faced old men growling exposition at each other.
And the shootouts aren’t much better, because The Expendables 2 is a remarkably inactive action movie. These movies are about a team of aging commandos who aren’t too old to kick some ass – however, the team of aging actors playing them actually sort of are too old to kick some ass, which puts some restrictions on the sorts of stuff they can do on camera. Clever editing and stuntmen do a lot of the work, but when the actual stars of the movie are on camera they’re usually doing one of the following four things:
1) Riding in cars, helicopters, tanks, etc shooting bad guys.
2) Standing still swapping one liners.
3) Standing still shooting bad guys.
4) Walking forward at a leisurely pace shooting bad guys.
But don't just take my word for it:
Sabba, the girl from OKCupid who I saw The Expendables 2 with, is now one of my main LA bros, and we made a point of seeing The Expendables 3 this week to see how it stacked up. I, for one, was surprised at how not-bad it was. I mean, don’t get me wrong – the movie is extremely bad. But it’s somewhat less bad than The Expendables 2, and that’s quite an improvement.
This time around, Sylvester Stallone and his team of gruff, aging mercenaries are hot on the trail of Conrad Stonebanks, a former Expendable who has since become an evil international arms dealer – because guys with names like ‘Conrad Stonebanks’ seldom go on to become pediatricians or real estate agents. When Stonebanks critically injures one of the Expendables, Stallone dismisses the rest of his team for their own safety and instead hires a bunch of new, young mercenaries with equally questionable acting abilities to take Stonebanks down for good.
Like the previous films in the series, the plot exists at the mercy of cameo appearances from pretty much every action star who had time to visit the set. As the script lurches from cameo to cameo the movie takes on a disjointed quality that feels more like watching a vacation video Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham shot while traveling around Bulgaria visiting old friends: “Ey, this scene is from the day Jet Li came to visit! Remember how much fun that was? There we are all standing around shooting blanks at those Bulgarian non-union extras! Oh, Jet Li, that guy’s a riot…”
In a movie with such a staggering number of celebrity cameos it was pretty much a statistical certainty that at least a couple of them would turn in good performances. Mel Gibson plays Stonebanks, a deranged, raving lunatic who everyone hates, in a role it feels like he’s spent the last ten years preparing for. Kelsey Grammer, who is inexplicably in this movie*, is a much needed breath of charisma after 25 minutes of looking at Sylvester Stallone’s shovel blade of a face. But it’s Antonio Banderas, playing a flamboyant, overeager mercenary, who really saves the movie by not taking it seriously and prancing his way through every scene.
*Here’s my biggest disappointment: They cast Kelsey Grammer, a man famous not for action movies but for a 20 year career playing Dr. Frasier Crane, in a movie where dialogue only serves to deliver references to other actors’ work, and yet they didn’t make one single fucking reference to either Cheers or Frasier. I mean, what the hell, The Expendables 3? References are pretty much the only thing you do well! All you had to do was have him say “…but what do I know – I’m not a psychiatrist!”
It also helps that a number of these cast members are still young enough to run around and deliver the occasional unassisted roundhouse kick, which makes the action scenes considerably more engaging than they were in the previous movie. The finale, in which Expendables young and old level an apartment block and kill an entire country’s army, is actually pretty exciting – and made all the more amusing by the fact that it takes place in a fictional post-Soviet republic that I swear to God is actually called Assmanistan.
"Assman, Jerry! I'm Cosmo Kramer, The Assman!"
So yes, The Expendables 3 is a bad movie, but it’s a much better bad movie than The Expendables 2. So why, then, does it only have a 35% positive rating from review aggregator RottenTomatoes, compared to The Expendables 2’s 65%? I’ve given it some thought, and I think it really all comes back to expectations.
Even though it was heavily promoted as mindless, campy, violent fun, I didn’t see the original Expendables. It got bad reviews, but I figured those were just from uptight critics who didn’t grow up with the movie Commando the way I did. When The Expendables 2 came out, most people who went to see it had sufficiently lowered their expectations after seeing the original Expendables, whereas I went into it blind expecting a level of quality that wasn’t there – so I was disappointed while everyone else was pleasantly surprised.
The only thing that can properly prepare you for the special kind of smirking, self-congratulatory bad of an Expendables movie is another Expendables movie. So having seen The Expendables 2, and knowing that this franchise isn’t above bringing the entire story to a grinding halt for ten minutes so Chuck Norris can make a Chuck Norris joke, I knew going into 3 just how little competent filmmaking I was in for and adjusted my expectations accordingly.
So here’s my advice if you want to see The Expendables 3 – do it, but only after renting another Expendables movie beforehand. If you don’t warm up first, you could seriously hurt yourself.
Truman Capps would undoubtedly lose in a fight against any member of the Expendables cast, including the malnourished Bulgarian children who worked as extras in some of the village scenes.