Titles don't get more ironic than The Expendables 3. The franchise claims to be about death-seeking mercenaries yet stars '80s action heroes who refuse to die. Three films in, everyone in the sprawling team is still alive and ass-kicking, save for Bruce Willis, whose million-dollar-a-day asking salary has caused his replacement, Harrison Ford, to sniff that Willis' character is "out of the picture." And if the posters weren't crowded enough, here Expendables leader Barney (Sylvester Stallone) discovers that two — two! — of his long-lost founding members are also roaming the earth and eager to resurrect their careers, er, I mean pick up a gun and shoot something. At this point, the Expendables have formed and reformed so many times they're like the world's most macho wife swap, the action version of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.
Where has never-before-mentioned Expendable Doc (Wesley Snipes) been? Eight years in a Third World prison for "tax evasion," he jokes. There's a great moment when, instead of saying hello after being liberated from captivity, Snipes and Stallone just stare at one another and squint. Then Snipes enjoys 10 minutes of glorious, back-from-the-grave screen time before the film forgets he's even there.
As for ex-Expendable Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), after his former friends shot him three times in the chest — justifiably — he dove underground and became the world's biggest arms dealer. Finally confronting his old band of brutes during a Somalian raid, Stonebanks grabs a rifle and shoots Caesar (Terry Crews) in the ass. "Now you're the Deleteables," he sneers, and we're struck by the sudden realization that the producers of a $90 million blockbuster flush with guns, tanks, bombs and meatheads never purchased a thesaurus.
Gibson gets what this franchise is for: giddy redemption. Director Patrick Hughes doesn't ask his megastar cast to push themselves. Like a permissive painting teacher, he's simply providing the canvas and trusting them to do the rest on their own. The eager-to-please, like Antonio Banderas as a motormouth assassin, remind us why we've loved them for decades. The lazy, like Ford, flop. You might think Ford is just lampooning his blasé Indy shtick, until you realize he genuinely, and mistakenly, thinks he can get away with slumming it. And Schwarzenegger can't stop leaning on his tics: the grin, the big gat, his mangled pronunciation of "chopper!" (As in, "Get to the—!")
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But Gibson is actually acting. As the posh, wicked villain, he glides through scenes like a swan, as his feet take tiny mincing steps. He's electric and silly, his eyes burning through the screen, even as he pauses to check out the hot female extras. Gibson manages to balance taking his performance sincerely with acknowledging that he himself is a bit of a joke. When his character drives recklessly, as Gibson did that infamous night in Malibu, he even steps out of the car and tries not to kick over several wine bottles.
The first Expendables film suffered from self-seriousness. Stallone seemed to think audiences wanted to see him glower and complain like a 'roided-out King Lear. Every entry since has gotten goofier and greater: one-liners that fall flat, enemy bullets so ineffectual that their staccato beat could just be a toddler hammering on a snare drum, and the way every actor older than 45 wears a hat, scarf or bandanna to help disguise the frequent use of stunt doubles.
With the world of the Expendables as harmless to the name-brand cast as a Nerf playground, we're never in fear that any of the good guys will get hurt. Still, that doesn't stop Sly's Barney from firing his friends in the first act to replace them with young, unknown killers, whom he doesn't mind sacrificing. This new batch — two MMA fighters and, uh, a lacrosse player, and a refugee from Twilight — are supposed to be nutcases and rebels, kids whom Barney can treat as impassively as fighting dogs. But they're really just well-behaved puppies happy to run with the pack, and the film isn't quite perverse enough to treat them as callously as the script seems to crave to, making clear that the premise is all bark and no bite — even these guys aren't actually expendable.
With the gang at times up to a baker's dozen, the need to give everyone a glory moment in the final big fight forces the editing to hurtle as fast as it can to the climax. We're enjoying every fun, dumb minute, but for the sake of suspense, we're with Gibson's bad guy when he groans, "How hard can it be to kill 10 men?! You can't even wound a couple?"