From the beginning, the “Expendables” franchise has existed as a way to give formerly popular action stars a chance to once again flex some muscle. The brainchild of Sylvester Stallone, the first movie, in 2010, assembled Dolph Lundgren, Jason Statham and Jet Li, with cameos by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. A jaded moviegoer might look at that lineup and see a cast of has-beens desperately trying to stay relevant. But it worked to the tune of $274 million.
Naturally, sequels would follow, and the latest, “The Expendables 3,” is yet another chance to see so many vaguely familiar faces and say, “Oh, yeah. I remember him.” With the exception of Willis, all of those original players have returned. But we also get Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford, Antonio Banderas and Kelsey Grammer. Oh, and Mel Gibson, who hasn’t had the opportunity to do much in Hollywood since he made misogynistic and anti-Semitic comments after he was pulled over on suspicion of driving under the influence in 2006.
Given his past indiscretions, Gibson is especially believable as the movie’s villain, Stonebanks, even as his dialogue is ridiculously over-the-top. His character was once part of the elite mercenary team known as the Expendables alongside Barney Ross (Stallone), but Stonebanks let greed get the best of him and has since become a weapons dealer with a mansion in Moscow and a cache of pricey artwork. He’s also a war criminal, and CIA operative Drummer (Ford) wants the Expendables to capture Stonebanks and bring him to the Hague.
Given that this mission is what Barney calls a “one-way ticket,” he lets go of his old cronies and assembles a team of young and fearless warriors played by, among others, Kellan Lutz from “Twilight” and real-life mixed martial artist Ronda Rousey. Lutz is hardly a standout thespian, but compared with Rousey he looks like he may one day win a Laurence Olivier Award.
Of course, the “Expendables” franchise isn’t about spotlighting the power of youthful and virile action stars; it’s about letting older guys prove they’ve still got it. So the amateurs get kidnapped and it’s up to Stallone and the other oldies but goodies to rescue them.
The movie’s action sequences are both thrilling and idiotic. One moment you might be holding your breath and the next you’re laughing out loud because of how fake it looks when Agent Drummer does figure eights around a smokestack in a helicopter. The characters are, for the most part, invincible. Watching Barney throw punches, kickbox, spray enemies with bullets and man an airplane, you might start to wonder whether there’s anything this guy can’t do. Well, there is one thing: Move his face. Stallone’s remarkably smooth mug is frozen in a perma-pout that impedes every line delivery.
The movie’s best moments come courtesy of Banderas, who plays an acrobatic and exhaustingly gregarious out-of-work mercenary desperate for another chance to do what he loves most, which is killing people. Banderas, who got big laughs at a recent screening for the subtlest of deadpan expressions, also reminds us of all an actor can accomplish when he has control of his facial muscles.
The latest in the “Expendables” franchise is also the longest, clocking in at a little over two hours. That’s well beyond anyone’s daily dietary requirement for machine-gun fire and middling dialogue. Stallone should save some of his material for the practically inevitable fourth movie. After all, Steven Seagal and Kurt Russell need something to do.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains violence, including intense sustained gun battles and fight scenes, and language. 126 minutes.