Sunday, September 7, 2014

THE EXPENDABLES 3 Finally Delivers the Old-School Goods


- Once, the promise of THE EXPENDABLES was infinite. After a late-period filmmaking renaissance that included improbably great sequels to Rocky and Rambo, Sylvester Stallone began work on what was sure to be his crowning achievement: a new franchise that would assemble a retro-tinged, action-movie Dream Team. Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis, Lundgren, Statham, Li, Rourke, and more would gather to make the dream of every Gen Y and Gen X'ers pre-teen self become a reality.

Sadly, the first Expendables movie was less about embracing 80's-action excess and fun, and more about Stallone and his crew trying to place aging action stars in some sort of nu-metal re-imagining. It was like the movie version of the nWo, except nowhere near as cool. We came for old-school nostalgia, and were instead treated to a rather soulless and joyless film that tried too hard to make the kids think it was cool. Still, the movie was a financial success, and spawned a sequel. Part Two seemed very reactionary to some of the criticisms of the first film. Whereas the first movie was too self-serious, Part Two was way too overtly jokey. And not in the sort of serious-but-sorta-winking-at-the-audience way that most classic 80's action films were. No, the second movie was downright hokey at times, with the theme from "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" accompanying Chuck Norris' grand entrance and other such cartoonish shenanigans. Jean Claude Van Damme was pretty awesome as the villain, but the movie, mostly, felt flat and misguided.

Suffice it to say, my expectations were severely lowered for the third installment. And I suspect others' were too, since the box office was pretty dismal. But the fact is, I ended up having a blast with the third Expendables film. It's the best of the franchise by a longshot. It's still silly and semi tone-deaf in parts, but the movie is the franchise's first to actually feel like the sort of epic 80's action flick that its fans want to see. The action itself is often damn good, Mel Gibson is the best Expendables villain yet, and there are enough great/silly/quotable quips and one-liners to satiate even the most discerning of retro-action junkies.

THE EXPENDABLES 3 gets off to a hell of a start, thrusting the audience headlong into a pretty crazy sequence in which Stallone's Barney Ross and his crew engage in a daring rescue mission to free an old colleague from a prison-transport train. As it turns out, the old colleague is Wesley Snipes, playing a semi-insane, blade-wielding doctor whose signature phrase is "jang-alang." Yep, awesomeness. Plenty of jokes are made at the expense of Snipes' real-life legal troubles ("What were you in for?" "Tax evasion."), but the fact is that, man, it's good to see Snipes back in the saddle and kicking ass. He plays his character as suitably nutty, and sort of sets the tone for the movie: sort of crazy, but 100% committed.

Speaking of disgraced former action stars, I've got to give it up to Mel Gibson: he's a fantastic Big Bad in this film. Since I still sort of hate Gibson, it would have been hard for me to root for him as a hero in this one ... so I'm glad he's a villain. And not just a villain, but a complete $&%#-head of a villain. But hey, despite my dislike for Gibson, I can admit that he's a very good actor, and, let's face it, a step above a lot of the guys who've populated these Expendables flicks. Gibson brings a real unhinged, self-righteous venom to his role, and he finally gives Stallone someone to really verbally spar with. He brings out the sort of real-deal acting from Stallone that I don't think we've seen yet in this franchise.

In Gibson, the franchise has its most serious-business villain to date. But the film also feels like it's having more genuine (and less forced-feeling) fun than earlier entries. I mean, look at Harrison Ford here, playing a government liason with Stallone's team. Ford looks awake, aware, and semi-giddy to be playing the badass again. His role here actually got me sort of pumped to see him play Han Solo again in Star Wars VII. Schwarzenegger gets to kick ass but also spout some quality one-liners, including a reprisal of one of his most famous lines from Predator. Antonio Banderas is sort of a comic relief character, but he makes the most of it. He's genuinely amusing and seems to be having a blast going big and broad. Sure, it would have been fun to have him play the classic Banderas badass, Desperado-style, but as is, he injects a lot of life into the movie. Meanwhile, a lot of people (myself included), rolled their eyes at the inclusion of Kelsey Grammar amidst the movie's roll-call of action movie legends. Really - the guy who played Frasier listed alongside Stallone and Schwarzenegger? Actually though, he's quite good here, and a good fit. As an old buddy of Barney Ross', Grammar is well-cast. He plays the guy with the inside track on promising young would-be Expendables recruits, needed by Ross when he rids himself of his old team.

And that is where the movie falters a bit - in its central plot hook of Ross ditching his usual comrades and upgrading his team to a group of newer, younger recruits. In theory, it's a solid through-line for the film. But in execution, it feels pretty tacked-on and rushed. A ton of time is spent as Stallone and Grammar size up potential Expendables - and these scenes are a lot of fun, no question. But the recruitment portion of the movie takes up so much time that these new characters mostly feel like non-entities. And the actors playing them don't have anywhere near the charisma of their elders. Maybe that's part of the point? We do, ultimately, get a predictably triumphant return-to-action from Ross' old-guard Expendables, and the movie's climactic action sequence is an awesomely-chaotic melee that is a pure adrenaline rush. But the movie seems torn as to whether it's about "these old guys still got it" or a passing-of-the-torch to a new generation of action icons. Well, the kids have a long way to go before reaching icon status. Ronda Rousey - a real-life female MMA fighter - is a standout, bringing legit toughness and fighting prowess to the mix. But some of her next-gen compatriots are lacking in the charisma department. Sorry, but guys like Kellan Lutz don't quite have the star-presence to be the next Stallone or Snipes.

That said, The Expendables has always been a sort of ongoing tribute to the larger-than-life heroes of yesteryear, and this final sequel is the best testament yet to the old guys' lasting ability to kick ass. Like its predecessors, the third film feels way overstuffed and very all-over-the-place. But tonally, it hits a satisfying sweet spot between serious action and over-the-top 80's-style silliness that left me smiling and pumping my fists on several occasions. I don't think it's mere nostalgia telling me that, by god, they don't make action movie heroes like they used to. And THE EXPENDABLES 3 is a fitting salute to these aging but still-badass cinematic titans. Even if you were let down by previous installments, I say "get to de choppah!" and check this one out.

My Grade: B

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