“You’re like… boys with toys!”
— Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco), GoldenEye
Every time I see The Expendables or any of its sequels, I can’t help but think of this quote from a completely separate entity, James Bond – an action hero who, for the most part, is the polar opposite of Barney Ross and his crew, The Expendables. Whereas Bond is smooth, sophisticated, and can glide in and out of any situation with a wink and a smile, Ross and The Expendables are the wrecking ball with the wry gallows humor and the gritted teeth, demolishing anything and everyone in their way. Mercenaries with a strong sense of justice, honor, and loyalty, The Expendables are the modern-day “A-Team,” with everyone having their own areas of expertise and distinct personalities.
There’s a lot of fun to be had with the whole The Expendables franchise, as it’s deeply rooted in the ‘80s action pictures I grew up watching; they’re not meant to be taken seriously, and these films spend a lot of time messing with the legends and history of their stars. Actors like Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and others make fun of the catchphrases and action pieces from their previous films; even Chuck Norris and his “Facts” get a nod in the second film. However, time is fast catching up with The Expendables; mostly made up of action stars from a former era, it’s only a matter of time before, to borrow a phrase from Roger Murtaugh from the Lethal Weapon films, they get “too old for this sh*t.”
Which now brings us forward to The Expendables 3. Boasting a different MPAA rating than the first two films (a PG-13 versus two R ratings), The Expendables 3’s weapons are cocked and aimed at the high school audiences, many of whom don’t even know about films like Cobra or Commando. If we are to take the PG-13 rating literally, 13-year-olds these days don’t know what it’s like to live in a world without the constant threat of terror hanging over them, that terrorism was caricaturized and funny in American action cinema in the ‘80s and ‘90s. They won’t understand why some people will laugh at certain jokes that The Expendables films make, as these are retro pastiche films harking back to a time when we were able to blow stuff up and kill at will with no compunction or conscience, making a joke out of the villains before killing them in inventive ways.
The Expendables 3 keeps the original film’s core of Ross (Stallone), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Toll Road (Randy Couture), and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews), as they complete a mission to rescue Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes), a former Expendable stuck in a military prison. Why? They need him to help stop a weapons shipment being delivered to a Somalian warlord. However, not only is Caesar badly wounded while carrying out the mission, they find that the arms dealer is one of the co-founders of The Expendables, Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson).
Realizing that his men are getting old without being able to enjoy the rest of their lives, Ross disbands The Expendables and hires some new recruits – younger, fresher, and more tech-savvy hotheads – to take Stonebanks down. One of the film’s more blatant attempts to capture a new audience is the casting of The Twilight Saga star Kellan Lutz as ex-Marine John Smilee, that stereotypical character who goes against the grain and doesn’t like orders. In a bit of pandering to the female viewers and reaching out to fans of the current MMA scene, Ronda Rousey does a fair amount of ass-kicking and holds her own as a merc named Luna in this testosterone-fest of a movie. Thorn (Glen Powell) and Mars (Victor Ortiz), the other two new recruits, are passed over a bit in favor of these two, but are given skills vital to the movie’s thrill-a-minute climax. The Expendables are further expanded by the addition of Antonio Banderas as Galgo, a spritely, overexcited Spanish mercenary looking for a family to kill with, as that’s the only thing he says he’s good at doing.
The screenplay boasts a lot of in-jokes to the elder statesmen’s films, most of which will fly over the heads of the target audience, but will make older audiences chuckle and giggle. For me, nothing got better than a small reference to the film Demolition Man between that film’s two principal actors, and – of course – the big, crowd-pleasing Predator callback (it’s a two-line gag, not just the big one). Seeing all of my boyhood action heroes in these films has been an unexpected treat, and the overarching silliness of the plots and dialogue have been more than enough of a reason to see these films. The Expendables 3 differs little in the goofy fun department, and watching Banderas as a little yappy puppy without a home brings a smile to my face just thinking about it. On the whole, it’s a fairly good time, and it can be entertaining at times.
The obviousness of the cash-grabbing rating lowering, however, doesn’t sit well with me. The film itself is a statement on youth versus age, old versus new, and what will sell versus what won’t. It’s as if the “let’s make it hip for the kids” tactic was taken a bit too literally, with the blood, language, and action superficially reined in with little to no impact. Action scenes, while hyper-edited and dizzyingly choreographed, don’t mean anything; you hear a lot of what happens, but you don’t see it. This, my friends, is the biggest difference between The Expendables 3 and the soul of the ‘80s action movies that director Patrick Hughes and company were so desperately trying to capture in a bottle, and it results in a lot of flash and bang without the true thump that you should feel in your chest. The Expendables 3 spends its time reaching for a new audience with a new style, but it winds up being indicative of the viewers it seeks – fast, loud, and in your face.