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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014

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In Movies & TV Reviews

Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas star in "The Expendables 3," now playing.

"The Expendables 3" is still all tough guy talk, geriatric walk


In the movies, the meathead mercenaries known as The Expendables have a 100 percent completion rate for their various missions. Real life, however, is a far different story. Three movies in, "The Expendables" franchise still has yet to earn a checkmark next to the only mission it's ever had – and the only one that truly matters – since the beginning: fun.

The first film, directed by Sly Stallone, was a depressingly dull, saggy affair. The action was shot and edited like a caffeinated child took Dolph Lundgren's oversized knife-sword-thing to it, and the dreary, self-serious screenplay had Mickey Rourke delivering a teary heartfelt Oscar monologue, seemingly unaware he was a character named Tool working with guys named Yin Yang and Hale Caesar.

Simon West slipped into the director's chair for "The Expendables 2," a blessedly lighter and more entertaining film. Still, watching the sequel felt like the creators had all the ingredients for dynamite and delivered a Roman candle. Yeah, it's amusing, but I'm pretty sure we were promised a bigger bang.

If "Expendables 2" was a Roman candle, however, "The Expendables 3" is a sparkler and not just because of the pandering PG-13 downgrade (though that certainly doesn't help). Even without all the blood and f-words, the series still feels like a watered down version of the movies it's aiming to recreate, fueled by artificial explosions and artificial chumminess, but very authentic desperation.

The senior citizen squad's latest mission finds Barney Ross (Stallone) and company facing off against Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), a former Expendable assumed dead but very much alive and very much evil, happily getting rich selling weapons to rival warlords and nations. Realizing the danger, Barney sends his usual crew (Lundgren, Jason Statham, Randy Couture, etc.) home for safety and, with old friend Kelsey Grammer (because Frasier totally fits in this franchise), recruits a younger set of Expendables to help take down his now deranged colleague.

The cast has ballooned yet again for "The Expendables 3," but the whole crew rarely spends much time on screen together. The first third belongs to the old team, regurgitating the same tough guy bro banter – written by Stallone and screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt – as the last two films. The zingers are still stiff, and the supposed camaraderie comes off fake. You get the impression these guys don't really hang out all the much after the cameras stop rolling, and if they do, they're not exactly fun company.

That fake camaraderie soon gets traded out for no camaraderie in second act when the young guns take over. The tech-savvy youths make about the same impact as water pistols. Glen Powell and Victor Ortiz quickly fade into the background, and while MMA fighter Ronda Rousey automatically stands out by default as the lone female of the group, her soulless, perma-scowled performance makes Gina Carano's work seem damn near Meryl Streep-esque.

By the time the two groups eventually come together for the big final act finale – an explosive battle in the middle of the fictitious, abandoned building wonderland of Asmanistan – the number of actual rooting interests for the audience can probably be counted on one hand.

There are some bright spots, mainly among the older additions. Antonio Banderas is one of the few cast members clearly having fun, playing a graying man-squirrel giddily desperate to get back in the mercenary game, while Gibson and Wesley Snipes bring some entertaining off-kilter energy to the carnage. Arnold shows up again to recycle one of his classic quotes and wink so hard at the camera, you wonder if his eyelid will ever open again. But hey, at least he's enjoying himself. He and Banderas seem to know what kind of movie they're in.

The screenplay, however, still doesn't, moving rather ponderously from action scene to action scene with and having no clue what to do with the entertaining elements it has in its holster. After an amusing few early scenes, Snipes is benched. Martial artist Jet Li is stuck behind a gun for his one-minute cameo. The naturally charismatic Terry Crews is sidelined in a hospital bed for almost the entire movie. Meanwhile, the instantly forgettable Couture is left to hang around as dead weight.

Possibly most baffling is setting up dull lump Kellen Lutz – playing a rebellious newbie … kind of, as almost nothing is done with this subplot – as Stallone's future successor. This scenario is often referred to as Indiana Jones/Mutt Williams Syndrome, and it's the closest thing Hollywood has to committing franchise seppuku.

Speaking of Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford is also in "The Expendables 3" but only technically so. When he has to yell, "Drummer's in the house!" mid-action scene, his corpse-like delivery accidentally turns into one of the film's funniest moments. Fair enough; it's a terrible line, but he gives the rest of his dialogue – like an early conversation between him and Stallone that sounds like two concrete mixers – the same utter lack of enthusiasm.

The bigger overall problem for "The Expendables" is the other cement truck in that conversation: Stallone. The action star is a rock for the group and the franchise, and that's not meant as a complement. He's stiff and glum, and the whole series around him has naturally taken on those same uncomplimentary attributes, tediously discussing how Stallone and company are "not a part of the future."

The '80s action larks "The Expendables" hopes to recall were about little more than testosterone titans kicking ass. These movies, on the other hand, are bogged down with heavy personal baggage and desperate to prove their aged worth.

As for the action, well, it's not a good sign that I'm just getting around to mentioning it now. For what's supposed to be an action movie's action movie – a franchise so manly that it makes other action movies look like Bath and Body Works – we're three movies in without a single memorable action sequence.

Under the eye of director Patrick Hughes, many of the set pieces here have potential, but just never hit as viscerally or entertainingly hard as they should. An early train breakout is nifty, but the PG-13 sanitization is felt. A later attack on a blue-lit office building – a nice detour away from the series' world tour of drab, destitute eastern European ghost towns – recalls the beautiful and brawny Shanghai sequence from "Skyfall," but soon morphs into a generic, chaotic shoot-out in underlit corridors. A slick, multi-level bike trick in the final fight should elicit giddy applause – it's a great stunt – but it's chopped, edited and delivered to a resounding "cool, I guess."

Then again, they all look like "The Raid" compared to Rousey's introductory fight scene. She clears out a bar in what's supposed to be a slick action sequence, but it's assembled into an awkward, distressingly amateur mash-up of disconnected close-ups that only vaguely resemble a fist fight. Isn't the benefit of casting an actual MMA fighter that you don't have to hide fake stunt fighting in editing? The rest of the action is never that poor, but the franchise's action high point is still sadly Van Damme kicking a knife into Liam Hemsworth's chest.

For undemanding action fans, the standard explosions and gunfights will at least divert, and there's some modest fun to be had, mainly from Banderas' happy-to-be-here eager enthusiasm. After three movies though, you might be better off hunting for real estate in Asmanistan than waiting for an "Expendables" movie to fully deliver on its premise.



Theaters and showtimes for The Expendables 3
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