Despite my love of action movies I haven’t been that impressed by The Expendables series. From the waste of talent and shoddy CG to the overly comedic tone of The Expendables 2 things have been far from perfect. Still I always go back hoping that it’ll improve. Wishing that The Expendables will be the action extravaganza they promise every time. With a fairly untested director, younger actors and even more blasts from the past can the third time be a charm?
After freeing one of the original Expendables (Wesley Snipes) from prison Barney (Sylvester Stallone) and the rest of The Expendables (Jason Statham, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, and Dolph Lundgren) come face to face with founding member Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson). When one of his own is injured Barney decides he needs some new, younger members to take on Stonebanks and his army. With newer, high tech techniques and an old school shoot’em up style can the Expendables take down Stonebanks?
The biggest things part of this movie are the new members added to the team. In theory trying to have younger stars is a great idea; the original guys aren’t getting any younger no matter how much HGH Stallone takes. This kind of soft changing-of-the-guard is needed franchise longevity. Unfortunately it didn’t work out as planned. Of the four new recruits only Kellan Lutz and Glen Powell are actual actors. Instead of getting real actors they did some stunt casting with boxer Victor Ortiz and UFC champion Ronda Rousey. As expected this does not work out. Despite being a believable ass kicker (mainly because she is) Ronda can’t act to save her life. Like at all. She makes fellow MMA star Gina Carano look like Daniel-Day Lewis. Given nothing but one liners Rousey’s delivery is as wooden as the Octagon’s canvas. Ortiz isn’t as bad but that’s mainly because he isn’t given much to say. I honestly don’t think he said more than 5 lines throughout the movie, mostly consisting of generic military jargon. He isn’t bad but the guy from Legend of Hercules shouldn’t be the best actor of the bunch.
This leaves the acting to the veterans who, surprisingly, deliver more than you would think. Given it is a lot of typical action movie bravado but these guys have it down pat. I even found the corny little jokes to work this time around because, unlike the last movie, they were paced well. Aside from one person (who I’ll mention later) jokers are few and far between. Still there are two major stand outs in the cast and unsurprisingly they are the new comers. Admittedly I feel bad praising Mel Gibson since he is an awful human being who I’m surprised still gets work. Regardless there’s no denying the dude has charisma and is great at playing the unhinged villain. I assume it comes from personal experience. To my surprise I found myself really enjoying Antonio Banderas as Matador. Playing the comic relief when he isn’t overexposed in one particular scene he’s very fun. In a movie full of testosterone and wannabe badasses it’s nice to see someone not take themselves too seriously.
The biggest disappointment, and my biggest problem with the last movie, is the use of the stars. I understand that not everybody can be in every scene when you consider things like schedules. Taking out Terry Crews early because he is filming Brooklyn Nine-Nine is understandable. But why even list Jet Li as a star when he has roughly 5 minutes on screen? 5 minutes that have him shoot a gun as opposed to fighting people hand to hand. Not only does it feel like a cheat but it shows a misunderstanding of what the audience would want to see out of Jet Li. Now if Li weren’t listed and it was played as a surprise cameo I’d be fine with this. Heck it’d make for a nice surprise. As presented though it feels like a massive let down.
On the plus side they did improve upon the series’ other major issue, the action scenes. Given this isn’t vintage John Woo but I do think it is generally an improvement over the last movie. With a focus on large scale battles and limited (although very noticeable at points) CGI relative newcomer Patrick Hughes brought the action up quite a few notches compared to past films. The last battle in particular is highly entertaining. Also of note is the fact that the PG-13 rating may have actually helped the movie. While the first two movies were rated R it seemed to be for blood as opposed to actual violence (if that makes sense). By cutting out the fake blood you are no longer distracted by how cheap and fake it looked.
The Expendables has been through a lot in the past 4 years. What started as a fun reunion of 80’s stars has become a full fledged franchise. Like the action movies of old things aren’t perfect though. Far from it. The plot is just a thin excuse for action scenes and the acting can be pretty awful at times. There is definitely still a ways to go if they want to be an elite action series. But with less bad comedy, some good veteran actors and new blood in front and behind the scenes it finally feels like The Expendables are hitting their stride. Just leave the acting to the real actors next time.