The conceit behind the Sylvester Stallone-led "The Expendables" franchise has thus far been niftier than the resulting movies: take a bunch of iconic, past-their-prime action stars from the eighties heyday of macho filmmaking, put them together, lob some old age jokes their way, add excessive gunplay and heat well. All the elements for a good time are there, but the first two movies in the franchise sagged and swayed, faltering under sloppy direction, limp scripts and a staggering lack of style. Thankfully, notes have been taken, problems have been addressed, and "The Expendables 3," while far from an ironclad masterpiece, is probably as enjoyable as this genre can get.
It helps that 'The Expendables 3' starts off with a witty, wham-bang action sequence, as the grizzled Expendables, a group of old school, battle-ready mercenaries (this line-up is more streamlined than in past installments and consists of Stallone, Jason Statham, a sorely under-utilized Dolph Lundgren, and wrestler Randy Couture), break one of the original Expendables out from a runaway prison train in some godforsaken Eastern European country (almost all the locations in 'The Expendables 3' are fictional, with the bulk of the filming in anonymously grey locales in Bulgaria). The sequence is well put together and exciting, but the best part is who they're breaking out —Wesley Snipes, who recently completed a prison sentence for tax evasion. That's 'The Expendables 3' difference.
Instead of dropping Snipes off into a post-prison environment, Stallone (no need to identify them as their characters, since they are just playing slightly modified versions of themselves) recruits him for another mission, this time in Somalia. It's in that locale during a botched operation, the exact specifics of which are never made clear, that Mel Gibson, who previously co-founded the Expendables, "went dark," as Stallone says. Gibson is still alive and is totally an evil arms dealer bent on mass destruction. He puts a couple of bullets in one of the Expendables (the one played by Terry Crews). Suddenly, the heat is too much, so Stallone dismisses the classic Expendables and, along with Kelsey Grammer, recruits a bunch of newbies because… they haven't lived as long and so if they die at the hands of Gibson's snickering villain, it won't be as much of a loss? Again: not really clear.
This mid-section of the movie really drags. The "putting the team together" montage seems to stretch out for about twenty minutes and is perilously low on jokes that work. None of the new guys are all that charismatic or camera-ready, so the entire time they're being introduced, all you're thinking is: Why isn't Wesley Snipes on screen right now? The film momentarily spikes when a young female Expendable is introduced, played by wrestler Ronda Rousey, although it dips just as suddenly when it becomes very clear that she is the only Expendable whose paramilitary get-up has a plunging neckline. Not that this section is all bad: Harrison Ford replaces Bruce Willis in the role of a shadowy government agent and seems more engaged and lively than Willis ever was in the previous two. A captured Gibson chews scenery with willful abandon, channeling both his live wire "Lethal Weapon" persona and the gibbering mania that has defined his personal life in the past half decade. Unlike his role in "Machete Kills," playing a similarly bloodthirsty madman, Gibson isn't a total cartoon here. In more than a few scenes, his performance is reminiscent of what Philip Seymour Hoffman did with similar material in "Mission: Impossible III"; he creates a kind of relatable malevolence. At one point Gibson snarls at an adversary, "I'll open your meat shirt and show you your own heart," and we kind of wish he'd followed through.
When the third act kicks into gear, and all of the Expendables, new and old, unite to take down Gibson, the movie really begins to hum. That's partially because Stallone and company finally decide to deploy the movie's secret weapon, Antonio Banderas. Banderas has always been a singularly gifted performer, capable of great comedy and equally great tragedy (sometimes in the same movie, like anytime he works with his greatest collaborator, Pedro Almodovar). At first he seems like a mismatch for something as deliberately arch as 'The Expendables 3.' but once again, he takes expectations and throws them out the window (riddling them with bullets and detonating them midair, of course). As a gregarious mercenary looking for a steady gig, he brings a much-needed dose of warmth and humor to a film populated by so many robotic killing machines (sometimes quite literally —Arnold Schwarzenegger has a brief role). Once Banderas enters the movie, everything is elevated; the franchise finally turns into the buoyant blast long promised.
If there's one individual to thank for the sudden turnaround in quality, then it's probably director Patrick Hughes, who previously directed the underrated Australian thriller "Red Hill." Hughes hired cinematographer Peter Menzies, Jr., who shot two films for the modern master of action cinema John McTiernan, and the two of them seem to realize the value of longer shots, spatial orientation, and discernable geography. There are moments when the frame is still too chaotic and the cutting too frantic, but Hughes and Menzies maintain a solid tempo, letting moments linger for longer than they have any right to, and allowing the audience an opportunity to figure out where characters are located in any particular space, before the barrage of gunfire begins. (Another element "The Expendables 3" introduces is a softer PG-13 rating; don't worry, thousands of nameless goons still get blown to bits, you just don't see any bloody squibs.) "The Expendables 3" is still shot largely on ugly locations and towards the end becomes almost punishing in its level of (bloodless!) on-screen violence. But it's also the first film in the franchise that has at least attempted some sort of stylization, and for that we are infinitely thankful.
"The Expendables 3" is lumbering and clunky, full of tons of gimmicks that a bunch of old guys still think are cool, like helicopter chases and dirt bikes and a scene where some guy shoves a grenade in the barrel of a tank's turret and the tank explodes. But it's also the most self-aware and enjoyable film of the three, one that coasts less on irony than on a kind of invitational sense of joyfulness. It's the kind of movie that you laugh with instead of at, and features at least a handful of performances whose silliness borders on the sublime. At one point a character calls the older Expendables "a bunch of has-beens trying to be hard." This assessment isn't wrong, exactly, but that's also the point. "The Expendables 3" ends up being a macho ode to aging gracefully and to allow those who are younger and more capable to share the same spotlight, and to accept that there might be some things that you can't do as well anymore, like fight Mel Gibson to the death. There have been some reports that this is the last entry in the series, but it feels like the franchise is (finally) just getting started. "The Expendables 4" anyone? [B-]