Friday, August 15, 2014

Blogorium Review: The Expendables - The Third One

 Here we go again. Again. There are a few factors weighing heavily against the third Expendables movie, a series ostensibly devoted to being throwbacks to action flicks of the 1980s. You know, the kind we don't see anymore because all action today is terrible, etc. It has a PG-13 rating, so that means less blood spraying everywhere (digital blood, for the record). That also means only one "F" bomb (strategically placed, we can hope), which, in the minds of action fans of the 1980s, means the film has been "neutered" and will therefore suck.

 Furthermore, rumors abound that the film underwent some serious changes between shooting and release, altering one character's arc and removing at least one subplot / character. There's also the always problematic issue of including Mel Gibson as the villain, as Gibson has (mostly by his own doing) become a lightning rod for controversy and many people won't see anything he's involved with. That's not an opinion so much as it is a fact - did you see The Beaver, Get the Gringo, or Machete Kills? I did, but I know a lot of people who didn't and won't purely on principle. Also, one of them really sucked.

  Also, there's the little matter of the entire movie leaking online three weeks ago in the form of a screener, allowing people who don't mind pirating a movie the ability to see a movie they weren't sure they wanted to pay for. These things do not bode well for The Expendables 3.

 With that in mind, I should probably go ahead and tell you that if you liked The Expendables and The Expendables 2, then you're going to like most of The Expendables 3, even if the narrative is totally unbalanced. The new additions to the cast are, for the most part, welcome and in many cases improve the overall genial spirit of the films. Regardless of how you feel about Gibson (and believe me, I'm not disagreeing with anyone who hates him - I get it), he makes a great villain as Stonebanks, a founding Expendable, and very quickly demonstrates that he's even more dangerous than Jean-Claude Van Damme was in the last film. I'm not sure how much of the film is director Patrick Hughes (Red Hill)'s and how much is the influence of Sylvester Stallone, but the action is a little easier to follow most of the time. If anything, the only thing missing for most of The Expendables 3 is a sense of camaraderie between returning cast members.

 By this point, I really hope that people who claim to be fans of 80s Action Movies are done complaining that The Expendables movies aren't like Commando, which seems to be their frame of reference for the entire subgenre* (that, or the first four Steven Seagal films), but if it helps, a lot of the third movie is more cartoonish at the outset. It begins with a prison train transporting a high value asset back to a fortified hellhole, until Barney Ross (Stallone), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Toll Road (Randy Couture) and Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren) fly up in the Expendecopter. They're here to make a high speed rescue, even if it means dodging fire from a ludicrously sized gun hiding inside one of the compartments. As it was in the opening of The Expendables 2, they make it inside with relatively little effort and rescue Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes), another original Expendable who's been doing time. If you're looking for a "tax evasion" joke, you'll get it. But only one, thankfully.

 It turns out Ross needs the Doc to help him with an assassination of a high value target on Church's list (Bruce Willis isn't in the movie, but they refer to him a few times early on). They arrive to find Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) doing recon, and everything looks good until the target appears. It's not just some arms dealer, as Ross had been told - it's Conrad Stonebanks, the man who betrayed the Expendables and who Barney was certain he killed years ago. Stonebanks doesn't take kindly to their presence and (SPOILERS BEGIN HERE) puts two bullets into Caesar before dropping a bomb on the team from his helicopter.

 This, by the way, is the first major deviation that I've read from shooting to release: originally, one of the actual Expendables died (not the "introduce the kid and then kill him" like in the last movie). The scene sure plays out like Caesar is dying - Stonebanks shoots him in the leg and then puts one through his chest, and the exit wound is a big hole. Then they're blown into the water of a shipping port by the explosion, and Henry cuts to the team desperately trying to stop the blood. There are rumors that Caesar did die in the original conception, but the moment I saw him in the plane, I knew he would be back at the end. When Barney leaves his skull ring at the hospital, I realized that "nope, nobody's 'expendable' once again." Don't get me wrong - I love me some Terry Crews, but it really diminishes the threat of Stonebanks if his "kill" isn't really fatal. Also, it renders the entire speech about why Ross keeps the dogtags of fallen expendables on the plane kind of moot. We haven't seen one expendable character yet, and you're not going to in this movie.

 It does cause Barney to dissolve the existing team and go to his buddy Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer) to recruit younger, hipper, blood to go after Stonebanks. In a probably too long section of the film, Grammer and Stallone travel around the country to find Mars (Victor Ortiz), Luna (Ronda Rousey), Smiley (Kellan Lutz), and Thorn (Glen Powell). They're young and have attitude and skills that reflect the more "modern" approach to action films (hacking, basejumping, drones, smart rifles, MMA training) so while they do help Barney capture Stonebanks, they're also all immediately captured when inevitably the bad guy escapes. Barney gets away and makes it to the rendezvous point where Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is waiting.

 (For the record, I was happy to see that the guy buying weapons from Stonebanks in the art museum was none other than Robert Davi. I had no idea he was in the movie, so it was a pleasant surprise)

 Since Barney is stubborn and won't ask Lee, Toll, or Gunnar for help, he tells Trench to leave and decides he'll take Stonebanks up on his "you want them, come and get them" offer alone. One of Bonaparte's rejects, Galgo (Antonio Banderas) shows up and begs Ross to let him come - "I NEED action!" Despite the fact that his entire unit abandoned him and the fact that he just won't shut up, Ross agrees to bring him along. And then the other Expendables arrive, because why wouldn't they? Time for the big showdown!

 I'm wondering if the complaints about The Expendables 3 being "boring" are coming from the mid-section, which is the bulk of the movie and deals with introducing four new characters, only two of which we every really learn anything about. Stallone and Grammer actually have great chemistry together, so it's fun watching them bullshit between picking up new Expendables, but only MMA fighter Rousey and Kellan Lutz have the slightest amount of character development. Lutz plays the "guy who doesn't like authority but learns to respect the team" and Rousey's Luna is the "woman everyone thinks is hot but can mix it up with the boys." That's about it, although Rousey has a great chance to shine late in the film with the scene stealing Banderas, who it turns out is really, really good a killing people.

 Part of the problem of The Expendables 3 in execution is that we're constantly being introduced to characters as the cast swells. We might like some of them individually, but the aggregate effect is that the film feels bloated well before the big action sequence that closes things out. IMDB lists a character playing Gunnar's daughter, which is nowhere to be seen in the finished film, so apparently there were even more characters in the film. Meanwhile, Jet Li is in the film for arguably even less screen time than he was in The Expendables 2, and most of Arnold's scenes are near the end. Mickey Rourke still isn't back, Charisma Carpenter sat this one out, and forget any rumors about Milla Jovovich, Jackie Chan, Steven Seagal or Nicolas Cage cameos: they really aren't in the movie. Hell, most of the regulars aren't in the movie very much - it's Stallone most of the way.

 I would like to mention someone who is in the movie for a lot longer than I expected, and it's actually a very welcome addition. When Bruce Willis priced himself out of The Expendables 3, Stallone brought in Harrison Ford, who I assumed would be some minimal cameo where he'd be gruff and grouchy for a few minutes and then peace out. Instead, Ford's Drummer is the CIA representative who "took care of Church" and is the one who helps Ross find Stonebanks. He's in a lot more of the movie than I thought, is more central to the story than I expected, and is clearly having a very good time with the action stars. He's mostly onscreen with Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Li, but Ford seems to genuinely enjoy the over-the-top action at the end of the film instead of just phoning it in. He also gets the distinction of delivering the PG-13 mandated "one F-Bomb," which at this point is almost as weird as when Harrison Ford said "tits" in Patriot Games.

 Wesley Snipes also goes a long way towards reminding us why he deserves a place in the action star pantheon. Doc gets sidelined for a lot of the movie, but when he's onscreen it's a welcome addition to the cast. He gets paired with Statham frequently, which makes for an amusing subplot involving their mutual love of knives (and competition to outdo the other). Statham is good but barely registers, Lundgren finds a better balance between comedy and action than in the last movie, and Couture and Crews are once again not given much to do. At least Couture is with the team during the climax of the film, but other than stealing a tank with Gunnar, I can't remember a single thing he does.

 Tank, you say? Yes, Stonebanks leads them to a mostly abandoned city that looks a lot like the one from The Expendables 2 to rescue the "kids," and then uses his connections with the local dictator to throw an army at the team. Also the building is wired with C4, and Smilee can only block the signal for so long, so there's a ticking clock to escape in Drummer's helicopter. There's a long and loud and intermittently fun action scene that involves dirt bikes, tanks, grenades, lots of shooting, and then Rousey and Banderas steal the entire show in what may be my favorite sequence of any of the scenes in the movie. Statham's "big fight" with the heavy felt a little undercooked because you don't really get a sense of who Stonebanks's "muscle" is, and also because Hughes keeps cutting away to Snipes taking out people nearby.

 Meanwhile, Drummer, Trench, and Yin Yang (I had to look, because I forgot) are flying around in the copter, avoiding fire and shooting at anything that moves until they can safely evacuate more people than could possibly fit. And finally, there's the showdown between Ross and Stonebanks, which is, to be blunt, a total disappointment. The entire movie is built around Barney Ross wanting to take out Conrad Stonebanks, up to and including a great monologue by Gibson after he's been captured about the essence of being "expendable," and Hughes and Stallone can't stick the landing. Mel Gibson gives Van Damme a run for his money for the villain you most want to see Stallone brutally murder, but their respective final "fight"s are so lopsided, there's no competition.

 Not only is the fight shot in such a way that you can't really see both of the faces in the frame 90% of the time, the unnecessarily padded nature of having so many characters trying to do so much in so little time means that Stallone and Gibson's "showdown" maybe lasts for five minutes of screen time. It's over so quickly and in such and underwhelming fashion that I can't imagine anyone being satisfied that The Expendables 3 builds to "that". It's a total let down, a waste of casting Gibson, and a failure to live up to the menace instilled in the bad guy. Not since Stone Cold Steve Austin caught fire and Eric Roberts caught a knife to the heart has a bad guy been given such a limp death scene. So if you decide to see this movie just to see Mel Gibson being murdered, don't get your hopes too high - it happens, but very quickly. Remember, explosions!

 For the record, if you were annoyed by the constant referencing of "greatest hits" by the cast in The Expendables 2, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that it's toned down considerably in the first part of the film. Other than the "tax evasion" joke and a Demolition Man reference, I didn't catch anything that really made me groan. However, late in the movie there's a litany of one-liner reference jokes that will drive you nuts, including "Get to the Choppah," "I Lied," and a variation on "I Am the Law." I didn't catch a specific Harrison Ford joke, but I'm pretty sure there's either an Air Force One or Indiana Jones reference during the helicopter scene. There's also another Predator joke involving Caesar, Gunnar, and a mini-gun early in the film. I've forgotten some of the others, but they tend to pile up on each other towards the end of the movie, and not in a good way.

 Once again, I'm looking at an Expendables movie that I mostly liked, but which loses its luster the more I think about it. There's probably enough good to counter the bad, but not enough to outweigh it, and the only reason it's over two hours long is because the addition of nearly a dozen new characters, many of which have extensive introductions, only to not do much later. Ford, Snipes, Banderas, and Rousey rise above the clutter, and Grammer makes a nice impression as a side character, but these films are getting too crowded. There simply isn't enough for everybody to do, and when the element that gets sacrificed is the hero and the villain's showdown, you're doing something wrong.

 What's funny is that immediately after I finished the movie, I was in a good mood and I liked it. But the more I think about it, the more apparent its problems are and I have a hard time remember what it was I enjoyed about The Expendables 3. I'm almost positive that's not the intended reaction to the movie, but it's kind of the same way I felt about the first one. Less so The Expendables 2, but to date not one of these movies really "holds up" like it ought to, and I'm talking the bare minimum requirements of "holds up."

 In fits and spurts, I expect you'll find The Expendables 3 to be entertaining, and you'll probably have fun, but in retrospect, the seams start showing and threaten to fall apart. I'm not sure this series can sustain itself much longer, but there's always the hope that "next time they'll get it right." I'm not asking for Commando, because there aren't actually many movies from the 1980s like Commando (maybe Rambo: First Blood Part II), but Stallone hasn't quite put together an Expendables film that does justice to the films that made him a household name. Yet. There's always hope that like Rocky Balboa or Rambo, he's got one killer Expendables movie in him, and, uh, we'll end on that hopeful, if naive note. In closing, see Escape Plan, available now on home video.

 * Commando is the perfect storm of "no, that could never happen" with respect to continuity, machismo, one-liners, extreme violence, impossible coincidences, economy of story, and ridiculous fight scenes. Arnold takes out the entire army of Val Verde in the back yard of a mansion BY HIMSELF using a machine gun and garden implements. His nemesis is the henchman from The Road Warrior, he throws a pipe through his chest! I'm sorry, but if you expect every action movie to be like Commando, then only Road House is going to meet your expectations Or maybe Exit Wounds - Seagal blows up a helicopter with a handgun.

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