You want the bad news first? I think getting it out of the way is the preferred course of action. Then we can all focus on making the best of a glass that’s half-full.
Sylvester Stallone’s career-rejuvenating franchise chugs along, adding fresh young faces to the gang in the form of Kellan Lutz, Glen Powell, MMA fighter Ronda Rousey and boxer Victor Ortiz. Their cartoon mission is to hunt down former Expendable Mel Gibson, now a black market arms dealer. The kids, though, they’re green and easily subdued by bad people, so they’re going to need help from the olds. You get the rest.
This time around the on-again-off-again relationship the first two R-rated movies had with violence has been moved squarely into the PG-13 friend-zone. Plenty of guns are brandished and plenty of anonymous victims are mowed down by the prop department's big, bad arsenal. But point-of-contact brutality and bloodshed are dialed way, way down. You can see crazier gut-spilling on most TV cop shows.
The bigger problem remains its creator. Stallone, in attempting to capture a bit of 80s lightning and sell it to people born during that decade, has relied on his own calcified understanding of how action audiences respond to the genre. For better or worse, we live in a cinematic moment of increased self-awareness, and the film's attempt at straddling old and new turns weird and off-putting. The jokes (thankfully fewer than last time) are still stale, the beats are still awkward, the boilerplate machismo still suffers from a sort of conceptual erectile dysfunction. It's all been satirized elsewhere for so long now that simply pretending otherwise makes you wonder if the writers have been asleep for twenty years. And the inclusion of Rousey, at first providing the film with a chance to mock the idea of women fighting in high heels (and it does, sort of), becomes an opportunity for the film to then go gender-dumb and strip the warrior woman of the same protective battle gear that, say, Jason Statham is wearing, putting her in something to better show off her cleavage. Seriously.
The gloom, then, is an identity crisis, one that won’t sink the series, but may water it down to the point of even lesser relevance than the already barely-important cultural niche it occupies. To provide its veteran stars with fresh job opportunities is enough for them, sure, but thoughtful action fans who refuse to kid themselves know that any single vintage film from any one of these screen personalities is most likely going to be more fun than the combined (and too frequently underused) efforts of the assembled cast.
Now the good news. What Expendables 3 lacks in mayhem or fresh understanding of the world in which it lives, it compensates for with the most competently directed action sequences of the series. The stunts are impressive, the explosions are big, the flying bodies outlandishly lucky when they land on this or that impossible target. It's not impossible to tell who is fighting whom and where they are in relation to other people in the same battle sequence.
And while the new cast members struggle to find individual voices, while Terry Crews and Jet Li remain mostly sidelined, and the husk of Schwarzenegger lives in a perpertual state of checked-out boredom, appearing a couple times to walk from point A to point B with a cigar permanently stuck in his face, a few of the old-timers are having real fun. Statham remains in command of his brand; Antonio Banderas zips around the screen fake parkouring and talking a mile a minute like a live-action Puss In Boots; Gibson clearly enjoys his new direction playing characters who are tormented (Edge of Darkness), crazy (The Beaver), and now evil; and best of all, Wesley Snipes is loose and relaxed, crazy eyes flashing every time he steals a scene. Having him back is almost worth putting up with the rest.