When you have a very spare minute, check out the posters for The Expendables 1 to 3. They say a lot about the evolution of the retro franchise. Poster 1: minimal background, nine members, all scowling. Poster 2: huge explosion, eleven members, still scowling. Poster 3? /Sixteen/ members, squeezed in like a marketing world record attempt, no scowls, all grinning. It’s looks like an action greetings card for Happy Man Day. Most telling of all, though, is that 12A certificate in the corner. Mass murder... for all the family!
The Expendables’ tactic has always been brutally simple: it points a grenade launcher at an ‘80s video store; we watch as the clichés explode out. Without the gratuitous gore and inventive swearing, all part of its 18-rated excess, what we have now is action with the safety latch on - everything explodes, nobody dies, and there’s a haunted feeling you’ve dialled The A Team by mistake.
In fact, this feels less like homage than an unapologetic action revival, aping the Marvel model with four younger recruits and the promise of a Next Gen spin-off. Given he fathered the franchise, Stallone’s new role as a reluctant surrogate-dad fits, but apart from some hi-tech subterfuge, the new batch, led by Kellen Lutz, are more The Dispensibles – no legacy to trade off, and deserted by direlogue, they have the combined personality of a firing range target. The one with the sunglasses.
What this episode has, and the others didn’t, is an adversary to match Stallone’s crew. If Mel Gibson’s idea of redemption is brazenly embracing his outcast image, let’s see more of it. Gibson doesn’t just play a villain – he’s a hero gone rogue (sound familiar?) and his malicious charisma jumps the film into life. Good job too, as the entire plot amounts to little more than Mel vs. The Expendables.
As the for the new additions, expect little more than a fustercluck of extended cameos. Antonio Banderas’ cocky mercenary skips off with every scene but spare a thought for poor old Harrison Ford, lumbered here as The Explainable, thanklessly barking out exposition until he’s finally thrown the keys to a helicopter. Ford does all his action sitting down, possibly in his slippers.
The Expendables are like a cactus toilet seat – they don’t take shit from anyone – but here’s the thing. Blowing its wad pre-credits with a merrily preposterous prison-train breakout, there’s not one action beat that sticks. In fact, the warzone finale, set in a booby-trapped building, is just a grander, grungier variation on the standard warehouse shootout. It’s a weird truism of action cinema that too many climaxes make an anti-climax. That, in a bombshell, is Expendables 3.
Still, simple pleasures. Stallone gets the stupidest zinger since, “Diplomatic immunity”, Arnie yells, “Get to the chopper!” and there’s the extraordinary sight of Dolph Lungren leaning against a tree and accidentally merging into the scenery. In The Expendables’ new 12A world, jeopardy’s taken a holiday– there’s no threat, or fear, or even much adrenalin. Just a big, dumb display of bulging alpha-male action. Best get your retro rocks off while you can – we’re perilously close to The E Team.