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The Expendables 3 accomplishes an almost impossible task, managing to be the most enjoyable entry in the franchise so far, while simultaneously breaking almost every rule of Stallone’s original mission statement in the process. As a result the film is light and breezy viewing, but ultimately a frustrating experience.

When Sylvester Stallone first announced his plan for The Expendables, it sounded like the ultimate action movie fan’s wet dream. Reuniting all the over-the-hill past-their-prime meatheads from the 1980s and 90s in a throwback action flick packed with bloody violence, practical effects and old school stunt-work. Almost immediately, (not so) young men started drawing up their dream team wish lists for who would make it into the cast and join Stallone on his mission of mayhem.

Stallone, who was taking on writing and directorial duties himself, would obviously take centre stage, so immediately you need his Planet Hollywood buddies Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Jean Claude Van Damme in there too. Then there’s Steven Seagal, Jackie Chan, Michael Dudikoff, Chuck Norris, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Kurt Russell, Christopher Lambert, Carl Weathers – and very quickly the whole thing starts to spiral out of control.

For the first film, Stallone did a pretty decent job of juggling enough of the difficult egos, deranged personas and backstage rivalries and pulled together a pretty solid selection of talent, both old and new, for The Expendables. Jet Li and Dolph Lundgren were brought on board as part of the mercenary team. Jason Statham was cast to add a bit of contemporary interest, alongside former wrestlers Randy Couture, Stone Cold Steve Austin and former NFL player Terry Crews. Apparently Van Damme, Seagal and Russell were all offered roles, but turned them down. Stallone did, however, manage to get Willis and Schwarzenegger to appear in cameos, which would mark the first time the 80s action rivals had appeared together on screen. Eric Roberts and Mickey Rourke also appeared.

The film was a minor hit, but the script was disappointing, and the dialogue lacked the juicy one-liners that had become a calling card for many of the stars involved. When a sequel was announced, Van Damme was quick to accept the role of the film’s main villain, and brought up-and-coming British martial artist Scott Adkins with him. Stallone handed off directorial duties to Con Air’s Simon West, and brought Chuck Norris into the cast, while also expanding Willis and Schwarzenegger’s roles. He also added Liam Hemsworth in an effort to attract younger audiences.

There were a number of things wrong with the sequel – the dialogue had gotten worse, the action was largely incoherent and there were simply too many characters to give everyone their moment to shine. Efforts to appeal to a wider demographic, by including Hemsworth and Chinese actress Yu Nan seemed to run contrary to the original concept of the series, while scheduling conflicts diminished Jet Li’s role to little more than a walk-on. The film also relied on a lot of digital effects work, rather than practical effects, and was allegedly shot to garner a PG-13 rating, something fans of the series vocally objected to. As a result, digital blood and gore was added later, but the damage had already been done.

The Expendables 3, therefore, arrives at a very conflicted juncture in the series. The initial idea of creating “an old school action film” seems to have been challenged every step of the way, most likely due to budgetary and safety concerns. Long gone are the days when stuntmen would put their necks on the line to conceive and execute jaw dropping action beats for rabidly appreciative audiences. Today, it’s far easier and cheaper to shoot everything in a studio and on a computer. Essentially, the very aspect that drew audiences to the work of these actors in the first place is no longer present. With the performers also well past their prime, what is left for us to enjoy?

As it turns out, charisma proves the strongest currency. So in Stallone’s case, you’re going to have a problem. The man has filled his face with so much botox he can barely speak, let alone win over an audience. Fortunately this time out, the new additions to the cast bring with them truckloads of charm, wit and energy, so few of the existing roster get any kind of look-in at all. Even Harrison Ford, who has proved himself dry and inert to the point of extinction in recent years, replaces the ousted Bruce Willis and does a palatable job as Ross & Co’s new CIA boss.

First up of the new recruits is Mel Gibson as Conrad Stonebanks, former Expendable turned arms-dealing super villain. Gibson has effortlessly made the transition from comedic leading man to mentally unhinged bad guy, thanks to a series of regrettable drunken outbursts and the fact he has never lost that glimmer of instability that fuelled the early days of his career in films like Mad Max and Lethal Weapon. Gibson plays up his rivalry with Stallone’s Barney Ross, revels in his chosen path as opportunist and warmonger, and has also bulked up to ensure he remains a physically imposing figure even though he has lost the speed and flexibility he displayed as Martin Riggs. While the inevitable final altercation between Ross and Stonebanks proves disappointingly brief, Gibson really gives this his all.

On the side of The Expendables themselves, Wesley Snipes finally comes into the fold, after his tax issues kept him out of the first film. Here everyone gets to have a little fun with the actor’s recent stint behind bars, as the film opens with Ross and Co. busting his character Doctor Death out of a militarised prison somewhere in the former Soviet Union. Snipes was originally offered the role of Hale Caesar, which ultimately went to Crews. When Caesar is gunned down by Stonebanks, and the rest of the team vows to avenge their fallen comrade, Snipes eventually finds himself in the Expendables lineup, as had been intended all along.

The third and final winning addition in this latest film is Antonio Banderas, as the overly needy, desperate and motor-mouthed Galgo, who wants a job, any job, and will go to extreme lengths to get hired. Banderas is a whirlwind of Latin charm and infectious energy that does not mesh well with the other expendables – all strong, silent types – but gives the film a much-needed shot in its over-pumped arm. Like Gibson, Banderas really goes for it here and the film markedly improves whenever he is onscreen, with numerous laughs milked by his incessant need to over-share.

Beyond this, however, The Expendables 3 fully embraces and inexcusably exacerbates a number of the series’ problems, to the point where they become unforgivable. Not least of which is that the film has finally embraced its desire to aim for a PG-13 certificate, rather than an R rating, meaning that the action is now completely devoid of blood, gore or outlandish kill sequences. Not that I am a depraved gore hound, but the films that The Expendables set out to emulate and pay homage to were popular in large part because of their high body counts and graphic violence. Here, dozens of people are killed, but there is barely a popped squib to be seen anywhere on screen.

In addition, almost every sequence that includes any kind of vehicular motion has very clearly been shot with rear projection. Where are the stakes in a death defying train rescue by helicopter, or high speed boat chase, of aerial dogfight, when all involved are clearly sitting in simulators rather than anywhere that even vaguely resembles the action. It sucks the life out of the entire film, to the point that the performances I mentioned before become even more important, because their banter and playfulness are the film’s only offerings of entertainment.

As if we needed any further evidence that the producers had lost faith in their core audiences and were grovelling at the fickle feet of the teen market, at the end of Act one, Ross inexplicably retires his entire team and opts to go after Stonebanks with a newly assembled crop of inexperienced young talent. So instead of the familiar if indecipherable lunkheads we have come to love from the previous two films, we get dreamy Twilight hunk Kellan Lutz, MMA hottie Ronda Rousey, former boxer Victor Ortiz and complete unknown Glen Powell taking their place.

Now, in the interests of fairness, this adolescent foursome do fine with the material they are given, it’s just that what they are given isn’t very much. After being introduced Seven Samurai style by Kelsey Grammer’s mercenary agent, they quickly become defined by a single characteristic: “tech nerd”, “temperamental”, “hispanic”, “female” and no sooner have they been put in the field, they are captured. Even Rousey, who should garner the series plus points for being a girl, an MMA champion, and not an awful actress, is given nothing to do. She has two fight sequences, both of which are shot and edited into incoherent ribbons – a criticism that can be applied to pretty much every action beat of this movie. We came for the action…and what there is has either been digitally rendered or is completely indecipherable to the human eye.

At this stage in the series, The Expendables may have finally lived up to their name and be put out to pasture. What was always the great irony of the film’s title – because we knew full well none of these guys were actually gonna die – might have come true at long last. It’s as if the series has finally gotten the joke at the core of its entire premise, that they are all “too old for this shit” but we love them anyway. It is telling when the best parts of the series come from those who could always act, rather than those who could fight once upon a time. As it stands, we’d all rather revisit the action classics of their heydays than see our one-time heroes pant and wheeze their way through another round of green screen stunt-work and digital blood-letting. Sly & Co. consider yourselves expended.

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