It was easy for fanboys to get excited about “The Expendables” when it first hit theaters four summers ago. A dream-teaming of point man Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis? Who’d’ve thought?
Then came “Expendables 2,” the 2012 sequel that marked Schwarzenegger’s post-gubernatorial comeback. And the next year Sly and Arnold reteamed in “Escape Plan,” which was quickly followed by Sly and Robert De Niro in “Grudge Match.” And the whole idea started to feel less special, if “special” is even the right word for revisiting this genre’s 1980s glory days, with its high concepts and higher body counts.
But there’s good news for fanboys (and girls) this summer: “The Expendables 3” gets the franchise back on track.
Rather than trying to pique our interest by being the slightest bit selective, Stallone takes the view that more really is more. “Expendables 3” delivers a cast more sprawling than those of the first two movies combined. Even Harrison Ford gets in on the act as a curmudgeonly replacement for Willis’s smirking CIA handler. (Fret not, Stallone and Willis’s well-publicized feud is bygones, Sly has told the press.)
It’s a preposterously overstuffed strategy that, go figure, not only works, but even cures a thing or two that ailed the previous movies. They were decent guilty pleasures, but didn’t offer much in the way of story. Flat, lunkheaded banter between Barney Ross (Stallone) and sidekick Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) was passed off as humor. Here, there’s a more compelling narrative, as well as some legitimate comic relief thanks to Antonio Banderas, Wesley Snipes, and — so that’s what he’s doing here! — Kelsey Grammer.
The action opens with Barney’s mercenary crew loudly springing Expendable e
meritus Doc (Snipes) from a prison transport. (Early indicator that we’re dealing with a sharper product this time: Snipes’s game quip about his real-life troubles with the Internal Revenue Service.) Then it’s off to Somalia, where the team discovers that the shadowy arms dealer they’re targeting is actually another old compadre named Stonebanks (Mel Gibson, doing a variation on his recent “Machete Kills” sauntering baddie).
The disastrous encounter leaves Barney rattled enough that he tells his men they’re done. Secretly, he and Grammer’s black-ops talent scout set about recruiting a younger, tactically nimbler team to go after Stonebanks. Best among the new faces is female MMA fighter Ronda Rousey, a pumped-up Julia Stiles lookalike unafraid to give Barney some sass. Banderas’s eager-beaver merc wants in with the new kids — “I feel like I was born in 1984!” — and he gets his chance in a backs-to-the-wall finale featuring the whole fam damily. (Love the unironic shot where they all peer from a chopper to see if Barney made it out alive. We haven’t seen this many industry faces elbowing to get into the frame since Ellen’s Oscars selfie.)
The PG-13 installment is a shade cleaner than the jarring bloodbaths Stallone has been delivering since his 2008 “Rambo” update. But aside from the climax’s dizzying, multi-combatant cross-cutting, untested director Patrick Hughes handles the action in mostly generic fashion. Still, we’ll take the trade-off we get — routinely chaotic, but mercifully wittier. Following the movie’s widely reported Internet leak last month, it threatens to be remembered mostly as a digital piracy case study. Instead, it ought to be thought of as the “Expendables” that comes closest to getting it right.
Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.