Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: keeping alive the traditions of a franchise best known for assembling all of the best and most manly action stars of the '80s, The Expendables 3 brings Dr. Frasier Crane himself into the fold. It apparently made sense to somebody.

There's no mediocre comedy quite like a 1990s mediocre comedy, when the genre reached its height. There's a combination of heightened budget and concept, and peculiarly witless screenwriting that seemed wildly inescapable, with almost every new month in the middle of the decade boasting its own, remarkably pointless, factory-pressed farce with the same set of oddball characters, the same TV-with-a-potty-mouth slant to the dialogue, the same bitterly thankless role for its token female star, the same polished style that was at once pricey and tasteless, with the kind of flat overlighting that can make even the nicest set look plastic and artificial.

Or in the case of Down Periscope, it manages to do that to an actual decommissioned World War II submarine, the USS Pampanito, which plays the part of the USS Stingray in the film. Director David S. Ward (who managed to write The Sting at the outset of a career that has oscillated from mildly amusing to mildly bad comedies ever since) and cinematographer Victor Hammer are perversely good at opening up the location to be bright and roomy and clear, the exact opposite of what most submarines in most submarine movies have ended up. And perhaps that's because Down Periscope is a submarine comedy, an extraordinary rare mixture (offhand, the only other one I can think of is 1959's Operation Petticoat). And there has always been a problem with film comedies, though it was perhaps at a higher pitch in the '90s that at other times, that they are frequently not very interesting as cinema, aiming only to be baldly functional in letting the actors maneuver through the script. Where a submarine thriller is obliged to use its setting as a pressure cooker, closing in on the characters and viewers, a submarine comedy has no real motivation for doing such a thing. A brilliant comic filmmaker might have a field day using the setting to amp up the characters' tics and foibles, but that's clearly not on Ward's radar, nor in the script by Hugh Wilson and Andrew Kurtzman & Eliot Wald that's a great deal more interesting in being genial and harmless fun than in going anyplace remotely psychologically harsh.

It's a sitcom, basically, in which stock characters react in precisely the ways we expect them to, and thus it's probably inevitable that ended up as the first movie lead role for a sitcom star: Kelsey Grammer, late of Cheers and three seasons into that show's spin-off Frasier. He's a perfectly satisfactory fit for Down Periscope's sleepy energy, and it thankfully doesn't ask him to simply play Dr. Frasier Crane in another setting, as virtually all of his other major film appearances have to some degree or another. But he's still clearly a TV-trained actor, keeping things safe and friendly and generally feeling at all points like he's about the slip right of the screen, while off there in the cutaway scenes, William H. Macy and Bruce Dern are remaining fresh and alive in small, thankless roles.

Grammers plays Lt. Cmdr. Tom Dodge, newly appointed to captain the ancient Stingray during some war games, at the urging of Adm. Winslow (Rip Torn) and over the spittle-flecked objections of Adm. Graham (Dern), who finds Dodge's frivolous behavior to be an embarrassment to the U.S. Navy. It's largely due to his machinations that Dodge's new ship is crewed with the rag-taggiest misfits that can be scraped up, as well as a lady, Lt. Emily Lake (Lauren Holly), hoping to thereby imbalance the situation even worse than having a team of wacky fuck-ups, but the joke's on him - Down Periscope is far too nerveless to actually plunge into anything resembling sexual politics, and so Lake's presence is good only for a few tittering jokes and a lot of plot boilerplate that could be exactly replicated if she were a man.

The most conspicuous fact of the movie is its virtually complete lack of personalising elements: every joke, every character, every performance, and every narrative beat is mostly notable for how much it feels like a dozen other films. When it is slightly off-model, it is usually for the worse: Rob Schneider's performance as the Stingray XO, Marty Pascal, is characteristically loud and angry without any real jokes to it, and the film gets far, far too much mileage from a tattoo Dodge got on his genitalia in his past. But these are minute deviations from a stock scenario that muddles forward doggedly: the colorful fuck-ups have to prove to the short-tempered by-the-book assholes that they can make good, by coming together as a team and appreciating the kookiness that makes them such a one-of-a-kind ad hoc family.

It's a story of long history, and one that has produced more weak-kneed films than good ones. But as with most things, it's the quality of the execution that does the trick. In Down Periscope's case, the filmmakers were painfully disinterested in doing anything special with the submarine setting outside of one halfway decent "running silent" scene, which means that it's down to the quality of the jokes to set the movie out from the crowd. And there's simply nothing there to do that. Most of the side characters have strictly one characteristic apiece (which implies that the leads have more than one, and that is entirely unfair to say), and every scene plays out as an excuse to trot each of those characteristics, and the one gag that the filmmakers came up with to play on them, in largely identical configurations. There's no sense of exploration or surprise, just a colorful ensemble moving through the exact gags that we could predict they'd move through after their first or second scene. It's a sitcom in every possible respect, acting like the point is more to have a good time hanging out with the characters than being jolted into laughter or being dazzled by cunning. Which might have worked if the characters were interesting enough to hang out with, instead of being just so many blobs of half-formed ideas and limp stereotypes. It's not exactly a bad movie, but it's so forgettable that it's almost exhausting.