Whatever natural goodwill one has towards the central gimmick of the central gimmick of the Expendables franchise - lookit all the '80s action stars in one place! and these other guys like Terry Crews and Randy Couture, for no immediately apparent reason! - it has long since been expended worn out by the time arrive at The Expendables 3, a movie that commits the mortal sin of having that many "E"s in its title, and replacing none of them with the Arabic numeral "3". I mean, shit. The 3xp3ndabl3s. It's a natural. It would, at any rate, be sufficiently brazen about being stupid in such a case that it might be possible to regard the movie as moderately charming in its self-aware crappiness. But that is not to be the case: this is an inordinately humorless film, in fact, especially for one which boasts such a considerable percentage of its running time in the form of lead-footed quips choked out by its ensemble cast in a vague approximation of the japes that action stars toss out when they off a bad guy in a specially elaborate way.

But I do not wish to lose the thread. 2010's The Expendables managed to scrape by on the strength of its conceit, and 2012's The Expendables 2 at least had Jean-Claude Van Damme camping up a storm as a bad guy named Vilain. Neither one of them is really any good at all, but they at least live up to their billing. E3, sadly, comes after the franchise has already called in Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, & Chuck Norris, and the best it can add to the table are Wesley Snipes, a fine addition who gets precisely fuck-all to do; Mel Gibson, a currently disgraced loony whose action heyday was in a kind of light entertainment miles away from anything that Stallone or Schwarzenegger ever dreamed of doing; Harrison Ford, barely even feigning an attempt to hide his disinterest in the film (he gets the solitary F-bomb in a movie that successfully, but pointlessly, targeted a PG-13 rating, and I do think he enjoyed that); Antonio Banderas, who, okay, I'll let them have Antonio Banderas. And Kelsey fucking Grammer, who spent the '80s playing an incongruously pretentious know-it-all at a cozy bar on a TV sitcom. To add some young blood, the film adds several non-actors and Kellan Lutz, who does not really stand out as better than any of them though he's definitely up to more here than he was in the excessively vapid The Legend of Hercules earlier this year.

The the film offers up little to none of the 1987 recess playground fantasy that its predecessors managed to is one of its primary flaws. That it's as godforsakenly boring as watching glaciers recede is another, and probably the worse. After all, plenty of action films have been great despite not having airtight conceptual hooks based on the personae of their stars. Very few action films - perhaps even none - have been great despite having shitty action sequences. And golly gee willickers, but the action sequences in The Expendables 3 are dull, flat affairs, shot with busy handheld cameras and lazily cross-cut. The big, sprawling finale at least has some interesting choreography and fun use of its set, though the need to give every member of an increasingly bloated ensemble of heroes does compromise the clarity and sense of individual stakes, turning into a kind of madcap "everybody everywhere" maelstrom.

So no, the action isn't terribly exciting; when it's there are all. The Expendables 3 is a complex, chatty bastard of a movie, with a rather busy narrative that involves Barney Ross (Stallone) facing down demons in the form of arms dealer Conrad Stonebanks (Gibson), with whom he has A Past. Such a traumatic Past, in fact, that he refuses to endanger the lives of his mercenary buddies, the Expendables, leaving behind a very pissed off Lee Christmas (Statham) and all their colleagues that we're meant to have feelings about, three films in. And I suppose somewhere, someone does, though between the blunt force acting and the clumsy dialogue in the screenplay by Stallone and Creighton Rothenberger & Katrin Benedikt, I will confess to a certain difficulty in even recognising these macho slabs of coolly flippant attitude and cartoon homoeroticism as representing humans.

But oh me, oh my, is the film ever in the bag for its "character" "plot", hoping we'll be so captivated by the playing out of honor and duty and rag-tag family units that we will overlook, gratefully, the fact that not a goddamn thing happens for the first half of a punishingly long 126-minute film. That does not happen: the characters feel fake, the places they enact their tragedy feels fake (the climax takes place in a Fake Asian country whose name sounds like "Assmanistan", and it consists in its entirety of a ruined hotel complex, apparently), the stakes are so unclear that it would be paying them much too much respect to say that they seem fake. The film comes alive only when Banderas or Gibson appear onscreen, both of them playing up the ridiculousness to levels that Stallone and Statham (among many others) seem incapable of even recognising, let alone reaching; it's a campy, trivial sort of life energy, but by the time Banderas has his first and best scene, deep into the movie, anything that implies life exists within this universe is as precious as water in a desert. The Expendables 3 is unfathomably ill-executed, tedious for nearly its entire running time and inexplicably for the rest. Every last line of dialogue is a eye-rolling anti-masterpiece, virtually the entire cast looks openly miserable and/or bored out of their fucking minds, and the action is too messy to be even a tiny bit exciting. There's a certain basic level of competency that the film never drops below - it was made by professionals, after all - but I could hardly imagine any way to make the experience any worse.

Reviews in this series
The Expendables (Stallone, 2010)
The Expendables 2 (West, 2012)
The Expendables 3 (Hughes, 2014)