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Movie review: 'The Expendables 3' is sterilized from the excess that made it fun

The Expendables 3

Rating:
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Star
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The Expendables 3”—2 stars

As a child of the 80’s, I was hooked on the star power alone when “The Expendables” burst onto the scene in 2010. I couldn't deny the Murder’s Row of beefy heroes assembled and led by writer-director Sylvester Stallone. I was more than happy to join the R-rated buffet line of good guys, bad buys, bullets, explosions, motorcycles, knives, punches, kicks, skulls, tattoos and cool cars all covered in a sauce of endless one-liners and tough-talk. It wasn't about quality cinema. It wasn't about Oscars. It was manly entertainment and wish fulfillment.

The film delivered just that and was a big box office hit, opening the door for an even bigger and bloodier sequel in 2012 with “The Expendables 2.” The original lineup was comprised of Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, and Mickey Rourke against Eric Roberts and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin as your main big name villains. The second film, directed by Simon West (“Con Air,” “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”), extended the first film’s cameos of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis into larger roles and added Chuck Norris and Liam Hemsworth to the roll call against an even better villain in Jean-Claude Van Damme.

However, like “The Hangover,” “The Hangover: Part II,” “21 Jump Street,” and “22 Jump Street,” the sequel was basically a bloated carbon copy of the first, a fact I had fun with in my review of “The Expendables 2.” I literally took my “Expendables” review from 2010, painted in some strike-through edits and red-letter additions, and wrote essentially the same review. The sequel’s earnings fell short of the original, but not low enough to deter a third film from getting the green light.

It’s here and now that that I have to present this admission. I can’t get away with the same review re-write gag for “The Expendables 3” that I did for “The Expendables 2.” I know it’s a stretch to say this, but Stallone went back to the drawing board, even if it’s an Etch-A-Sketch, to actually formulate *GASP* the semblance of an actual plot. It’s not a pretty one, but the third film, for the most part, departs from the hearty rerun missions of the first two films.

“The Expendables 3” starts with Stallone’s Barney Ross and his trusty crew breaking out a former teammate named Doctor Death (a long-lost Wesley Snipes) out of prison in a daring helicopter-versus-train opener. Ross recruits Doc for his next job of intercepting a bomb deal in Somalia. The team is thrown for a loop when the arms dealer brokering the deal is Conrad Stonebanks, played with coiled glee by Mel Gibson. Stonebanks is a former Expendables original that Barney was supposed to kill years ago after going dark to the other side. His forces overwhelm Barney and the boy. They actually fail a mission and get shot up for their trouble. *GASP AGAIN* You read that right. They lose.

Their failure sparks increased involvement from Max Drummer (the gruff and coy Harrison Ford), the new government spook and CIA operative that contracts and handles Barney’s team as assets. He gives Barney one more window to apprehend Stonebanks in order to be tried as a war criminal. Fueled by old revenge to make this a one-way trip, Barney relieves his old team (Statham, Lundgren, Couture, and Snipes) and shakes down an old friend named Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer) to recruit a new and younger crew of skilled operatives to go after Stonebanks for Drummer.

Bonaparte’s wide net nabs tech expert Thorn (Glen Powell, a bit player in “The Dark Knight Rises”), female hand-to-hand specialist Luna (MMA star Ronda Russey), firearms expert Mars (professional boxer Victor Ortiz), the authority-rejecting Smilee (Kellan Lutz of the “Twilight” series). Even though he’s too old for the young team, the crazy Spaniard named Galgo, played by Antonio Banderas (merging his “Puss in Boots” charisma with his “Desperado” athletic gunplay), rounds out the roster. Gee, I wonder if some of Barney’s old buddies still show up in time to help when more help becomes needed.

As you would expect, logic is out the window and no one is winning an Academy Award for this movie, not even the special effects supervisor and certainly not director Patrick Hughes, coming over from short films and the indie scene. The movie is a mess, but a cheesy one that still works to keep the franchise active as a guilty pleasure. Mel Gibson was the perfect choice to play the worthy heavy and Harrison Ford is a nice touch as a Jack Ryan-opposite suit. The new performer additions like Lutz and Rousey that make up the younger team are a tremendously bland batch of resting-bitch-faces, but the vibrant Antonio Banderas and his whirling dervish presence is a welcome addition and saving grace. Kelsey Grammer, in his few scenes, enlightens the scripted banter above the usual Statham-and-Stallone pissing contest that we've seen for two movies. One has to question how much this group and even their new additions have left in the tank to keep this franchise active and relevant. I'm all for the rumored all-female spin-off the industry has been talking about since the second film.

While the story shift is a big improvement, the entertainment content isn't improved and it starts with the rating. There is no way “The Expendables 3” should be a PG-13 movie, yet somehow, it is. The CGI blood that permeated the first two films with every kill was excised here to nearly zero in an effort to appease censors and sell tickets to the teen crowd. That change has two negative effects to the overall experience with cost this movie a star from the three-star reviews I gave the first two films in the wannabe franchise.

First, go ahead and call me a prudish teacher, but bloodless or not, this movie isn’t for kids. Let’s be even more honest. We know no movie theater ever polices kids and parents on the PG-13 rating. Even though the events are bloodless and quickly edited, an explicitly ridiculous body count remains that isn’t fit for this audience. You almost wish there was a running scoreboard on the bottom of the screen, because it has to move like a pinball machine and hit triple digits. Just because you take the gore out, doesn’t make “The Expendables 3” clean. It’s, arguably, to the point where you really have to question the censors at the MPAA, especially in this delicate modern day of pervasive gun violence, some of which, lest we forget, has happened at movie theaters much like the one you just got done sitting in.

So “The Expendables 3” and its two-hour-plus shooting gallery is fine for kids 13 and under, but just a few F-words dooms films like “Boyhood” and “The King’s Speech” to get R-ratings and narrower audience reach when they have far greater value to younger viewers? Come on. “The Expendables 3” extends how much of a joke film ratings are becoming. Sex still pings most sensitively than violence and it’s pitiful when both are equal problems. Yes, my fellow 30-and-40-somethings, we grew up with wacky and worse R-rated movies and knew it was fantasy. We turned out fine (well, most of us anyway), but this is a different era and this kind of stuff doesn’t fly anymore. Too many kids aren’t getting that its fake. We can still have this entertainment, but we’ve got to put a better label and control on it. End rant.

Let me swing over to defend the other side and the second effect of this wrongly-placed PG-13 rating for “The Expendables 3.” I’ll go back to being a meathead that loves the signature old school violence because I know it’s fake. For us adults that are supposed to be watching this kind of movie, you feel like the macho and gratuitous edge that made these movies their own twisted kind of excessive fun just had their balls cut off, excuse my own crudeness. PG-13 means way less blood and far less spoken profanity too. Call me a caveman, but that was part of the whole point and charm to “The Expendables” brand.

When you combine those two effects together, you realize that “The Expendables 3” is pretending to be something that it is not. It’s not a go-getter for the teen crowd because these ancient headliners are all too old for them. By shaving the brutality, it’s also not the nostalgic celebration of action violence that the franchise started out as in 2010. This third film feels like it’s soaked in the same sterilized weakness that sank “Live Free or Die Hard” back in 2007 when it tried to stamp a PG-13 on the joy of an R-rated John McClane. While the plot shake-up was appreciated, the powers-that-be clipped this raven’s wings from being as good as it used to be.

Lesson #1: All movie bad guys need to put in some extra time at the shooting range—This is one farcical lesson that I have to repeat from my review of “The Expendables 2” from 2012. This lesson’s phenomenon has gotten worse in this second sequel. The only bad guy that actually hit the flesh of a good guy was Mel Gibson, and he did it twice, maybe three times, the whole movie. The rest of them, to once again quite “Bull Durham,” “couldn’t hit water if they fell out of a f—king boat.” We’re talking armies here, where it’s 100+ men armed to the teeth with tanks versus 10 borderline senior citizens with limited supplies. The heroes, on the other hand, hit and kill everything they point their firearm at in one shot every single time. Nobody misses and nobody reloads. I’ll be nit-picky and say that I grow to hate that in a movie. Clearly, they’ve been putting in the time on the range that the villains have neglected.

Lesson #2: Everybody needs a friend—In the lessons for the first two movies, I talked about teamwork because Stallone, Statham, and company were a tight-knit group who knew each other’s every move. With the new recruits and change of mission, this is more a collection of acquaintances, castoffs, morons, and people representing called-in favors working together for the sake of team volume. That said, who knew winning and shooting a bunch of evil soldiers would be such a friendship-building activity?! It’s so cute when killers find something in common.

Lesson #3: Never do business with the government—Oh, nevermind. It’s not even worth attempting the tangent.

Lesson #4: Success is willing to do the things the other people are not—Our #1 hero and #1 bad guy personify the yin and the yang offered by this piece of dialogue coming from Mel Gibson. In his case as the villain, he was willing to break orders and get into business with those no one else would to become a successful arms dealer. For Barney, what separates him from other hardcore mercenaries and leads to his success is a moral conscience that others lack. Sorry, folks, that’s as deep as this action movie swimming pool gets.