As far as movie franchises go, The Expendables series is less a genuine attempt to make actual action movies and more a cinematic equivalent of the Lillian Booth Actors Home: somewhere leathery, down-on-their-luck stars can go when they're in need of a warm bed and a nutritious, fiber-rich meal. "I like using people that had a moment and then maybe have fallen on some hard times," creator and now-established philanthropist Sylvester Stallone told Entertainment Weekly in 2011. "We also need some new blood in there, a Navy Seal-type, because with the Expendables, none of them have 20-20 vision anymore. They need some help, man."
In The Expendables 3, the latest installment in the franchise, the recipient of this last-action-hero largesse is Mel Gibson, who hasn't had much to do since Apocalpyto (public episodes of anti-Semitism, it turns out, are not so conducive to Hollywood careers). Gibson plays arms dealer Conrad Stonebanks (you have to assume Stallone and his two-co-writers used an action movie-algorithm for these names and roll with it, or you'll get a terrible headache), who, it transpires, was the co-founder of the Expendables with Barney Ross (Stallone) many (many) moons ago. Stonebanks and Ross were the two best friends and paid killing machines that anyone could have, until, as Stonebanks puts it, Ross's "pesky moral conscience" got in the way, forcing Stonebanks to ditch the merry band of mercenaries and become an international arms dealer.
That's it, really. And you could be forgiven for doubting the existence of this supposed moral conscience given the carefree manner with which Ross and returning Expendables Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Toll Road (Randy Couture), and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) off anonymous henchmen in the first 30 minutes. But they do manage to rescue Doctor Death, a one-time member of the group played by Wesley Snipes, who exists primarily to make jokes about tax evasion and engage in knife-throwing contests with Christmas.
After Caesar is gravely wounded in a showdown that simultaneously reveals the existence of Stonebanks, Ross, who’s played by an actor two years away from 70, ditches his team of 50-somethings because they're too old, which is a bit like octogenarian Hugh Hefner retiring Bridget Marquardt from his coterie of bunnies after she turned 35. This gives Ross the opportunity to bring in a new fleet of characters including Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer), a sort of recruitment professional for mercenaries who travels around the world with Ross helping him pick out a wrinkle-free crew.
During this montage of scenes in exotic locales, Stallone sports a series of ever-more-extraordinary outfits, including a pork-pie hat and a formal blazer that appears to be fashioned from a Navajo horse blanket. His face, meanwhile, is a shade of mahogany that might cause even John Boehner and George Hamilton to raise an eyebrow, and he has increasing difficulty forcing it into recognizable expressions. When Ross first sees Stonebanks, whom everyone has long believed is dead, his top lip quivers infinitesimally until it almost looks like a sneer—an approximation of what we're supposed to believe is rage. But his trademark growl, three octaves below a baritone, is as velvety as ever it was in the bygone Rocky/Rambo era.
The movie borrows so liberally from other action films that it starts to feel at times a bit like a BuzzFeed listicle. Stonebanks makes a video and sends it to Ross in which he seems to be doing an impression of Heath Ledger's Joker, while his short-lived capture at the hands of the Expendables has echoes of Mission Impossible 3. There are double entendres and premature-ejaculation jokes that might embarrass even a ‘90s Bond movie, and Stonebanks's decision to conduct arms deals inside an art museum in Bucharest is the kind of terrible planning that could only come from a comic-book villain.
That's not to say it can't be fun, and it is, after the first 90 minutes or so. Ross's new crew includes former Navy Seal John Smilee (Kellan Lutz), who has the ability to ride a motorcycle and snarl; Thorn (Glen Powell), a hacker; Mars (Victor Ortiz), whose specialty is indeterminable; and lone female Luna (played by MMA and UFC star Ronda Rousey). He also calls in help from CIA contact Max Drummer (Harrison Ford, who appears to be doing it for kicks), Trench Mauser (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and Yin Yang (Jet Li).
Rounding up the team is Antonio Banderas, whose agent apparently forgot to tell him that actual acting was unnecessary, but who is so insanely charming as blabbermouth Galgo that he steals every scene. "I need a job!" he cries at Stallone at one point. "All I know what to do is killing people, and I do that very well!" (If those lines don't sum up this movie, nothing will.) But the price of bringing in all these extra characters is that Expendables 3 becomes as bloated and ‘roid-inflated as its aging cast, clocking in at just over two hours. This is a reasonable running time for a movie with a serious plot; it's ambitious for one that pads out its action sequences with a combination of tattoo admiration and mournful stories about Expendables who've kicked the bucket.
Nevertheless, the climactic face-off between Stonebanks's army (literally an army) and Ross's team is thrilling and conveniently suited to each character's unique skill set: Ford gets to shoot things while flying a helicopter, Stallone gets to leap between exploding windows, and Schwarzenegger somehow yells "GET TO THE CHOPPER" without dying laughing. Gibson, meanwhile, threatens one young Expendable with the line, "I'll open up your meat shirt and show you your heart," proving how he won those Oscars.
Director Patrick Hughes has a flimsy resume, and it shows: Sequences are choppy and disorienting, and it gets harder and harder to keep track of the ever-growing lineup of stars. But none of this is the point. Stallone's retirement program will surely gross more than 10 times its budget; a crinkly-faced troupe of neckless AARP members creaks ever closer to needing hip replacements, and Jason Statham gets a sweet, bromantic moment with Stallone in which he tells him, "Morons need friends." There it is, the tagline for Expendables 4.