Early on in The Expendables 3 we’re tipped off that a moment of high emotion is taking place. Composer Brian Tyler ups the volume; director Patrick Hughes goes in close on Sylvester Stallone’s yellowed eyes. Are they happy, are they sad? There’s no way to know. The face is inanimate and the watery sockets could just be the product of faulty ducts. Consequently the scene is a failure, in the moment and either side. Sly’s angry because his fellow expendable Terry Crews has been wounded by Mel Gibson (how like him to shoot the black grunt first). Had Crews died you’d have the classic spur for a revenge plot, but for a band of meat sacks engaged in endless violent conquest, surely taking a bullet is par for the course? You’d think team leader Stallone was used to battle damage by now. So it’s not clear why Sly’s lost all his objectivity, if he has, and consequently we can’t really buy in to what follows. That’s the problem with this Expendables: moderate motivation to go with its moderate violence and nothing for us to engage with. It’s a ghost of a movie.
Once again Sly and the muscles that be have failed to deliver on the promise of this ’80s action revival. Perhaps there’s no one left alive with any creative faculty who can make those movies anymore. A typical action scene in Expendables 3 is, to paraphrase Alan Bennett, just one fucking thing after another. The director has no idea how to utilise the space, picks duff angles and the editor, told to keep it choppy, else today’s kids may lapse into a coma, makes a patchwork of shots with dreams of becoming a sequence. 30 years ago, when a shot length could be longer than 2 seconds, this would have been considered bad form. But then 30 years ago they knew how to make action movies: brutal, wry and fat free. That’s the movie Patrick Hughes thinks he’s made, but his film is a pastiche of a style he doesn’t have the skill to sequelise.
Fans of the golden age of Hollywood excess and superhuman action heroes want a movie in that mould. Three times they’ve turned up for it, thrice they’ve been denied. They want their pyrotechnics practical, the edits clean and their one-liners polished to within an inch of self-parody. Here wizened husks from the ’80s stand alongside visual effects from the ’90s (perhaps it was a requirement than the animation look ancient to make the rest of the movie feel at home). The jokes are laboured and half-hearted. Sly and company, unwilling or unable to plot the thing with any economy, have filled the chasm between set pieces with talk that goes on and on, and whereas we could listen to Wesley Snipes shoot the shit for hours, a free styling Antonio Banderas tests the patience. Hey Sly, remember when movies had stories? Even bang shows?
“We’re part of the past,” says Stallone at one point, but this kind of winking self-deprecation gets old. We know, without being reminded, that the cast are immobile – a hobbling Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proof enough of that – what we want is a movie that doesn’t care; a film plotted and shot although the caring sharing ‘90s and the sombre, introspective ‘00s had never happened.
Sadly, it looks as if the money men weren’t convinced – as though they’d been asked to bankroll a film in black and white, featuring long dissolves and melodramatic strings on the soundtrack. The result is a film that doesn’t have the balls to live up to its marquee promise. It’s hopelessly strung out, stuck between the past and present with no idea how to successfully marry the two. The trick wasn’t to fudge it by introducing younger cast members and upping the jokes; the trick was for Sly and company to embrace their inner-fascist and go full tilt. Hollywood won’t let us see that movie, not unless Quentin Tarantino’s at the helm, which makes you wonder why they bothered with this franchise in the first place.