Bombing in theaters this weekend was Patrick Hughes’ The Expendables 3. The biannual series, beginning as a novelty project for Sylvester Stallone in 2010 and blossoming into a full-fledged franchise has always been difficult to pin down. I dodged the first film though caught the second film in theaters. My initial reactions to The Expendables 2 are somewhat negatively exaggerated - the film’s nostalgia trip had its admirable charm. But coasting on nostalgia can only go so far and it’s in The Expendables 3 that the telling signs of fatigue pervade from the very onset. This is a series of films that refuses to learn from the mistakes of its predecessors and is incapable of accomplishing the single goal it should be striving for: to produce an effective and coherent action film.
There are, surprisingly, nuggets of promise through the film’s narrative that suggest something more formally refined. Unlike the narrative black void that composed the second film’s nostalgia gazing, The Expendables 3 is much more plot-driven and less action-oriented. This would be a welcome paradigm shift, particularly given the previous director’s visual ineptitude in filming action sequences - though Patrick Hughes, serving as director for hire, is as inadequate at shooting action sequences as Simon West’s was in the second film. Hughes’ rocky start includes an unconvincing train rescue mission followed by a botched assassination attempt. Eventually, the film shows some semblance of narrative drive by evoking a film like Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, whereby Barney Ross (the impossibly leathery Sylvester Stallone) dismisses his old crew and goes on a search to recruit new and young members for his posse to complete the botched assassination. But like the clipped and jagged editing that composes so much of this film’s action sequences, even these momentarily glimpses of narrative nuance are undercut by sloppiness.
The greatest obstacle The Expendables 3 has, and perhaps the easiest one to remedy, would be to acknowledge the looming gray area whereby its characters operate. The mercenaries that Barney Ross leads are by definition killers, operating in an under-the-table fashion that should indicate some sort of complicated moral code. But instead of conveying these characters as complex human beings, they’re afforded a definitive hero status. This is only reinforced by the nameless thugs these characters mow down - the body count in The Expendables 3 is so incredibly high yet the impact of any of these causalities, or even understanding why they are dying, completely escapes me. Yet the film fosters its greatest moment of sympathy when one of its own is wounded - the line that’s drawn between hero and villain is so innately arbitrary, only reinforced by the swelling of the film’s score. Some will look at the PG-13 rating as indicative of the neutered impact of death that pervades the film, though it proved to be an obstacle in the second film as well.
With a disappointing box office opening weekend and negative press following a leak of the film (as well as a somewhat vocal outcry against the film’s PG-13 rating), it’s quite possible that this will be the final Expendables film. Fundamentally, the films have been a mess, failing to oblige its audience with anything remotely interesting on a kinetic level. Parading its cast has been its primary objective - to which it could simply not sustain itself without solid filmmaking to back it up. To even ask if these films will be missed seems unnecessary.