I HAVE something of a confession to make. I love me some quality action films, and I’m not talking the neutered milquesop crap of today, boy howdy – I’m talking the late 80s and early 90s, the halcyon heyday of action hero films like Hard to Kill, Hard Boiled, Total Recall, Rambo III, Kickboxer and so on. To chart the descent of the action hero genre – and its staple stars – we need only look at the trajectory that led us from Die Hard to A Good Day to Die Hard, from Commando to Last Man Standing, from Judge Dredd to… er, Dredd. Bad example.
In all seriousness though, the fact of the matter is that audiences eventually grew tired of rampantly muscular men grunting their way through one-liners and women and spent machine gun casings for hundreds on hundreds of minutes. There’s only so many explosions and war cries you can take before cashing in your testicles, I suppose, but really it was a case of constantly diminishing returns (insert steroid joke here).
By the turn of the century the action hero was flatlining, its final flash of glory concluding with Nic Cage and Con Air, Face/Off and The Rock. The greats – Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Jean-Claude Van Damme – either stopped trying, went direct-to-video or entered politics (try to decide which is more ignominious).
Cut to 2010 and The Expendables. Directed by and starring Stallone and a group of assembled action guys from Jason Statham to Jet Li to Dolph Lundgren, the film kickstarted ‘geriaction’, a sub-genre which featured ageing action stars essentially doing the same thing as their younger selves did but occasionally complaining about their hip.
Full of obvious in-jokes and misty-eyed nostalgia, it was a slice of action pie that was bettered in every conceivable way by its sequel in 2012, which had even more old dudes smoking cigars, even more in-jokes (Chuck Norris appearing solely to make a Chuck Norris joke) and even more forty-somethings in the audience simultaneously embarrassed and overjoyed to be there.
When Expendables 3 was announced, it was announced as a 12A. That should tell you all you need to know, and it’s a frankly baffling decision considering the nature of this franchise as a bloody, sweary extravaganza. It’s also unsurprising, considering the disappointing box office returns of recent 15/18 films like Dredd, Sabotage and Escape Plan, but then there’s the fact that Expendables 2 made over $300 million. For a series so dependent on evoking the classic 80s and 90s action films, it’s an act of castration.
Director Patrick Hughes, a first-time action director, is unable to capture the sense of fun and excitement that Simon West brought to the second film. The cuts – regardless of rating – during the often overlong and frankly boring action sequences are too jarring and the frame is constantly shaking, reminding us all with some discomfort of Elysium. No shot is allowed to linger for more than two seconds; the effect, particularly during the final sequence, is undoubtedly meant to convey the frenetic chaos of a large-scale battle. The trouble is we’re unable to make anything out in the mess.
Even if we could understand the action sequences we’re so uninvested it would be a meaningless gesture. Even for an Expendables film the plot is a list of points from A to C stapled on top of a set of characters, all of whom make astoundingly stupid decisions on a constant basis. Mel Gibson’s Conrad Stonebanks (ha), the movie’s villain and one of the few who seems to really be trying here, is afforded endless opportunities to off Stallone and co but doesn’t because the script requires him to twirl his moustache instead.
The tone has inexplicably changed from stupid fun to almost sombre meditation which works about as well as you’d expect in an Expendables movie. Only series newcomer Antonio Banderas seems to understand the nature of the series – he’s a wildly gesticulating cartoon character, crafting tall tales and dancing like a loon. He’s exactly what we needed more of.
The new guns that Sly recruits to replace his old team (symbolism has never been subtle in these films) are charisma vacuums, prompting the question as to the action genre’s current state, or at least it would if you weren’t asking: You couldn’t get Gerard Butler, Michelle Rodriguez or Karl Urban?
The worst thing you can say about Expendables 3 is that it’s perfunctory. The sense of fun and adventure at the core of the previous instalments seems to have evaporated, leaving a film where even the in-jokes are tired, if they weren’t already. Arnold says “get to the choppaaa” twice, Wesley Snipes makes an incredibly ill-advised joke about tax evasion and Harrison Ford refers to Church (Bruce Willis’ character) as being “out of the picture”. Because Bruce didn’t get on with Sly and left over money. Get it. Ha ha.
It’s an action film without any balls, lacking heart, direction or sense, catering to a younger audience that will have exactly zero interest and alienating the people who actually give a shit. Even with the promised 15 cut for the home release, the film itself is so lacklustre that no amount of CGI blood can salvage its remains. Sly, always so indefatigable, looks depressed in every scene he’s in. Perhaps it’s because he realises that, finally – and I hate to say this – he really is getting old.