Sequel-itis is sometimes painful to watch. A movie connects with people critically and/or commercially and the green light stays on for more of the same. The horror genre can thrive on this because its fans readily embrace the continuation of the outrageous plot devices — Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger cannot be destroyed and those pesky paranormal entities just remain active — and are more interested in who will get killed first and how hideously.
In the more mainstream movies, keeping a franchise going, especially if it is not a Marvel or DC super hero, presents difficult challenges that often lead to disasters. Sylvester Stallone apparently did not learn anything with the decline of the “Rocky” series. They were pleasant enough movies but obviously were pushing the envelope in credulity. Also, the recent misfires from the “Die Hard” and “Red” films should have served as warnings.
In 2010, Stallone came up with a certified hit in “The Expendables.” The concept of Stallone teaming up with other action stars like Jason Statham, Randy Couture, Dolph Lungren and Jet Li to form a crack unit of mercenaries to bring down bad guys was a winning one, especially with Arnold Schwarzenegger thrown into the mix in a nod to the Sly vs. Arnold as action icons of the 1970s-80s going face to face. Its $100-plus million take at the box office made it a no-brainer that the Expendables were not finished.
The second Expendables movie in 2012 added Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Bruce Willis to the cast list, and there was an inevitable decline in box-office power, $85 million. Still that was enough to guarantee “The Expendables 3.”
As a co-writer, along with Creighton Rothenberger (“Olympus Has Fallen”), Stallone felt the need to inject more into the story than the usual high-body-count, heavy-weaponry action. So he and Rothenberger went with an “out with the old, in with the new” plot device. Not necessarily a miscalculation, but it was mishandled.
“The Expendables 3” starts strongly with a sequence in which Stallone as Barney Ross and his group free a former colleague of Barney’s, Doc (Wesley Snipes), from a heavily fortified foreign prison, an operation involving a speeding train, a helicopter and lots of ammo.
The Expendables are mostly here: Christmas (Statham), Gunnar Jensen (Lundgren), Toll Road (Couture) and Caesar (Terry Crews). Only missing initially is Yin Yang (Li). Now with Doc on board, the Expendables go on another mission that ends disastrously with one of them seriously injured and Barney learning that Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), who along with Barney formed the Expendables but went to the dark side and became an arms trader, is alive and thriving. Barney had believed he killed Stonebanks earlier.
Back home and licking his wounds, Barney decides to retire his group despite still under contract with Drummer (Harrison Ford) at the CIA to bring Stonebanks back alive.
So Barney goes on a recruiting tour with his recruiting agent Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer) and signs up four young people: Thorn (Glenn Powell), Mars (Victor Ortiz), Smiley (Kellan Lutz) and Luna (Rhonda Rousey, a mixed martial arts competitor who was trending on Twitter over “The Expendables 3” opening weekend for her involvement with World Wrestling Entertainment’s Summer Slam show). These four up-and-comers are more tech savvy but still have an appreciation and expertise in weaponry and hand-to-hand combat.
Unfortunately, Stallone and Rothenberger created characters here who are bland and not only lack chemistry and camaraderie among themselves but do not deliver any punch in providing a real threat to the older Expendables. On the plus side, Barney does reluctantly sign up Galgo (Antonio Banderas), another mercenary past his prime but eager to work. He is the most colorful of the newbies, although his exuberance and verbosity tend to get annoying.
While the idled Expendables sit around glumly, Barney and his new group, with Trench (Schwarzenegger) in tow, manage to capture Stonebanks without a hitch — it is too easy and the potential for things to go awry weighs heavily in the air. There is a void here that only can be filled with the return of Christmas, Gunner and the others.
Like the astronaut movie “Space Cowboys,” “The Expendables 3” then becomes a story of the old guys still having enough spark to stand and fight side by side with the next generation.
This movie does have its positive points. The action is well choreographed, and the interplay between the original Expendables is lively. There are bits of inside jokes throughout and the movie even pokes fun at the ludicrous nature of these kinds of action flicks wherein only the good guys can hit their targets.
Aside from Banderas, the new members of the group have no qualities that make them stand out, although Rousey gets to show off her martial arts skills. The show stealer is Gibson. Although his personal image has blown up in recent years, he seems to have progressed smoothly from an anti-hero as Mad Max, to flawed hero as Martin Riggs in the “Lethal Weapon” movies and now seems comfortable strutting around as a well-dressed but vicious villain (he was seen last year as Voz, an arms dealer in “Machete Kills”).
An “Expendables 4” has been announced and hard-core fans of the franchise are expressing concerns that Stallone has taken it too far off the tracks. He can recover if he sees the weak points and fixes them.