Sylvester Stallone in The Expendables 3THE EXPENDABLES 3

To date, Sylvester Stallone has played Rocky Balboa on-screen six times, John Rambo four times, and, with the release of The Expendables 3, Barney Ross three times. According to the Internet Movie Database, Rambo V, with Stallone writing and starring, is currently in pre-production, and Rocky is set to return in a new feature titled Creed. In other words, Sylvester Stallone is the very last man you'd want handling the remains of your beloved dead horse.

The previews for the 68-year-old's latest cheeky action thriller, meanwhile, are promising "one last ride" with Stallone and his firearm-toting, spine-snapping, wisecrack-tossing team of mercenaries or special ops or whatever the hell they are. But let's get real: You're probably gonna have to pry this series from its star's cold, dead hands. (To the shock of absolutely no one, the IMDb also has a page for the "announced" Expendables 4, with Stallone's Barney Ross "rumored" to appear.) And really, what would be the point of pulling the plug? In order of named appearance in those assaultive previews, the Expendables 3 cast includes (deep breath) Stallone, Jason Statham, Antonio Banderas, Jet Li, Wesley Snipes, Dolph Lundgren, Kelsey Grammer, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Kellan Lutz, Ronda Rousey, Glen Powell, Victor Ortiz, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, and Arnold Schwarzenegger - and only one of their characters is no longer breathing at the film's end. (And even that character could make a wholly improbable yet completely unsurprising reappearance in 4.) The lineup is almost perfectly intact and the negligible plots can be altered ad nauseam ... . Why on Earth should Stallone and company quit this cash cow while they're kind of ahead?

Jason Statham and Wesley Snipes in The Expendables 3Personally, I could name at least a dozen reasons. But fans of Stallone and his Expendables series likely wouldn't care, considering I didn't much enjoy '80s-style blow-'em-ups even before they were retro, and also think all three Rocky/Rambo/Ross franchises should have ended after their second installments. My biggest gripe with director Patrick Hughes' Expendables 3, though, is that even with all the buildings exploding and all the nameless extras being blown to smithereens, it continually exudes a dispiriting, going-through-the-motions blandness. If the first seniors-on-parade blockbuster felt panicked ("Are we pulling this off?") and the second celebratory ("We pulled it off!"), this new outing just seems resigned. The action set pieces are at best perfunctory - there isn't one truly memorable fight or battle sequence in the whole of its two-plus hours - and the performers' geniality, in general, is starting to appear indistinguishable from laziness. Every time Sly and Ah-nuld, the last of the cigar-chomping he-men in modern movies, light their famed stogies here, you sense it's just because the stars felt like having a cigar, damn it, and didn't particularly care whether it happened on-screen or not.

There are exceptions. Franchise freshman Banderas, despite the typically dopey banter, is a hoot, his jumpy, loquacious hyperactivity suggesting a Puss in Boots who just dove headfirst into the catnip. And Gibson, as an apparently back-from-the-dead adversary, actually bothers to give a performance, and displays some of the unpredictable, manic gleam he had back when we all used to like him. But the younger, personality-deprived new recruits are dull - even the lovely Rousey, who resembles a bad-ass Julia Stiles - and most of their elders appear to be merely grinning and bearing it. (It should go without saying that grinning isn't an option for the implacably grouchy Harrison Ford, although it is amusing when he can't understand a word that Statham's Cockney gent is saying.) All told, those performing the film's stuntwork pack more vibrant presence than the cast members they're subbing for, and that might not have been a deal-breaker if the movie's wounded-comrade narrative weren't so dour, and there were more exceptional stunts on display. But with Hughes, even during frenzied combat scenes, so frequently positioning his camera in medium shots or close-ups - the better to see the faces of those, presumably, we're paying to see - we're routinely deprived of both performance joy and the joy of full bodies shown in exciting, action-thriller motion. Even at its most synthetically cheerful, The Expendables 3 is a bummer. At one point, Statham asks, "How much are we gettin' paid for this?" Stallone replies, "Not enough." Oh, I'm betting it was just enough.


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