Blu-ray Review: The Expendables 3

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Arriving on Blu-ray and DVD on November 25 is Sylvester Stallone’s latest all-star action blowout, The Expendables 3. Those who decried the PG-13 rating will eagerly anticipate the Blu-ray’s unrated edition (the theatrical cut is included as well), but don’t expect anything too different. The unrated version only adds five minutes and they don’t add up to any significant difference. That said, I enjoyed part three but regard it as the weakest of the trilogy. The problem is evident from the smiling faces on the Blu-ray cover—even villainous Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson) appears to be having a blast. Too much goofy fun and not enough of the grit Stallone invested in the franchise’s maiden voyage (remember Mickey Rourke’s ruminative monologue?) has resulted in a weightless experience. Even the largely comic part two had Barney Ross (Stallone) and the gang dealing with the death of a young recruit.

Expendables 3 a (380x253).jpgIn the latest, Stallone seems way too attached to each and every one of his characters to let anyone die. No matter how rough and tumble the mercenary business gets, Barney’s Expendables team always manages to sidestep any true misfortune. What’s worse, Stallone is no longer interested in exploring (even in the relatively superficial terms of the first two films) what makes these hired guns tick. The best idea in the film (and not a terribly imaginative one, at that) is former Expendable Stonebanks’ attempt to draw a moral equivalency between his and Barney’s actions. He’s the flipside to Rourke’s Tool from the first film. Whereas Tool walked away from the business (more or less), a broken, hollow man scared by his inability to distinguish right from wrong, Stonebanks relishes raking in cash via the most unscrupulous means possible. While holding Barney’s new team hostage, he illustrates the whole soullessness of their shared business; they don’t really know who they’re working for, or why. Do they care whether or not Stonebanks deserve to die?

Expendables 3 d (380x253).jpgThe theme of who is really “bad” and who is “good” could’ve instilled a bit of depth in Ex3, but it goes undeveloped. Speaking of the new team, they’re deemed necessary because Barney doesn’t want to risk the lives of his old guard while attempting to take down Stonebanks (whom he had long believed deceased). The glut of new characters doesn’t add much more than excess running time (previous outings were well under the two hour mark; Ex3 “unrated” clocks in at 131 minutes). And the established team members are forced to wait around like jerks while Barney gets the new recruits in over their heads (Terry Crews is barely in the movie, Jet Li’s appearance is practically a walk-on). Kellan Lutz is the only one with any real measure of existing movie stardom (Twilight), but the standout is Ronda Rousey. She steps in as the only female Expendable (Yu Nan held that distinction in part two) and her UFC skills more than qualify her as worthy of the title.

Expendables 3 c (380x291).jpgLest I be accused of over-thinking the whole thing, let me reiterate: I ultimately enjoyed Ex3. But as a diehard Stallone junkie I am, perhaps, not the most objective viewer. There are plenty of fun moments throughout the film, with some of the veteran stars providing highpoints. Antonio Banderas, in particular, works hard to distinguish his character, the motor-mouthed Galgos. Mel Gibson effectively chews the scenery, but seems to be longing for a little more to wrap his formidable chops around. Harrison Ford, stepping in to essentially fill Bruce Willis’ shoes as another CIA op, does nothing more than punch the clock (he’s third billed but only has a few scenes and some of the weakest one-liners, i.e. “That’s gotta hurt!” when a chopper mows down a bunch of bad guys).

Lionsgate’s Expendables 3 Blu-ray is a balls-out technical success. Ex2 was among the uglier-looking big budget films in recent years (it sometimes looked like the otherwise reliable cinematographer Shelly Johnson forgot to use a key light in certain scenes, like the climatic showdown between Stallone and Van Damme). It looked bad on the big screen and, in turn, on Blu-ray. Ex3 looks every bit like a modern action blockbuster, though the extreme clarity winds up enhancing the sometimes cut-rate CGI. Better still is the audio, presented in Dolby Atmos (a format I’m not equipped to play back in). The mix defaults to Dolby TrueHD and it rocks, rumbles, and roars exactly as we’ve come to expect from this series.

Special features initially look light, but “The Expendables 3 Documentary” is a 50-minute treat for fans. It’s mostly promotional in nature, with a lot of accolades being thrown around by all, but most of the primary cast members chime in and we get to see a lot of cool behind-the-scenes material. There’s also a pair of shorter featurettes: “New Blood: Stacked and Jacked” (15 minutes) and “The Total Action Package” (6 minutes). The gag reel boasts some fun moments (particularly when Harrison Ford can’t seem to spit out the name “Stonebanks”) and there’s an extended scene (“Christmas Runs the Guantlet”). The package also includes a standard DVD and Digital HD download.

Expendables 3 b (380x262).jpgDespite common perception, fueled in part by the series’ own producers, The Expendables was not originally conceived as an all-star action throwback. Stallone teamed with relatively contemporary action stars Jason Statham and Jet Li, giving supporting roles for a bunch of (mostly) B-list, direct-to-video actors. But the buzz generated by a two-minute cameo by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis led to the overstuffed casts of the sequels. When you can’t find anything interesting for Harrison Ford to do (and when a reteaming of Stallone’s Demolition Man co-star Wesley Snipes falls this flat), it’s time to forget studding the marquee with stars and re-focus on storytelling fundamentals. Stallone apparently isn’t giving up on the franchise, despite weak domestic box office returns for The Expendables 3 (overseas tallies were far more robust). Hopefully he realizes it was not simply the lack of an R-rating that led to viewer apathy.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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