On Sunday night, at 7:50PM, I walked into a theater in downtown Brooklyn, New York, to watch The Expendables 3. I'd already seen the movie, but watching a leaked version a few weeks ago made me want to see it the way it was intended, with all the spectacle and power and volume that a movie like this deserves. This movie deserves a theater experience, I thought, so I went and saw it in theaters. And I thought others might do the same.
I was wrong. Sort of. The Expendables 3 flopped this weekend, making just $16.2 million domestically, good enough only for fourth place in the US box office. The studio points to the 2.2 million views of the leaked copy as the culprit. But most of the leak downloads happened overseas, and The New York Times estimates that even if every downloading American paid to see the movie instead, it would've brought in just $4 million more.
The bigger problem with The Expendables 3 was that the most exciting thing that happened during its two hour, six minute runtime was a man falling asleep and snoring loudly for 25 solid minutes. And the biggest laugh in the whole movie came when another guy, a few rows away, shouted "YO GET UP!" and forced the man to jerk back to life. I went into the theater expecting something big and glorious and powerful, but what I got was a movie that felt quiet and weak and small. That's not what once made The Expendables great, and it's not worth going to the theater for.
When I first watched The Expendables 3, I thought I was watching a movie that had the right pieces but needed that little something extra a theater could provide. Watching it for the second time (and having finally seen the first two films in the series), I saw something different. Something smaller. Something worse.
The first two movies knew exactly what they were
The first two Expendables movies were wonderfully hilarious send-ups of every action movie trope ever. The one-liners, the outrageous and entirely unnecessary gore, the epic Chuck Norris cameos, the constant stream of jokes: the movies had a wonderfully funny sense of what they were. Paired with genuinely well-executed action and occasional (but not exactly frequent) character development, they made for fun, engaging thrill rides.
In The Expendables, Sylvester Stallone's Barney Ross is leading his group after a war criminal, Conrad Stonebanks, played by Mel Gibson. Ross discovers in the course of another, simpler mission that his team just isn't cut out for the business anymore, so he swaps Jason Statham and Dolph Lundgren for a younger, decidedly more 21st-century crew. But because this is The Expendables 3 and not 21 Jump Street, the young guys can't hack it and the old crew has to make one more run at it. That's the plot. They win, because of course they do.
I spent most of the movie waiting for someone to yell "I'm too old for this shit," Roger Murtaugh-style, then jump off a building into a burning helicopter and hang on with one hand while shooting 36 soldiers with an automatic shotgun or something. (I mean, Riggs is in this movie.) At the heart of this movie is the fact that the Expendables are barely hanging on, but they're all still outrageously jacked — and in Stallone's case looking less and less like an actual human with every scene — and as talented as ever.
The characters may not look or act old, but the movie certainly lost its edge. It's PG-13 (apparently in an effort to score a wider audience), which means a lot of the cursing, a lot of the gore, a lot of the fun, is just gone. The first two entrants in the series did keep you on your toes: they'd switch from bright to dark, from loud to quiet, from innocuous conversation to bloody head explosion in no time flat. The most actually striking visual in this movie is a photo of Stonebanks' war crimes. You can't parody an action movie without any, you know, action.
The soundtrack doesn't boom like the old ones did. The guns don't ring quite as loud. There are plenty of explosions, but they feel smaller and less dangerous even when they're leveling an entire complex. There's no way you're sleeping through the first two movies, especially The Expendables 2, but you could saw logs peacefully through this one.
There's nothing epic about The Expendables 3
There's still plenty of pastiche here for lovers of '80s and '90s action stars… just in a more PG-13 sense. Antonio Banderas, whose talkative Galgo is by far the most enjoyable thing about the movie, plays an amalgam of a number of his action characters. Good guys from movies fight bad guys from other movies like it's a comic-book crossover special. Harrison Ford still sneers anyone else into oblivion. Mel Gibson swings for the bad-guy fences and pulls it off. Timers are still stopped with three seconds left, no more and no less. I get the sense that Sylvester Stallone as a writer and director hasn't lost his edge so much as he's had it dulled by a studio looking both for a bigger payday and a slightly less nostalgic reboot full of younger actors. (There's at least a spinoff coming soon.)
The Expendables 3 should have been a perfect movie for theaters. It should have been big and wild, a throwback to the age when we'd all crowd into theaters for the latest Jet Li or Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. I wanted to cheer, to laugh, to be alternately disgusted and excited by the gratuitous violence. Instead, I think I liked it more on the small screen, without the attachment or expectations that build up as the curtain recedes after 20 minutes of rollicking trailers. This is a perfect plane movie, and not much else. (The Maze Runner trailer was a much bigger hit in my theater than the movie itself.)
Piracy hurt The Expendables 3. It definitely did. But the movie is its own worst enemy, a tamer version of its formerly glorious self. Maybe after three movies in four years, Stallone and His Merry Men are finally just too old for this shit.