The Expendables 3 Review: The Best of the Best of the Best

I have been on board with the Expendables franchise so far. I feel Sylvester Stallone understands the male ego in a special way that’s intelligent and visceral. I’ve also called it “dick wagging bravado” but “intelligent and visceral” is more highbrow. The first film was surely visceral, monumental for what it was more than what it did. The second was an improvement – in cast, action and humor – but with its own shortcomings of very rough digital filmmaking and a meta-ness that took others, not me, but admittedly some people out of the movie. 

I think Expendables 3 is the best Expendables yet. While a few memorable characters are missing (some have been expended), it has an amazing lineup of talent and the most organic way to incorporate them all. It is also the cleanest looking film. Patrick Hughes knows how to shoot and every shot looks like it was from the same camera. He still uses shakycam when he wants to, but I can tell it’s strategic, usually when he moves into close quarters.

After an awesome pre-title sequence (I guess The Expendables has established its own James Bond formula), Barney Ross (Stallone) sees an old enemy, Stonebanks (Mel Gibson) on a mission. In an effort to keep his classic Expendables from expending, Barney opts for a new team to go after Stonebanks. Recruiting a new team gives the film a structural momentum that gives each character a moment in the ensemble. They don’t all need an arc, but they get to play a role in the story.

It’s an archetype: recruiting, going on the mission, not to mention the old enemy, but like Stallone’s various recurring themes it is a good archetype. The appearances of old and new characters are more organic, like visiting an injured rival in the hospital. Jet Li fans should maybe be warned that he is really barely in it, like even a bit less than Expendables 2, which I’m fine with as long as Li was happy. Everyone else gets worthwhile screen time. 

So, my favorite new characters were Doc (Wesley Snipes), Galgo (Antonio Banderas) and Stonebanks. All the new Expendables are great and they rise up to the old vs. new undercurrent of the story, but I suppose the reason Stallone assembled this many is so we could all have our favorites. Snipes has more chemistry with his costars than anyone. He’s still got the moves, some performed by a double in long shots, but his energy is palpable. Like Van Damme in Expendables 2, it’s a shame he’s not in more of the film but then Gibson is powerful as Stonebanks. There is a threat for you. And Banderas is hilarious.

There are still a fair number of overt inside jokes, which may make some critics cringe. I’m glad they’re still in there, albeit fewer in this entire film than in the single Chuck Norris scene of Expendables 2. Man, they stick it to Bruce Willis though. Twice. It makes total sense to write out Church’s role and explain the new character, but the subtext isn’t so sub. There’s no less killing for being PG-13. The PG-13 may even flow better since there’s no CGI blood.

I haven’t found any of the Expendables films lacking but Expendables 3 certainly shows growth in the franchise. Both Stallone as creator/screenwriter and the filmmakers he brings on each time have learned how to tell a large ensemble story. All the fun stuff is still there but it’s even stronger. We are anti-piracy here at CraveOnline so we encourage you to see Expendables 3 on the big screen when it opens in legitimate theaters August 15.

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.