The Expendables movies are the cinematic equivalent of "Masters Football" tournaments in which ageing players huff and puff their way up and down six-a-side pitches in a forlorn attempt to recapture the lost glories of their youth.
Sylvester Stallone, the 68-year-old originator, writer and star of the franchise, isn't yet content to take character parts alongside other OAPs in films such as Ladies in Lavender or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. He clearly fully endorses Dylan Thomas's sentiment that "old age should burn and rage".
In the new film, Stallone, Harrison Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger all carry on as if they are still in their burning, raging, action-movie pomp. They can't quite hide the passing of time. Ford, now 72, looks smaller and more wizened than he did when he was playing Han Solo and Indiana Jones. Schwarzenegger's trademark, wraparound grin at least reveals he still has all his teeth. Stallone's final-reel attempt at a leap off a high building to catch a helicopter is on the sclerotic side.
It's easy to caricature these stars as deluded Grampa Simpson-types, forfeiting both dignity and common sense as they blast away with machine guns at Mel Gibson's villains. However, although Expendables 3 doesn't make much sense in terms of plot or character, Stallone and company successfully convey their own sense of enjoyment about their boys' own antics. The result is a film that is diverting and good-natured in spite of its clumsiness and high body count.
In truth, The Expendables 3 is no more ridiculous than many of the action movies Stallone appeared in earlier in his career. One of these was produced by the maverick Israeli showman Menahem Golan, who sadly died earlier this month. Golan used to boast that Stallone signed the contract to appear in arm-wrestling epic Over the Top (1987) on the back of a napkin. It wouldn't come as much of a surprise to learn that Stallone wrote his Expendables script on a napkin, too. Stallone is the square-jawed hero. Gibson is the square-jawed villain – and that's about as much story as we get. We all know that the two inveterate rivals will end up in a one-on-one ("mano a mano") battle in the sandpit for playground supremacy before the final credits roll.
The film begins with Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes) being rescued from a train. Quite why he is on the train or needs to be rescued is never fully explained. This is really just an excuse for a high-speed chase sequence with stuntmen leaping from carriage to carriage. Doc Death, we learn, has been in prison for tax evasion – just like the actor playing him.
Barney Ross (Stallone ) is beginning to worry that some of his old crew are long in the tooth. The impression is reinforced when they bungle an operation to catch an unnamed quarry. This turns out to be Conrad Stonebanks (Gibson), a former Expendable with the tattoos to prove it who, like Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, has turned to the dark side.
Although Ross is far older than his fellow Expendables, such as Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) and Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), he decides to trade them in for younger models. This new generation of Expendables includes Luna, played by the former Olympic judo medalist and top-rated UFC cage fighter Ronda Rousey. She is the only significant female character in the film but is woefully underused. A recent New Yorker profile of Rousey went into great detail about her trademark arm-bar move, "designed to hyperextend an opponent's elbow, stretching ligaments, tearing the articular capsule, and even grinding away the bone if the opponent doesn't concede quickly enough." She is at the top of her (very savage) sport but the film treats her as if she is a glorified Miss Moneypenny. She dresses like a secretary even as she works as a nightclub bouncer.
The younger Expendables are proficient in computer hacking and Evil Knievel-style motorbike tricks but they lack the true grit of their older forebears.
One of the mysteries of the film is its lack of a proper romantic subplot. It's as if the venerable action-heroes no longer have the energy for love as well as fighting.
Gibson and Antonio Banderas play their roles tongue-in-cheek, as if they are appearing in a pantomime at the Hackney Empire rather than in a serious action movie. Gibson was once cast as the hero as a matter of course but, thanks to his controversy-ridden career since The Passion of the Christ, is now one of Hollywood's favourite villains on screen and off. Here, he seems to be winking at the audience at every opportunity – and even takes the chance to wave at Stallone's exasperated Barney whenever he escapes his clutches. Banderas, meanwhile, plays Spanish dog-of-war Galgo as if he is a live-action counterpart to the Puss in Boots he voiced in the Shrek films.
The finale, which pits the Expendables against an entire army in a disused warehouse somewhere in eastern Europe, is on an epic but utterly nonsensical scale. The problem is that the plot simply doesn't stack up. All Stallone and director Patrick Hughes offer us are action scenes interspersed with manly banter. No one takes the time to establish character or develop plot in anything but the most cursory way.
"Age is only a state of mind," one character suggests in the film. As director Howard Hawks and star John Wayne showed in their magnificent late Westerns Rio Bravo and El Dorado, it is possible for elderly actors to appear in playful, action-driven dramas without making fools of themselves. This is a trick Stallone has yet to master. The Expendables 3 provokes mixed feelings – admiration for Stallone's gumption in making it combined with dismay that, after all these years, he still hasn't grown up.