The Expendables Series
The Expendables (August 9/10)
Directed by Sylvester Stallone, The Expendables follows a team of mercenaries (Stallone's Barney Ross, Jason Statham's Lee Christmas, Jet Li's Ying Yang, Terry Crews' Hale Caesar, and Randy Couture's Toll Road) as they agree to assassinate a merciless dictator (David Zayas' General Garza) - with complications ensuing as it becomes increasingly clear that the gang's survival is anything but a sure thing. Though the film kicks off with an impressively violent pre-credits showdown, The Expendables boasts an opening hour that's distinctly lacking in the hard edge that one might've expected (and hoped for) - with the less-than-brutal atmosphere (ie there's one curse word in the entire film, for crying out loud!) exacerbated by Stallone's decidedly laid-back sense of pacing. The watchable yet thoroughly uneven vibe is especially disappointing given the almost incredible roster of performers assembled by Stallone, and there's little doubt that the film initially doesn't fare much better than such similarly themed recent endeavors as The Losers and The A-Team (both rated PG-13, incidentally). However, the viewer's patience is rewarded (and then some) once the movie segues into its men-on-a-mission third act - as Stallone has infused this stretch with precisely the sort of over-the-top and viscerally brutal glee that's so glaringly absent from the rest of the proceedings. The enjoyably ruthless nature of The Expendables' third act effectively compensates for the lifelessness of all that precedes it, with the end result an admittedly erratic yet sporadically thrilling throwback to the unabashedly violent action flicks of the 1980s.
The Expendables 2
An impressive step up from its agreeable predecessor, The Expendables 2 follows the title mercenaries (Sylvester Stallone's Barney Ross, Jason Statham's Lee Christmas, Jet Li's Ying Yang, Terry Crews' Hale Caesar, Dolph Lundgren's Gunner Jensen, Randy Couture's Toll Road, and newcomer Liam Hemsworth's Bill the Kid) as they attempt to prevent a diabolical madman (Jean-Claude Van Damme's Vilain) from selling five tons of plutonium to the highest bidder - with the gang's efforts eventually taking on a more personal bent after Vilain callously murders one of their own. There's little doubt that The Expendables 2 gets off to a much, much better-than-expected start, as filmmaker Simon West, working from a script by Stallone and Richard Wenk, kicks off the proceedings with a gloriously over-the-top and astoundingly entertaining sequence detailing the Expendables' assault on a small island teeming with armed soldiers - with the effectiveness of this opening heightened by both West's refreshingly coherent direction (ie no shakycam!) and the inclusion of irresistibly absurd bits of tongue-in-cheek action (eg Li's Ying Yang takes down several enemies armed with only a pair of frying pans). It's an admittedly stunning stretch that, as expected, lends much of what follows a palpably anticlimactic feel, as the movie's midsection progresses at a leisurely pace that affords too much time to the characters' affable banter (eg Ross reveals a traumatic event from his past, the guys discuss their preferred last meals, etc, etc). The strong performances and smattering of striking interludes ensures that the movie remains completely watchable even through its sporadic lulls, however, and it goes without saying that one's patience is thoroughly rewarded as the film enters its explosive and balls-to-the-wall third act - with the ridiculously excessive nature of this stretch instantly catapulting The Expendables 2 into must-see, instant classic territory (ie Sylvester Stallone fighting alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Chuck Norris is every action buff's wet dream come to life). And although the movie does stumble slightly with Stallone and Van Damme's final battle (ie it's just not as epic as one might've hoped), The Expendables 2 is, for the most part, exactly the sort of uncompromising action flick that has been largely absent from contemporary multiplexes.
The Expendables 3 (August 24/14)
The title crew returns in this third and weakest installment of the series, with the movie suffering from an almost excessively prolonged feel that's compounded by a lack of visceral, bloody violence. (This is absolutely the last film that should be rated PG-13.) The narrative follows Sylvester Stallone's Barney Ross as he and his gang of mercenaries are forced to go up against a former member turned bad (Mel Gibson's Conrad Stonebanks), with problems ensuing after Barney decides against using his usual team in favor of a younger, more expendable group of killers. Filmmaker Patrick Hughes does a superb job of kicking the proceedings off with a fair degree of promise, as The Expendables 3 opens with a fast-paced and thoroughly exciting pre-credits stretch revolving around the rescue of another former member (Wesley Snipes' Doc). And although there's another strong action sequence immediately following, The Expendables 3 subsequently moves into a tedious midsection detailing Barney's enlistment of the aforementioned younger killers and their various preparations for battle - with this section, though amusing at times, serving no purpose other than to pad out the running time (ie it's ultimately clear that this entire portion of the proceedings could've been lifted without much difficulty). Likewise, it's clear that the screenplay, by Creighton Rothenberger, Katrin Benedikt, and Stallone, contains as many lulls as it does engrossing sequences, with the buildup to the final confrontation certainly proving a test to the viewer's ongoing patience (and diminishing one's ability to wholeheartedly care about the battle's outcome). There is, having said that, little doubt that The Expendables 3's action-packed climax manages to satisfy, which ultimately does confirm the movie's place as an almost hopelessly erratic entry in this seemingly unstoppable franchise.