In 1979, Sylvester Stallone made Rocky III, Mel Gibson released his first Mad Max movie and Harrison Ford was shooting The Empire Strikes Back. Thirty-five years later, the stars look great for their respective ages (68, 58 and 72) and can enliven a tight closeup with their weary urgency. Studying the topography of decay in a veteran actor’s face is one of the few worthy pursuits for moviegoers sitting through the epic-length (2 hours and 3 minutes), belligerently inconsequential The Expendables 3 — a picture whose very title proclaims its redundancy. The film, no less than the team that Stallone’s Barney Ross assembles to defeat Gibson’s supervillain Stonebanks, could be called The Unnecessaries.
You’d get an argument on that point from Lionsgate, the movie’s distributor, since the first Expendables, in 2010, earned $275 million worldwide and its 2012 sequel $305 million. (They also cost a lot to produce: $180 million for the pair.) Then there’s the Hollywood affirmative-action program of hiring marquee studs from three or more decades ago. Having a star — or his overworked stunt double — beat the crap out of the hundreds of interchangeable Slavs who served as camera fodder in the big set pieces of this movie, shot in Bulgaria, is probably more rewarding for an old-time action hero than a workout with his personal trainer. The stars get paid, and the audience pays to watch them. Up to their familiar geriat-tricks, the Over the Hill Gang rides again and again.
(READ: Corliss’s review of the first The Expendables)
Arnold Schwarzenegger, 67, reupped for the third movie, which features seven stars in their fifties — Gibson, Wesley Snipes, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Antonio Banderas, Randy Couture and Kelsey Grammer. The top-billed kids in the cast are Jason Statham, 45, and Terry Crews, 46. Bruce Willis, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris sat this one out, and Steven Seagal has yet to be conscripted. But there are dozens of grizzled macho men available for disposable movies like this Expendables (which was directed by Patrick Hughes). The pity is that one can’t even imagine a similar action-film showcase for a dozen or so actresses over 50. Lord preserve us from The Expendabelles.
(READ: Lily Rothman on Why the big summer movies have male stars)
In the script by Stallone and the writing duo of Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt (who brought marginally more coherence to last year’s Olympus Has Fallen), Ford’s Agent Drummer of the CIA hands Barney a black-ops mission to capture Stonebanks, an art collector who’s peddling thermobaric weapons to every African dictator and Middle Eastern terror group. Turns out Stonebanks and Barney formed the original Expendables team way back when, but broke up over an issue of ethics: Barney had ’em, Stonebanks didn’t. This strikes a clangorous chord in anyone who actually remembers the first film, in which Barney proclaimed, “If the money’s good, we don’t care what the job is.” This time, he doesn’t care what the money is. If Stonebanks is financing groups like ISIS, then the CIA must be good.
(READ: Aryn Baker on Five Things to Know about ISIS)
Believing that this assignment, or the one after that, may kill off his cohorts, Barney disbands the bunch. In the film’s interminable middle section he recruits a younger team of Expendables, who have unproved skills but apparently won’t mind dying in their thirties. This younger crowd (including MMA bantamweight champ Ronda Rousey as the token hot blond) has zero charisma. The only modest diversion is the belated appearance of Banderas as a desperately chatty jack of all dark trades. He stops babbling just when the gunfire begins in the long but thrill-deficient final assault on Stonebanks’s redoubt.
If you and The Expendables 3 are ever on a plane together, you could watch the first 20 minutes or so, depicting a helicopter and train attack on a prison that for eight years has held Snipes’ Doc in solitary confinement. The Blade star, out of big movies for a decade because of money disputes with the U.S. Treasury, easily and artfully dominates every moment he’s on screen. Snipes also alludes to his troubles when Doc is asked why he got locked away and replies, “Tax evasion.” Alas, this self-reflexive humor doesn’t extend to Schwarzenegger — no housekeeper jokes — or to Gibson, who is spared an anti-Jewish rant scene. The closest Mel comes to autocritique is the threat, to the younger Expendables, “You should see me when I’m angry.” Thanks, Mel — we’ve seen it on TMZ.
On that flight where you’re trapped with Expendables 3, check back in early in the second hour, when Stonebanks is held trussed and captive by Stallone. Gibson invests a soft-spoken, bitter logic in explaining the mercenary life; it’s a reminder of the actor’s quiet power, and, except for Snipes’s, the only scene likely to make viewers forget they’re sitting through a movie and, for a change, participate in it. You might also want to watch the climactic heavyweight fight between Gibson and Stallone. It could be Rocky VII, or a meaty brawl in an Equinox locker room reserved for AARP members.
(READ: Corliss on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ)
Skip the ending, where, having assembled a two-generation Expendables entourage a dozen strong, Barney must say goodbye to each of them; it’s got more farewells at the end than The Return of the King. Frodo, you’ll recall, was leaving permanently for the Undying Lands. But the new movie’s prime mover has to hope he’s saying au revoir, not adieu, to his old and younger pals. In another two years Stallone — who will be 70 then, exactly twice as old as he was in 1979 — may gift us with an Expendables 4.
Look, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Bill Wyman are all in their seventies, and the Rolling Stones continue to proclaim the Age — the advanced age — of Rock. Why can’t Sly and the family Stallone think that 2016 could still be the Age of Rocky under another name?