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This action franchise's over-the-hill thrill is long gone

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Mel Gibson plays Conrad Stonebanks, co-founder of the Expendables.

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Mel Gibson plays Conrad Stonebanks, co-founder of the Expendables.

Sylvester Stallone, of all people, can be heard doing the narration for a new Xbox One commercial in current high rotation.

From a monologue lifted from the last Rocky movie Rocky Balboa, Sly intones inspirationally: "It ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward."

That notion happens to be the driving philosophy behind The Expendables 3.

It does not pertain to the story, of course. The Expendables 3 is about hanging in there as a movie star.

The whole concept behind this fightin' franchise was to show there was life in the old name-above-the-title action stars of the '80s, giving more seasoned moviegoers the thrill of seeing Stallone (Rambo), Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Terminator) and Bruce Willis (Die Hard) sharing the same film frame.

That thrill should be gone by now, but Stallone (who also wrote the script and produced) isn't done milking that cash cow. In this third entry, he sets about the task of resurrecting the careers of a couple of movie stars wounded in action (albeit via self-inflicted wounds).

Wesley Snipes appears early as Dr. Death, a former medic/killing machine held in some made-up prison facility. Stallone's Expendables honcho Barney mounts a helicopter attack on a train to free the good doc, who jokes that he was imprisoned for "tax evasion" (as Snipes, in fact, was).

Later, Barney and his two-fisted friends (including Jason Staham, Terry Crews, Randy Couture and Dolph Lundgren) launch an assault to steal a bomb, only to discover the arms dealer is one Conrad Stonebanks, Barney's Expendables co-founder. Stonebanks is played by Mel Gibson.

In the ensuing firefight, one of the key Expendables is seriously wounded. It's tonally weird that, after mercilessly dispatching dozens of faceless enemies, each of Barney's hardened crew reacts to his wounded comrade like a pre-schooler who witnessed her pet kitten get run over by a truck.

Barney himself is so distraught, he disbands the group, even when a new CIA handler named Drummer (Harrison Ford) assigns him the highly unlikely task of capturing Stonebanks so he can be tried for war crimes at the Hague. (Given that Stonebanks himself worked for the CIA, this seems unlikely.)

Barney gets the horrifying idea that, for this mission, it would be better to hire an all-new crew of young fighters, presumably because their deaths won't matter to him as much.

Best not to look too closely at motivations in this movie. Apart from resurrection, the film's other raison d'etre is to introduce a few new fightin' stars of tomorrow, including Twilight vet Kellan Lutz, the sublimely named MMA fighter Ronda Rousey and boxer Victor Ortiz.

Eventually, the entire gang converges, along with a pesky, loquacious comic-relief nincompoop played by Antonio Banderas.

Such is the nature of this entry that I silently reacted to Banderas's casting in this film with the thought: Geez, I didn't even know his career was in trouble.

Patrick Hughes directs the action in competent, uninspired fashion. (It is downright depressing he's the guy attached to do the North American remake of the extraordinary Asian action movie The Raid.) As for Gibson, he at least doesn't embarrass himself playing the bad guy, as he did in Machete Kills.

One needn't fear that Stallone will be stung by negative reviews to the extent that he'll quit this inexplicably popular series.

Evidently for him, it's about how hard you can get hit and still stay creatively stationary.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 16, 2014 G3

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