Review: 'The Expendables 3' ★★

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'The Expendables 3'

Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas in "The Expendables 3." (Phil Bray / Lionsgate / September 24, 2013)

No pensions were harmed in the making of "The Expendables 3," the latest in the continuing saga of Sylvester Stallone's mission to provide a work week or two to as many of his old pals as possible. Also these movies make money, so there's a larger imperative. This one reportedly cost $90 million. It looks more like $30 million. I think audiences respond to the general air of cheapness in this franchise; it's part of the fun, the tinny macho ridiculousness of it.

The cast list is long and beefy. It includes Jason Statham, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jet Li (barely in it), Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews and some new, younger recruits, among them Kellan Lutz and mixed martial artist Ronda Rousey. The best thing about this self-mocking affair, which runs a leisurely two-plus hours and affords plenty of time for an insane body count, is Antonio Banderas' manic gusto in the role of a gabby mercenary determined to join the special ops team contracted once again by the CIA. This time Stallone's character, Barney Ross, has his puffy eyes on a former Expendable turned suavely psychopathic arms dealer, played with nerve-wracking effectiveness by Mel Gibson, who appears to be channeling all sorts of real-life hostility here.

The franchise loves its little in-jokes. At one point one of the Garanimals (sorry, Expendables) asks Wesley Snipes why his knife-wielding doctor character was put in prison. "Tax evasion," he replies, in a reference to Snipes' real-world legal troubles. Harrison Ford, mentally recalling better days when he played Jack Ryan, takes over for Bruce Willis as the shadowy government figurehead who can't wait to go rogue himself.

The leitmotifs in "Expendables 3" involve fist-bumps (Stallone and Statham's primary means of communication, to the point where it becomes a kind of sign language) and that old action standby, the team-assembly sequence. Kelsey Grammer brings the gravitas and a little wisecrackery as an assassin talent broker who takes Stallone on a scouting trip, after our hero determines that the old gang is simply too creaky and shot-up to get the job done. I love the geography in this bit; the boys fly from Wyoming to New York and then to Arizona? Who booked this itinerary?

You never really believe you're any of these places, even when the locations are real-ish; director Patrick Hughes shot most of "Expendables 3" in Bulgaria. The climactic and semi-endless assault features tanks, helicopters, motorcycle stunts only a digital effects specialist could love and some terrible staging and editing. Even so, the movie's less a failure than a shrug, and it's pleasant in a numbing way to see everybody again, killing, killing, killing.

"The Expendables 3" - 2 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for violence including intense sustained gun battles and fight scenes, and for language)

Running time: 2:07

Opens: Thursday evening

mjphillips@tribune.com

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