- - Thursday, August 14, 2014

Like its franchise predecessors, “The Expendables 3” is a kind of dream team action film, built from the thrill of seeing a veritable army of top-shelf movie stars, each of whom could once carry their own pictures, all working together.

Almost the entirety of the 1980s and ‘90s action canon is on-screen: The movie features Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford, Wesley Snipes and Kelsey Grammer, Antonio Banderas and Dolph Lundgren. More recent stars Jet Li and Jason Statham show up, too, along with an equally large cast of lesser knowns pulled from the worlds of low-budget action and professional mixed martial arts.

It’s a reunion show, basically, except these guys were never actually together in the first place. They were rivals, competing for box-office dollars and fan obsession.

Part of what “The Expendables” franchise reveals, then, is how much the power of any given individual action star has dimmed. Not only did the cast members shown here not appear together in their heydays, they would have refused the opportunity. (Mr. Stallone and Mr. Schwarzenegger reportedly maintained a fierce rivalry for years.) To do so would have diluted their individual brands. Now they’re all sharing the stage. Teaming up is the only way to remain potent.

Or at least somewhat commercially viable. Indeed, that’s part of the joke. The movie is structured as an extended metaphor for the declining careers of its former A-list crew. There are lots of none-too-subtle references to the 1980s, and wink-wink dialogue about the perils of age and obsolescence.

“At one time, you guys were the best,” Mr. Stallone’s no-nonsense mercenary Barney Ross tells his team of gunslinging misfits. “Maybe you still are, but nothing lasts forever.”

“The Expendables 3” is less an action movie than a guns-blazing nostalgia trip. It’s not great, but it’s mildly entertaining much of the time, and even kind of charming, at least for those who have fond memories of Reagan-era shoot-‘em-ups. (The movie features potshots at the U.N. and working for the government that call back to the essential conservatism of those older action movies as well.)

I’ve certainly seen worse, even from some of the participating performers. (Remember “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot”?) In that sense, it’s a reminder that, with some obvious exceptions, big-star, big-biceps action movies of the 1980s and early ‘90s were often not very good. More typically they were simply competent, dutifully pitting heroic muscle-bound tough guys against loathsome villains and legions of expendable henchmen.

Here, the villain, a weapons dealer with the delightfully menacing name of Stonebanks, is played with scenery chewing gusto by Mr. Gibson, who works himself into a vengeful, crazed, self-righteous sneer in nearly every scene. He’s easily the best part of the movie — and a reminder of what a crackling, ferocious on-screen presence he can be.

Mr. Banderas, Mr. Grammer and Mr. Snipes acquit themselves well in what are essentially comic support roles. Mr. Stallone is stolid, and occasionally seems lost in the crowd, but fulfills his purpose of anchoring the show.

Mr. Schwarzenegger and Mr. Ford, arguably the two biggest names on the roster, turn out to be the weakest links. The final sequence features the two taking out waves of baddies from an attack helicopter, but they look so old and out of it that I couldn’t help but think a well-armored mobility scooter might have been more appropriate. These guys were once the best. But nothing lasts forever.

Two and a half stars

TITLE: “The Expendables 3”

CREDITS: Directed by Patrick Hughes; screenplay by Sylvester Stallone, Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt

RATING: PG-13 for action violence, language

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