The Expendables 3

Even by the standards of this particular series, The Expendables 3 is barely a movie. Sylvester Stallone has been the chief creative force for this trilogy, action dream teams that combine the forces of some of the starrier bottom-kickers in cinematic history. And each time he's opted for a chummy get-together that celebrates yesterday instead of getting down to the basics of telling a story or presenting compelling, three-dimensional characters. More importantly, for being called “expendable”, this is a rather bulletproof group of older men – you've never seen so many people run straight into gunfire and pick up no more than a minor bruise. The result carries the suspense of watching someone sign a check.

There's never a plot for these movies, as they're all based around who could be used to fill out the cast. That's why an entire first scene is spent breaking Doc (Wesley Snipes, sorely missed) out of prison, but a couple of scenes later he's already one of the Expendables being fired. That's the genius hook for this sequel: Stallone's Barney Ross is so sentimental about his team that he refuses to lead them into what seems to be a suicide mission against former Expendable Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson). So, in a franchise that's all about uniting the past action stars of yesteryear and giving them a chance to shine, fans are being asked to pay for a movie where they all get replaced by Kellan Lutz.

Even if it's not the action lineup fans expected, the core group of Expendables deserves better than three movies of being marginalized. The interplay between Ross and Jason Statham's Lee Christmas is creaky, but fueled by a genuine chemistry. Dolph Lundgren's Gunnar Hansen is still the bizarre, murderous savant, Randy Couture's Toll Road is still an irritable old man brawler, and Terry Crews, sweet sweet Terry Crews, remains the life of the party. If you're hoping to hear more from them, fat chance: they all have even less to do this time around, and poor Crews only shows up for the first and third acts.

At least Crews has the excuse of probably popping up in five more movies this month. That wasn't the case for Bruce Willis, who famously backed out due to a flimsy paycheck. Stepping into the role of demanding CIA boss is Harrison Ford's Max Drummer. His whole deal is basically to serve the same purpose that Willis' Church would have, as if they wrote around Willis' absence by crossing out CHURCH and replacing it with DRUMMER. There's a third act action scene where the crew receives back-up from Drummer's helicopter, with Arnold Schwarzenegger's Trench and (supremely unhappy to be here) Jet Li's Yin, but they might as well have stayed in their hotel room, superimposed on the bodies of stunt doubles who stay seated, firing guns.

But most people interested in The Expendables 3 know that we're dealing with a glorified roll call of actors tossing around funny quips and firing weapons at everyone and no one in particular. It's the level of which the second film worked: the first carried the burden of an uninspiring baddie, and a certain, possibly budget-dictated smallness. Part two, however, successfully delegated enough standout sequences for specific actors, allowing Jean-Claude Van Damme a chance to chew scenery, and amusingly adding to the Chuck Norris myth.

So you could make this work: does director Patrick Hughes pull it off? To answer in the affirmative would be overly generous: The Expendables 3 feels neutered by the PG-13 rating, turning its action moments into bloodless, weightless scrums where anything worse than a single random bloodless bullet earns a cutaway. There are several characters to follow, and none of the non-fight blocking makes any sense. One early slugfest involving MMA fighter Ronda Rousey seems to go the extra mile in making it look like she cannot actually fight. Most of the film genuinely feels visually out-of-focus, blurry and grainy for no artistic reason. The explosions are computer generated, and they look awful: you'll be hard-pressed to find worse effects in a movie this year.

It's hard to find nice things to say about the film's endless parade of introductions. When Ross and friend Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer) meet with potential new recruits, the various “auditions” are an endless parade of flailing limbs as Stallone watches, nonplussed. Stallone's face has hardened to the point where physical expression is so limited you'll never have any clue what emotions he's trying to project. The new recruits he fingers reek of Poochie-style edge: the nondescript hacker played by Glen Powell is jumping off cliffs and parachuting down. Cute, pug-nosed Tito Ortiz knows his heavy artillery. The stunning Rousey, who has an absolutely knockout smile as well as a knockout punch, uses her hips like WMD's. Poor Kellan Lutz bears the brunt of the weight in this empty side-ensemble: by having this soft crew almost immediately kidnapped and held as bait, Stallone and co-writers Creighton Rotherberger and Katrin Benedikt seem to be suggesting that Hollywood tries to groom the next big action star by setting them up to obviously fail over and over again, as Lutz has more than a few times lately. The movie then becomes part of this problem by sidelining the one-note characters these young bucks are playing. During one frenetic scene, an unintentional laugh is had by repeatedly cutting back to Powell's character, stuck in an elevator shaft with no forward momentum.

Schwarzenegger's Sabotage may have been an attempt at a purposely sub-literate action film earlier this year, but The Expendables 3 makes that movie look like Shakespeare In The Park. Drummer keeps making jokes about Christmas' unintelligible British accent, but this is a film loaded with actors who grumble, growl, bark and generally struggle with words. Stallone's delivery has crawled to the point where listening to him talk is like watching an amputee eat soup. Snipes is basically growly and sarcastic, Schwarzenegger sounds like a foghorn, and the entire cast muscles through the dialogue as if English were a fourth language. A highlight is Antonio Banderas, who plays parkour (!) expert Galgo. He basically can't stop talking, yammering in Spanglish and telling long-winded stories that just confuse those around him – an attempt at flirting that leaves Rousey confused doesn't feel like acting. Nothing Banderas says is overly funny or interesting, though he remains a skilled physical comedian. But when he starts to ramble on, you're just grateful to finally hear someone speaking regular human words.