There are some trade-offs you can never anticipate. 

Harrison Ford was approached to appear in 2014's high-octane actioner, The Expendables 3, when Bruce Willis' asking price proved galling. Lose Willis, gain Ford. Tears of frustration turned to tears of joy, as series progenitor, Sylvester Stallone's Twitter postings demonstrated. The circumstances were reminiscent of that famous, if not infamous, turn of events where Alec Baldwin, flexing his star muscle with Paramount Pictures, promptly lost the Jack Ryan character when an actor by the name of, oh, Harrison Ford expressed an interest. But The Expendables 3 is an odd addition to Ford's body of work. It doesn't quite fit. And in the lack of fit, it seems a relief that Ford's appearance amounts to a glorified cameo, lest the film be quoted on his resume too regularly.

Like its predecessors, The Expendables 3 is a jam-packed showcase of famous Hollywood action stars of yesteryear; these big "who's who?" casts are the series principal novelty. Perhaps tellingly, Ford noted that he had never seen Expendables 1 and 2 before signing onto Part 3. Perhaps it felt a good move to join the financially successful Taken/Red/Expendables bandwagon of ageing superstars in "hard" actioners. And it came with a pre-sold audience and only required a small number of days’ work in Bulgaria. Why not?

The first front-on view of Ford, at the film's 28-minute mark, is discombobulating: in an immaculate suit and with a slightly apprehensive air, one is instantly transported to director Phillip Noyce's Jack Ryan universe, where Ford essayed the CIA analyst / reluctant "man of action" on two occasions. And in Noyce's universe violence carries consequence (look no further than the brilliantly simple and haunting satellite sequence in 1992's Patriot Games) and victory is achieved without an air of "gung-ho" triumphalism (see Ford's expression after defeating his principal foe in said film). 

The Expendables has a different attitude to violence, though, and the third film has already well demonstrated this by the time Ford appears. While the violence is similarly rough, it's depicted with an unrelenting "kill 'em all" stridency and a "no remorse" code of masculine conduct. The killing is ample (to say the bloody least) and bullishly creative, a fair reflection of Stallone, Schwarzennegger, Lundgren, et al.'s back catalogue. But it's barely reflects Ford's accumulated work.

Until Ford joins the fray in the big finale, he sits outside the film's baser instincts, almost a beacon to other films you might prefer to be seeing. In total, Ford's filmography presents a very different attitude to violence (it's not just the Ryan films): where the films got rough, they got moral, and where the body count was high, the action was bloodless and cartoonish, with a strict minimum of yahoo-ing to accompany the killing.

Still, it's interesting to see Ford navigate and exist within the Expendables universe, particularly in his aforementioned first scene, a stand-off with Stallone. Observing Harrison play with the stockstandard blustery action dialogue is unusually compelling. And again, the evocation of Ryan is there: a disarmingly smiley and amenable delivery soon dissolves towards a simmering rage, as if, in this confrontation, he is dealing with no less than The President of the United States himself, a la Clear and Present Danger (1994). The dialogue and delivery could also play as a light parody of his powerful and affecting "I understand why he's doing what he's doing" piece from The Devil's Own (1997).

Ford's appearances in The Expendables 3, though, cannot overcome the basic formula of excess. And, I suppose, nor should they. Stallone has been extremely successful with films that trade on a certain excess; for instance, Rocky IV (1985) may not be a great sequel to the "delicacies" of the original, but as a comic book film, it is supremely effective and carries an emotional resonance. The Expendables films, though, feel a little too complacent in their formula, and seem to offer little beyond the brotherly ribbing and macho bloodletting - although their central villains have been terrific: Mickey Rourke for part 1, Jean-Claude Van Damme for Part 2, and Mel Gibson for Ford's instalment. (Oh, that Ford and Gibson could have shared some screen time.)

So, where does Ford's filmography intersect with these "Soldier of Fortune" preoccupations? Ultimately it's all about Han Solo, with Ford, in sky machine, performing some unexpected aerobatics in the film's final reel; Ryan, alas, by this stage has all but disappeared. (Solo's famous "Let's blow this thing and go home" line must have been a temptation, but placed alongside Schwarzenegger's "Get to da chopper!" would perhaps be a bit much.) And when Mel Gibson's villain reflects on his days as an Expendable, he remarks, "We killed a lot. But we saved more lives than you can possibly imagine," which might be a natural justification of any character associated with The Rebellion of the Star Wars films.

At the end of the day, it was great to see the cast assembled at the Cannes Film Festival (there's your chance to see Ford and Gibson cross paths). It also seems appropriate that Ford should appear in the installment that is almost entirely bloodless: with all the star power on show, Stallone decided not to add the post production viscera in the hope of capturing a broader audience. Box office-wise, the plan seemed to backfire, suggesting that if you're going to decimate hundreds you might as well throw discreetness to the wind. (Of course, the box-office woes might also have something to do with an online leak that occurred prior to the film's release). In any case, we have been promised the technicolour gore will return with Part 4. Ford, I imagine, will steer well clear of the film: photographic evidence reveals he attended the Hollywood premiere of The Expendables 3 and, unless he nicked out an exit prior to the screening, he has now seen an Expendables film.

Published 26 October 2016

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