Action movies of late depend on a hackneyed, transparent method of production that is slowly losing momentum. The first step is to simply cast a roguish lead, muscles rippling all over their body. The second step is even simpler: reduce their sentences from seven words to four or fewer. And there’s the third step, which is to get the lead actors to smolder in front of the camera, for an intolerably long close-up with explosions, gunshots, and flying debris behind them. Expend4bles (an unpronounceable title), follows these methods to the letter, producing an action-oriented debacle that seems intent to revive an action franchise that should have ended in 2014.
The good news is that Scott Waugh‘s Expend4bles tries harder than the “bigger, bolder and brasher” techniques of the genuinely wretched third entry (Simon West’s cleverly titled The Expendables 3). Here Sylvester Stallone – a septuagenarian athlete and sort of actor resting on past glories – wisely steps aside to let the younger, more virile Jason Statham lead the brigade. Statham is the better actor, although that’s scarcely a ringing endorsement considering that his most recent enterprise involved wrestling a poorly-pieced-together CGI shark in Jon Turteltaub’s 2018 horror film, The Meg.
Twenty minutes into Expend4bles, Stallone’s Barney Ross is killed, leading the remaining members of the force – a scantily dressed Gina (Megan Fox) Expend4bles to band together to defeat a foe hell-bent on starting World War III. The plot is as ludicrous as any James Bond movie, but tellingly, Expend4bles lacks the camp sense of humour of Sean Connery’s Bond and the actorly excellence spearheaded by Royal Academy of Dramatic Art stalwart Timothy Dalton.
Sylvester Stallone’s original 2010 installment of this franchise, The Expendables, didn’t offer a particularly durable plot thread but it was fun to watch. There, the hodge-podge titular team was sent into forbidden territories to rescue a hapless maiden – only for the roguishly handsome miscreants to take the law into their own hands and throw a couple of missiles all over the place. That film succeeded because it assembled a selection of actor hunks whose characters were doing it for the thrills and the throwbacks as if bandying together for one giant hurrah before returning to their day jobs. (When the first Expendables was released, Jason Statham had recently appeared in Roger Donaldson’s strangely romantic 2008 crime thriller The Bank Job, and Arnold Schwarzenegger was still enjoying his tenure as Governor of California.
By the second entry – Simon West’s The Expendables 2 from 2012, the franchise’s formula had literally become formulaic. Still, the filmmakers were foolhardy/greedy enough to produce a genuinely awful third film – Patrick Hughes’ The Expendables 3 (2014) that toned down the sex and violence that had drawn audiences in the first place. After a nine-year hiatus, this fourth chapter draws from the machismo of the first two films, but the focus and narrative themes are drawn out with nary a new idea to draw younger viewers to the series.
Expend4bles is a hectic film, however, the necessary state of tension is not always sustained but pushed down the viewer’s throat. Director Waugh is certainly no Scorsese and here has done little to exhibit the authenticity of action cinema as anything more fizzle, pop, and muscle. In other words, Expend4bles is a theme park ride through and through. Quelle surprise.
Schwarzenegger declined the opportunity to play Trent Mauser, and considering his devastating illness, dementia, it’s no surprise that Expendables star past Bruce Willis didn’t turn up either, so the bulk of the action is placed on the younger generation. Of the new ensemble, Tony Jaa as Decha seems to be having the most fun, gleefully pummelling his enemies with stealthy kicks and punches. Statham’s character, the oddly-named “Christmas”, offers the occasional smile, but he could be giddier, especially considering the nonsense that’s on display.
It doesn’t help that Waugh’s work is devoid of flair, recycling camera angles that have been overused in action films. One glaring close-up of Gina won’t do anything to dispel arguments that women come across well in the genre, which is more the pity since she’s effectively the co-lead of the film. Finally, it’s hard to view 50 Cent’s performance as Easy Day as anything more than a last-ditch attempt to revive his flagging career.
The death of the character might close the door on the franchise, but Hollywood has a habit of rebooting films long after audiences have moved on. The good news is that should the franchise continue, Statham will be the centre of attention. He’s certainly more charming, if less rugged, than Stallone. Not only has Statham returned to produce Expend4bles, but he was reportedly involved with the creative process along the way.
With any luck future such action films will utilise some of the snappier lines Statham utilised in British gangster flicks directed by Guy Ritchie Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000). The series, mercifully, has some potential, but it’s hard to see any of it in this risible, frequently exasperating, piece of sadism.