Sporting an overly cutesy and clever-aspiring title that confounds as much as it explains, Expend4bles marks the fourth film in the long-in-the-tooth action franchise The Expendables. What was initially conceived as a showcase for action stars of a certain age and former glory has since devolved into an easy paycheck for anyone who is available and/or could possibly care; although judging from the evidence put onscreen in this latest entry, the state of “caring” from anyone both in front of and behind the camera is dubious. While the 2010 original was no great shakes, there was a certain thrill in seeing the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, and Mickey Rourke shooting and fighting their way through various bad guys on the big screen again, Stallone’s script and direction engendering a level of nostalgia and fan service that wasn’t entirely insulting. The second entry certainly upped the ante, adding the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Wills, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, all to middling returns, while the third part attempted to introduce a new generation of ass-kickers that would allow its elder statesmen lessened screen time and some well-deserved rest. But get this: it turns out audiences didn’t give a hoot about seeing Kellan Lutz and Ronda Rousey trading quips and bullets, and who could blame them?
Expend4bles arrives nine years after that box office bomb, and sporting a cast so small that it looks as though the producers took the title to heart. Original headliners Stallone, Lundgren, Jason Statham, and Randy Couture are back, and that’s really it. Luckily, a few ringers were roped into new roles, including such action stars as Megan Fox, 50 Cent, and Andy Garcia. (Casting directives seem to have considerably loosened.) The quality suggested by such decisions proves accurate, as at the end of the day, Expend4bles is nothing more than one of your standard-issue Statham actioners that proved moderately popular for a decade beginning around 2005, where two or three flicks with generic titles like Safe or Homefront would clog up theater screens for a couple of weeks each year before turning a profit in the once-lucrative home video market. Indeed, once upon a time, it would have been easy to dub Expend4bles as nothing more than average DTV-action fodder, but that does a great disservice to the likes of talented filmmakers including Jesse V. Johnson and John Swab, bonafide technicians who have skyrocketed the ceiling of that genre and whose output is both more visually and thematically adventurous than anything to be found in this joyless slog through digital filmmaking Hell.
In what has become a bit of a tradition for this particular series, a once-promising action director has been handed the reins, delivering the most soulless work of their career in the process. Simon West begat Patrick Hughes who here begets Scott Waugh, a former stuntman who made a name for himself with the Red State-baiting Act of Valor and later landed in movie jail with bomb Need for Speed, a not entirely terrible film whose various sequences of vehicular mayhem were enhanced by Waugh’s refusal to use CGI, bringing a welcome sense of grittiness to a genre overly reliant on deepfake thrills. God knows what happened to Waugh in the interim, but Expend4bles is nothing but zeros and ones, its various greenscreen backgrounds — for both exteriors and interiors — and cheap-looking CGI belying the supposed $100 million budget spent on this distracting eye sore. There is more impressive special effects work happening in your average SyFy Channel flick than what is on display here, a rather remarkable achievement considering the final product boasts less than five specific locations, and most of them involve the actors cracking wise or yelling at each other, usually at the same time. And what action there is has been filmed and cut together so poorly that is nearly impossible to tell what is going on at any given moment. Waugh has a strange habit of opening his action scenes with tight closeups of actors, before randomly inserting wide shots of the surroundings whenever the mood fancies him. As a result, there is never a true sense of scale or perspective here, neutering any possible visual spectacle or exhilaration in the process.
There’s also the fact that the second half of the film takes place entirely in one location, a giant ship headed straight for Russia (of course), and at no point does Waugh establish any spatial logic or coherence. Where are characters in relation to one another? How does one make it from point A to point B? Geography of single locations is crucial when it plays a pivotal role in how events unfold, which is why a motorcycle race through both the bowels and the upper decks of the ship — a slam dunk action sequence if ever there was one — holds such little weight and makes absolutely no sense visually. Everything is simply ineptly rendered, which is particularly inexcusable when you have already seen what this cast, crew, and franchise is capable of on a technical level. There’s also a plot: Stallone’s gruff leader enlists his deadly team to exact revenge on the mysterious man responsible for the death of eight of his fellow soldiers 25 years prior. And… that’s it. Iko Uwais, the uber-charismatic star of The Raid films, pops up to steal some nuclear weapons, while Tony Jaa gets misty-eyed over Stallone; if you’re wondering, yes, these talented action stars were brought on board to do absolutely fuck all. Fox takes on the role of Every Woman, which according to the film’s machismo leanings means she throws a hissy fit in the opening moments and appears in a see-through tank top at film’s end. She’s also made the temporary leader of the Expendables at one point, presumably as a defense against the blatant sexism of everything else she’s asked to do. (The actress should also seek punitive damages for the substandard airbrushing on display in each of her appearances here, leaving her to look something like an orange snare drum.) But perhaps any other outcome was inevitable for a film lazily titled Expend4bles, even given the low expectations viewers are likely to enter with. “They’ll die when they’re dead,” the film’s tagline reads. It seems likely that for the franchise, that’s going to be a mission accomplished.
DIRECTOR: Scott Waugh; CAST: Jason Statham, Sylvester Stallone, Tony Jaa, Iko Uwais, Megan Fox, 50 Cent; DISTRIBUTOR: Lionsgate; IN THEATERS: September 22; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 43 min.