Review by Daniel Lima
The Expendables series began with an unrealized promise: to relive the glory days of Hollywood action movies, by bringing together some of the biggest names in action cinema. Through three films, franchise shepherd and star Sylvester Stallone has consistently tried and failed to recapture the polished, high-octane bombast of '80s and '90s blockbusters. Almost a full decade after the last entry, Expend4bles attempts to make good on the original conceit of the franchise, but falls prey to the same flaws that have dogged it since the first.
The film follows the exploits of the eponymous elite mercenary team, in pursuit of a dangerous terrorist leader that threatens the world. That one sentence covers every Expendables film since day one, barring the occasional telegraphed twist, but this distinguishes itself as a passing of the torch. Stallone takes a backseat to series stalwart Jason Statham, as he attempts to cement himself as the new lead going forward.
From the opening scene, it is abundantly clear that the action filmmaking will not be a radical departure from previous entries. That is to say, this is another over-edited, CG-filled, spatially ambiguous mess. The large-scale set pieces and the rare bits of clever choreography are horrendously undercut by editing that ruins the momentum being built, obvious green screen that keeps the characters untethered from the environment they’re in, and long sequences that boil down to anonymous henchmen popping out from around a corner only to immediately get shot. There’s no attempt to tell a story within the action, or to wring drama out of the squad needing to adapt to changing circumstances on the fly, so all the gunfire and explosions quickly become tedious.
Nowhere is this more frustrating than the fights. Much of the combat takes place within close quarters, and with martial arts legends like Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais joining the cast, one would expect at least one decent hand-to-hand bout. Director Scott Waugh, however, seems the most out of his element here, shooting every fight in tight close-ups that obscure the breadth of the movement. Actors rarely share the same frame, and even vets like Uwais and Statham rely heavily on doubling. There’s a lack of continuity in their choreography, making it clear the shots were assembled in post rather than meticulously planned out on set. It’s an improvement on the absolute worst of the franchise, but still a waste of the on-screen talent.
Aside from Uwais and Jaa, this is an ensemble devoid of the star power that the previous entries have boasted. Gone are the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Wesley Snipes, and Mel Gibson, luminaries with numerous classics within the action cinema canon. Instead, we get the likes of Andy Garcia, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Megan Fox, and the guy from Bad Boys for Life. Suffice it to say, none are able to lend the same legitimacy to the franchise that their predecessors did, and all are incredibly uncomfortable in their roles. The kindest thing that could be said is that this cast, excusing Stallone himself, is far and away the least problematic yet.
More impressive than any mercenary team these films have assembled is the murderer’s row of Hollywood hacks behind the scenes, scripting some of the worst dialogue and unlikable characters of the last decade. The biggest name on this three-person writing team is the infamous Kurt Wimmer, proving his critics right with painfully bro-tastic quips and japes, material that felt stale ten years ago. Spending time with these people out of combat is agonizing, not just because of what they say, but because there’s so little to them. No one has any personality or character trait beyond “professional killer," so every scene of dialogue is a bunch of interchangeable figurines going through the motions. The closing moments make these nominal heroes look like heinous, evil psychopaths, and it’s only then that they gain any texture. Unpleasant as that final note is, the movie would have been much stronger if that was evident throughout.
This gets to the grand failure of Expend4bles — and the entire Expendables project as a whole. The big set pieces, the weathered cast of veteran actors, the attempts at macho humor; these films are intended to be a loving ode to action cinema, a hearkening back to a proud tradition including the likes of Commando, Die Hard, Rambo, and The Raid. The problem is, this series has never seemed to understand the core tenets of action filmmaking that gave its inspirations such staying power: building the characters so the audience is emotionally invested when things pop off, planning the choreography, knowing exactly what the audience is going to see, and creating tension and rhythm within the set pieces.
Beyond that core, these are movies that feel like worlds unto themselves, each possessing a clear vision that gives them all a unique identity. Die Hard and The Raid might both take place in high rises, but no one would confuse the sleek Nakatomi Plaza of the former with the run-down tenement building of the latter, or the muscular compositions and gliding camera of McTiernan with the ultraviolence and frenetic chaos of Evans. Yet both films, and all the others the Expendables series gestures towards, provide something indelible, that cannot be gained anywhere else.
None of that can be said of Expend4bles. This feels every bit as bland, anonymous, and shoddily constructed as any modern studio action film, sharing more in common with a modern Netflix release than the hallowed classics that preceded it. Had it even sought to simply mimic the contours of those movies, even lacking their craft, it could have at least coasted on a sense of borrowed nostalgia. Instead, it feels like an AI-generated attempt to artificially extend the lifespan of one of the worst series in action cinema. We can only hope that it fails.
Expend4bles hits theaters September 22.