The Expendables movies were always a list of names before they were anything else. Stallone. Statham. Li. Snipes. Schwarzenegger. Willis. The pileup of those names is why anyone goes to see these movies. 2010’s The Expendables, and all its sequels, were aggressively marketed as assemblages of once-great titans of action cinema, a movie where fans of the VHS era could finally see their heroes sharing a screen together. It didn’t particularly matter what kind of movie they appeared in together, as long as it promised some action.
But it certainly helped that The Expendables was specifically an unabashed throwback to ’80s action movies, with director Sylvester Stallone delivering a testosterone-fueled joyride full of guns and elder muscles. In 2010, it felt like it was going to be one last ride from a bunch of guys who knew how to sneer and fire a machine gun, and who mostly saw women as a distraction from their hobby of wearing berets.
The fourth movie in the franchise, this week’s Expend4bles, doesn’t traffic in this nostalgia. Three movies and 13 years later, there isn’t much more wish fulfillment for Expendables movies to offer. Its biggest casting coups, like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Wesley Snipes, aren’t in attendance this time out, and their poor implementation in prior installments means they wouldn’t have been a draw anyway. The Expendables movies had one trick, and that trick has been played out. Director Scott Waugh has to resort to something else with Expend4bles: finally trying to turn one of these projects into a good action movie.
If satisfying action was Waugh’s only real goal, then kudos to him for clearing that bar handily. Expend4bles is easily the best pure action movie in the franchise, thanks to the efforts of stunt coordinator Alan Ng and the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, who worked with Waugh on his previous film, Hidden Strike. There’s a clear vision for Expend4bles’ approach to cinematic violence, which brings a bit of Hong Kong flair to a franchise that was mostly known for big haymakers and bigger guns.
With the new approach to action comes new stars to bring it to life. Series mainstays Jason Statham, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, and Randy Couture are joined by Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais (the Raid films), martial arts dynamos who can always please a crowd when fists start flying. Unfortunately, every other aspect of Expend4bles drags these bright spots down.
Clocking in at an oddly paced 100 minutes, Expend4bles ends just when it feels like it’s getting started, as the eponymous team of mercenaries led by Barney Ross (Stallone) and Lee Christmas (Statham) are hired to get a nuke back from a deadly terrorist (Uwais). With too large a cast to properly showcase in such a brief time, the film feels incomplete even as it runs through the franchise checklist, offering one memorable set-piece (a bike chase through a cargo ship) and heaps of one-liners (a baffling number of them about pee).
New additions like Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson as Easy Day feel inessential, adding little and calling attention to the cramped cast. Other newcomers, like Levy Tran as Lash, at least get a signature weapon and fighting style (a deadly chain whip), but no character beat to accompany it. That her fight scenes are good, unlike Easy Day’s, only makes the missed potential all the more noticeable. And then there are characters like Galan (Jacob Scipio), who does get a character beat (he talks too much), but no real action scenes to make his own.
Expend4bles stretches the franchise to its limits, and those limits frankly don’t reach very far. There’s a level of self-awareness to Expendables films that can make their paper-thin plotting and characterization excusable — in the end, they’re just a reason to see certain action legends interact with each other. But in a decade-plus of homage, the series hasn’t developed any stylistic flourishes of its own. Mission: Impossible movies have their signature stunts, Fast and Furious movies have their improbable applications of cars, but the Expendables lacks a comparable calling card. There’s nothing for fans to look forward to beyond Jason Statham’s resilient charm and Sylvester Stallone’s braggadocio. And frankly, there are plenty of other places for people who want those things to get them.
Expend4bles opens in theaters on Sept. 22.