Who doesn’t want to see Jason Statham face off against a social-media influencer? Lee Christmas’ takedown of a noxious YouTuber is perhaps the highlight of this fourth go-around for Sylvester Stallone’s one-dimensional-men-and-token-women-on-a-mission movies. Directed by Scott Waugh (Need For Speed), Expend4bles pleasingly restores the tougher violence of the series following the watered-down 12A exploits of Expendables 3 — but even the reinstated throat-slits and unexpected decapitations can’t breathe new life into a franchise surely due for the body bag.
Co-written by Kurt Wimmer, Max Adams and Tad Daggerhart (the latter a more creative throwback-action-hero name than anything on display here), the plot is a dagger-thin affair, as the Expendables take on terrorist Rahmat (Iko Uwais, happily having more to do here than he did with The Force Awakens’ Kanjiklub) in a battle for that action-movie MacGuffin stalwart: nuclear detonators. After a lengthy, largely uninspired set-piece in Colonel Gaddafi’s chemical plant, the story complicates as Rahmat is revealed to be working for a mysterious figure known as Ocelot (it’s never explained why he is named after a medium-sized spotted wild cat) who left Ross high and dry on a sortie years ago. This is all tied into some guff about orchestrating a war between the US and the Russians, but it doesn’t really matter because what is important here is Statham’s souped-up knuckle-duster.
As a movie crew, the Expendables are a mostly charmless bunch — Randy Couture’s Toll Road has a personality built around a cauliflower ear — and the chemistry between the vaunted trinity of Stallone, Statham and Lundgren is — four films in — still difficult to discern. New to the gang are ex-Special Forces soldier Easy Day (Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson); Christmas’ fiery ex Gina (Megan Fox); CIA suit Marsh (Andy Garcia, upstaged by his perma-toothpick); Galan (Jacob Scipio), the son of Antonio Banderas’ Galpo; weapon of mass destruction Lash (Levy Tran, wasted); and Decha (Tony Jaa), an old pal of Ross’ who emerges as the most colourful of the group.
If you really want to see a crack unit of no-nonsense professionals blow shit up, stick with Oppenheimer.
Even within genre expectations, the lack of nuance and subtlety here makes Michael Bay look like Yasujirõ Ozu. The exchanges between Ross and Christmas or Christmas and Gina have the rhythm of funny banter but none of the wit or spark. Every little action lick is accompanied by a one-liner (“Time to improvise!”), none of which hit the spot. The CGI is so cheap it might have been created on a ZX Spectrum and, as he proved with Hidden Strike, there is no action movie trope director Waugh won’t indulge in; motorcycle porn (check), halo jumps (check), slow-motion group walking shots (twice). There are surprises you’ll see coming a mile off and the whole thing is marred by a lack of pace, invention and brio.
It gets a tad (Daggerhart) better when the action moves to a tanker at sea and there’s a hint it has a firmer sense of its own stupidity. There is a shoot-out around the most cartoonish nuclear explosive imaginable (“Don’t shoot by the bomb”) that segues into a fun-ish motorbike chase around the ship, that leans into the sense of the ridiculous that marks out the Fast & Furious series. When a self-reflexive 50 Cent needle drop blares out, you feel a bit more of that carefree, nutty energy wouldn’t go amiss.
At one point, in one of the most convoluted zingers of the year, Statham’s Christmas is likened to genital warts. The gist is that, like the STD, he is not welcome and refuses to go away. The observation could well be applied to The Expendables franchise. If you really want to see a crack unit of no-nonsense professionals blow shit up, stick with Oppenheimer.