VERDICT: If Expend4bles were any more by the numbers, it would have a numeral in its title. Oh, wait.
The fourth film in the Expendables franchise is a dispiriting affair, enacted by performers who collectively appear to be making a valiant effort to create a silk purse out of a sow’s-ear screenplay. The idea behind the series has always had potential — round up some beloved action stars of yesteryear and give them one more chance to ply their trade — but the expected fun has never materialized, with this latest entry lacking any sense of urgency, wit, or grace.
The set pieces are bafflingly edited. The visual effects exist at an embarrassing level of incompetence, just a notch below “1997 PC video game.” The jokey banter is never funny, and the supposed camaraderie of these soldiers of fortune never emerges in either the screenplay or the performances, both of which are handled by director Scott Waugh (Need for Speed, Act of Valor) with seemingly the bare minimum of attention.
Even the talents of Iko Uwais and Tony Jaa are wasted here; in the Asian productions that made them stars, they had full reign to display their extraordinary physical gifts in hand-to-hand combat. Hollywood movies, including this one, tend to jerk the camera around and chop up the editing so much that the audience never gets to see them do what they do best. (In the case of Expend4bles, this camouflage serves to hide the fact that either of them could take on Jason Statham and the rest of the cast with one hand tied behind their backs.)
The plot, which somehow required the efforts of four writers, involves Rahmat (Uwais) stealing nuclear detonators from Qaddafi’s old chemical weapons plant on behalf of a shadowy figure known as Ocelot; decades earlier, Barney (Sylvester Stallone) came close to revealing Ocelot’s identity, so he’s enthusiastic when CIA agent Marsh (Andy Garcia) sends the Expendables to Libya to stop Rahmat. They come close to accomplishing their goal, but when Christmas (Statham) has to choose between stopping Rahmat and saving Barney’s life, he chooses the latter.
This leads to a follow-up mission to stop a tanker heading toward Russian waters, bearing a nuclear device and the aforementioned warheads, with Christmas’ girlfriend Gina (Megan Fox) taking over as leader of the Expendables, while Christmas is fired by disobeying orders. Naturally, he plants a tracking device on Gina so he can tag along on the mission anyway.
The fight scenes lack adrenaline and, worst of all, Expend4bles forgets one of the principal rules of action thriller staging: when Christmas and the other Expendables are sneaking around the ship during the climactic sequence, the movie loses track of who is where in relation to everyone else, and without that information, audience engagement becomes that much more difficult.
Various team members — including Gunner (Dolph Lundgren), Toll Road (Randy Couture), Easy Day (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), and Galan (Jacob Scipio) — are supposed to have a chummy rapport, playfully busting each other’s chops, but none of their good-natured insults are remotely amusing or specific to what’s supposed to be their personalities.
(There’s also the matter of Gunner, who spends most of the movie talking about his sobriety, taking a drink during the final fight scene; the film jokingly plays this moment like it’s Popeye getting to eat his spinach, and while Gunner is shown drinking milk at the end of the movie, his backslide into alcohol is essentially shrugged off.)
For all its efforts at wit, Expend4bles offers exactly two kinds of laughs: unintentional (seriously, the explosion effects and green-screen moments in the Libyan compound sequence are hilarious) and unearned (the joke that lands best is a direct quote from another movie).
The Expendables franchise presumably exists to demonstrate that action heroes of a certain age are not necessarily, to quote Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, “too old for this s—t,” but these movies aren’t doing these elder icons any favors. If Stallone and Lundgren and company can pour this much effort into a script this terrible, just imagine what they might do with some decent material.