There’s a moment in The Expendables 2 (2012) when Bruce Willis’ character utters the words “male pattern badness”. It’s not a good joke – it’s a cheap attempt at a pun that doesn’t really make much sense, but it’s a line that’s stuck with me over the course of the Expendables series and one that I think sums up the execution and general appeal of these movies. A series dedicated to half-formed one-liners and testosterone-fueled parades of machismo and malice. Men-on-a-mission movies that feel more like really cheap screenwriting exercises than tentpole blockbusters. Even at the series’ high point (the Chad Stahelski helmed action sequences in The Expendables 2) there is still this omnipresent sense of vulgarity and meaningless brutality. These movies have never been great, but with this fourth film I found myself longing for the halcyon days of the previous entries.
In the latest installment of this seemingly beloved franchise, narrative exposition is haphazardly spewed onscreen with reckless abandon. Characters stand around reciting story beats in ways that lack any sort of nuance or subtlety, just fast-forwarding through the story at hand to get to the next ugly action eyesore. This approach results in a series of meaningless backtracking and last-minute reveals that ultimately make this a dour and utterly expendable (sorry) sequel.
As with every installment in this franchise, Expend4bles serves up a fresh set of faces to rub shoulders with the frontmen (Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham), and we’re met with a very mixed bag. 50 Cent, the rapper and occasional screen actor, seemingly only exists in this film to make a diegetic needle-drop of his 2003 song “P.I.M.P” make sense, so filmgoers around the world can nudge the person sitting next to them and laugh. His character gets the dregs from the bottom of the barrel of the macho one-liners. Megan Fox is added as Statham’s love interest and a new female member of the ragtag group of mercenaries, but is written in such a derogatory way that you’re reminded that the target audience for these movies primarily consists of bitter, divorced dads. Most interestingly, we have two Southeast Asian martial artists added to the lineup, Iko Uwais as the villain ‘Rahmat’, and Tony Jaa as ‘Decha’, an old friend of Stallone’s grizzled Barney. Uwais (The Raid (2011), The Night Comes For Us (2018), and Headshot (2016)) is usually a very powerful physical presence, here he plays an unfortunately flavourless villain. Say what you want about Mel Gibson (no really, say what you want) but his villain role in Expendables 3 at least felt villainous and threatening towards the band of protagonists. Here, Iko just embodies an empty character in a movie littered with empty characters. Tony Jaa (Ong-Bak (2003), SPL 2 (2015), Furious 7 (2015)) is a welcome addition, he brings a sense of dynamism to a handful of action sequences in the back half of the film, but practically every fight is executed with clumsy, claustrophobic camerawork, resulting in an overwhelming visual assault with no sense of space or geography. The digital hyperviolence littered throughout the film never has any heft or weight behind it, just blasts of murky green screen composites that look like resources in the Final Cut Pro X training week you’d attend at the local community college.
The Expendables movies have never really been great at characterisation, most of the team are just accentuated real-world personas, down to inserting Chuck Norris into a few scenes of E2 based on the popularity of the Chuck Norris jokes of the late 2000s and early 2010s. With Expend4bles, Dolph Lungdren’s character ‘Gunner’, the group’s sniper, has now let his hair grow out, needs reading glasses, and has turned to a life of sobriety. It’s a specific choice by the screenwriters to actually let one of their characters feel old, it’s a musing on the life of an ageing movie star and the countless movies they continue to make. All of this is sharply undone by a scene later in the film where Dolph is struggling to hit any targets, pulls out a hip flask, takes a huge swig, and then like Popeye and his spinach, miraculously finds the strength to fire off a few rounds and make more horrible digital squibs appear onscreen. It’s a frankly rather disgusting moment, but at this point in the movie, I was no longer shocked, just further disappointed.
This really is worlds away from director Scott Waugh’s previous 2023 action output – Hidden Strike – a movie originally intended to star Stallone and Jackie Chan, with Stallone later being replaced by John Cena. Hidden Strike succeeds where Expend4bles fails – it has sophisticated and kinetic action sequences propped up by direct and practical filmmaking, and the screenplay knows how to find authentic chemistry between its action star leads.
This fourth film in a series of bad films isn’t even disposable fun, but merely a depressing slurry of bad ideas and bad execution.
The boys are, regrettably, back in town.