Director – Scott Waugh – 2023 – US – Cert. 15 – 103m
The mercenaries must prevent a nuclear bomb on a ship from blowing up in enemy waters and starting World War Three – out in UK cinemas on Friday, September 22nd
Sylvester Stallone’s star-studded, action franchise returns some nine years after The Expendables 3 (Patrick Hughes, 2014) and 13 years after the original The Expendables (Sylvester Stallone, 2010). In the heyday of the first three movies, they were appearing at the rate of one every couple of years and building a cast of returning regulars.
However, aside from Stallone himself, who is clearly getting old, and Jason Statham, for good reason one of the most popular contemporary movie action stars, and a couple of smaller names further down the cast – Dolph Lundgren (as Gunner Jensen, whose major achievement in this film is sporting an unkempt head of blonde hair) and Randy Couture (as Toll Road, the demolitions man with the cauliflower ear) – the members of the eponymous team of mercenaries are played by actors new to the series.
Gone are Jet Li and Terry Crews from all three previous films, and Arnold Schwarznegger who was in both The Expendables 2 (Simon West, 2012) and the third entry.
In line with the franchise’s central tenet of a team of mercenaries who are very good at their job but pretty useless at just about everything else in life, Lee Christmas (Statham) has a run in with girlfriend Gina (Megan Fox) who early on has a scene where she talks at him interminably for what feels like five minutes but is probably a lot less. She is onscreen quite a lot since the plot (such as it is) has Christmas fired from his job as the Expendables’ leader by US government man Marsh (Andy Garcia) with Gina as his replacement.
Also significant to the plot – and the fact that Stallone is getting on (he’s now in his late seventies) – is a scene in which Barney Ross (Stallone) takes Statham to a bar when Ross lost his skull ring in a bet and the winner won’t let him have it back. Cue a fight scene in which Statham takes on the winner plus several heavies and Stallone does the odd stunt, as if to keep his hand in.
That anticipates a plot in which, after piloting the transport aircraft taking the Expendables on their latest mission which involves tracking down ruthless villain Rahmat (Uko Iwais from The Raid and The Raid 2, Gareth Evans, 2011, 2014), who’s stolen some nuclear detonators and threatens to start World War Three, Stallone disappears from the narrative, although he remains very much present in spirit, having created the franchise in the first place.
In Stallone’s absence, the film largely becomes two plot strands – a largely uninspiring mission led by Gina to stop a ship blowing up with a nuclear bomb in Chinese waters which would start WW3, which gets stopped pretty quickly by Rahmat, and a much more enthralling one in which the rogue Lee Christmas, sidelined from the team, uses his wits and considerable combat skills to single-handedly take on Rahmat and save the day. I say single-handedly, but, in fact, he’s partnered by Barney Ross’ former (but never previously seen) colleague Decha (Tony Jaa from Ong-Bak, Prachya Pinkaew, 2003 and Detective Chinatown 3, Sicheng Chen, 2021).
Decha starts out as an enlightened religious (Buddhist) figure who has left the way of violence behind, agreeing to use his small boat to transport Christmas to the imperilled ship and no more, but at some point he decides that’s not really good enough, so Jaa has a couple of terrific fight scenes alongside Statham.
There’s a quite worrying emphasis on knife action in the film – knife blows to the body, knife blows to the head – which gets quite wearing after a while. Much of it, I’m sure, is accomplished by a combination of CG and/or prosthetics or other physical effects, but it’s disturbing nonetheless. While I’m not in favour of cutting films, I do think Stallone and team should think very seriously about the preponderance of knife violence here and deploy less (or perhaps none) of it in the next instalment. There are also some pretty callous, non-knife-inflicted bloody, violent deaths.
There have been better action films, including a number this year. For me, the major problem with this one is that it’s been made by a director who understands stunts (director Waugh is a former stuntman) but not how to make character work; most of the time, the bravura set pieces lack the emotional engagement you need to really root for the characters. Without that element, much of the film falls flat.
The other big problem is women as action heroes. Now, this can work – look no further than numerous, classic Hong Kong action pictures, a major inspiration for Trinity in The Matrix (the Wachowskis, 1999), or such Ridley Scott films as Alien (1980) or Thelma & Louise (1991). It works in contemporary Hollywood fare like Everything Everywhere All At Once (Daniels, 2022), but I don’t believe it works without a great deal of careful thought and casting. Megan Fox feels closer to male-gratifying eye candy than a female action heroine, while Levy Tran (as the whip-wielding Lash) is sorely underused; in terms of its use of women in action movies, overall, this feels much like that recent Hollywood feminist misfire The 355 (Simon Kinberg, 2022).
Expend4bles is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, September 22nd.
Red Band Trailer: