Sylvester Stallone’s ailing franchise has the potential to be goofy fun, but instead dispenses nothing more than third-rate thrills and surprises.
It’s been nine years since The Expendables 3 seemingly put the nail in the coffin of Sylvester Stallone’s old-action-star franchise. Nonetheless, despite only intermittently participating himself, Stallone assembles another collection of tough guys (and Megan Fox?!) for Expend4bles, whose title’s silly spelling is indicative of the film’s goofiness. What few fans remain will be happy to hear that, unlike its PG-13 predecessor, Scott Waugh’s sequel fully embraces its R rating. Maturity, however, remains in short supply, as this latest series entry is merely more of the same gung-ho corniness, delivered with a chintziness and wink-wink self-consciousness that undercuts its aggro appeal.
It only takes a single minute for Expend4bles (in theaters Sept. 22) to begin indulging in the fake-looking explosions and helter-skelter shootouts that are its stock and trade. The initial setting is Muammar Gaddafi’s former chemical weapons plant in Libya, where malevolent terrorist Suarto Rahmat (The Raid’s Iko Uwais) and his army of faceless mercs are trying to acquire a nuclear-device detonator. Suarto is the type of one-note villain who promises to spare a general’s son in return for a keycode, and then reneges on the deal once he has what he wants and murders the boy in cold blood in front of his father. Uwais’ martial arts skills are by now the stuff of modern genre-cinema legend, and thus it’s indicative of the film’s incompetence that it barely has him exhibit them before a final showdown that’s most notable for its pedestrian conception and staging.
Back in the USA, Expendables boss Barney Ross (Stallone) interrupts the latest in a long line of romantic squabbles between his best buddy Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) and Lee’s girlfriend Gina (Fox)—who’s also a member of the special-ops squad—in order to have him help retrieve a giant silver ring that he lost in a bet the evening prior. This affords Kurt Wimmer, Tad Daggerhart, and Max Adams’ script with an opportunity to re-establish Barney and Lee’s bickering brotherly bond, as well as to demonstrate that they remain a rock ‘em, sock ‘em force to be reckoned with—even if, as Barney dubiously states, he’s in no shape to fight thanks to a bad back. Their rapport is as strained as the expressions on Stallone’s face, with every joke crashing to the ground harder than the duo’s easily dispatched adversaries.
Barney’s Expendables outfit includes Easy Day (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Toll Road (Randy Couture) and Galan (Jacob Scipio), the son of Antonio Banderas’ Galgo, and they’re ordered by their new CIA boss Marsh (Andy Garcia) to travel to Libya to stop Suarto from completing his task. Time and space don’t operate in realistic fashion in Expend4bles, so the team is there in what seems like a matter of minutes. More problematic, they suffer a tragic loss and fail in their mission. In response, Marsh holds Lee responsible for this fiasco, boots him out of the Expendables, and sends his compatriots on a mission of revenge that doubles as a last-ditch attempt to stop Suarto from using his nuke to start World War III. Suarto is working for a mysterious Bigger Bad who years earlier killed most of Barney’s men, and the Expendables are also intent on learning his identity.
Expend4bles’ plot is so simplistic that calling it paint-by-numbers gives it too much credit, and its characterizations are equally crude—when, that is, the film even bothers with them. Gunner is a sniper who has bad eyesight, wears a wig, and is a recovering alcoholic, and his major moment involves becoming rejuvenated by falling off the wagon. Galan is silent and psychotically violent. Toll Road has a cauliflower ear from his college wrestling days. Gina is sexy and strong and the material has her spout tactical jargon to confirm her badass bona fides. Easy Day mumbles and argues. And new recruit Lash (Levy Tran) has tattoos and a sexual interest in Toll Road. Together, they may be the least interesting killer-elite crew in movie history, comprised of members who are far less charismatic than those featured in previous Expendables outings, which at least benefited from the cashing-a-paycheck participation of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Harrison Ford.
Statham tussles sexily with Fox and, once his character is exiled from his mates, he enlists the services of Tony Jaa’s Decha to help save the day. As with Uwais, Thai martial-arts icon Jaa is wasted in a role that barely takes advantage of his combat gifts, with most of the film’s second half consumed with Lee slicing, stabbing and shooting (including on a motorbike) dozens upon dozens of incompetent enemies aboard a cargo ship. It’s a dull setting that Waugh utilizes for mundanely explicit carnage, although the gruesomeness of his myriad kills is less objectionable than the cruddy CGI he employs throughout. The director’s shallow-focus close-ups of his protagonists resemble the blurred-background feature offered by Zoom, his countless fireballs look like they were created with Windows 95, and his green-screen effects are direct-to-video-grade phony.
Aesthetically speaking, Expend4bles is dreadful, and it doesn’t help that more than a few of its stars aren’t up to the meager challenge of their roles. Lundgren can snarl with the best of them but he appears barely capable of moving, and Fox—asked to wear a collection of revealing eye-candy outfits when not on the battlefield—is painfully unconvincing as a capable soldier of fortune. Waugh isn’t after realism, deliberately casting his adventure as a macho cartoon. Still, that’s no excuse for the film’s slapdash plotting, subpar digital flourishes, and consistent incoherence, nor for its dearth of passable one-liners, which are all the more embarrassing for being delivered in underlined fashion.
Expend4bles ultimately leans on Statham’s brawny battle prowess, and the British actor dispatches his abundant opponents with a ferociousness that almost energizes the film. He’s the sole redeeming facet of Waugh’s B-movie, which otherwise dispenses nothing more than third-rate thrills and surprises, culminating with a climactic bombshell that every audience member will see coming from a mile away—and which suggests, alas, that Stallone believes there’s still life left in this franchise, no matter the moribund evidence to the contrary.
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