'Expend4bles': An Awful Action Sequel
In a time where action franchises are few and far between (or relegated to direct-to-video releases), there is something strangely endearing about a new Expendables being released in theaters. The last film in the series came out nine years ago, and I, like most people, had assumed that the franchise had ended. I figured that anything new in the franchise would be a spin-off or a reboot, but Expend4bles is a true sequel, picking up several years after the events of the third film and starring Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham, who have appeared in every film in the franchise so far. The Expendables movies aren't exactly high quality blockbusters, but they do scratch the itch of being big, dumb action movies with tons of explosions, blood, and action heroes both old and new. But its simple formula and star studded casts only go so far, and with this latest outing, it looks like the franchise is running on fumes. It is poorly made, dull, and even the action sequences feel sub-par. It's not like I was expecting all that much from the film, but it doesn't even clear the low bar I had for it. It's a huge mess all around, and possibly the worst entry in the franchise.
The Expendables are a group of mercenaries who handle the world's most dangerous missions. At the beginning of this film, they are sent on a mission to Libya to stop Rahmat (Iko Uwais) from retrieving nuclear warheads for the mysterious Ocelot, a previous enemy of the team. This mission is especially personal for the leader of the Expendables, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), as he tried and failed to capture Ocelot 25 years prior. But during this mission, things go wrong, forcing the team to regroup and bring some new blood to the fold in order to take down Rahmat and capture Ocelot once and for all.
The Expendables movies have never been particularly well-written, but are usually able to make up for this with some good action sequences and the charisma of its stars. But this film lacks both of these, which tanks it pretty heavily. The action is the most glaring of these, as much of it is blocked and executed in a way that makes it difficult to see what is going on. Even when it does come across clearly, however, the film's reliance on CGI makes it look ugly. The franchise's simple formula of getting a bunch of action stars and letting them do their thing just doesn't work like it has in previous films, mainly because the plot is so paper-thin and the actors just don't mesh together all that well this time around.
The first three Expendables movies retained most of the same actors, but this one only has four returning cast members. Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, and Randy Couture are the only actors to appear in all four films in the franchise, and while they bring their distinct schtick to the table, it clashes with the energy that the new cast members bring to the table. The franchise was created as a throwback to action films of the 80s and 90s, but this film lacks that juice that gives these films their distinct identity. Instead, this film comes across as a pale imitation, and feels stuck trying to bridge the gap between its roots and the current landscape of cinema. As a result, it ends up in this weird middle ground between the two, and just feels kind of bland.
Stallone and Statham are clearly having a blast making these films, and they are perfectly fine here, but its not enough to save the film. They feel comfortable with these characters, but these roles aren't too much of a stretch for them either. Couture and Lundgren are a bit underused, but they aren't half-bad either (although Lundgren's arc in this film is questionable at best). Out of all the newcomers, only Tony Jaa and Levy Tran really stood out to me. Jaa is maybe the best performance in the film, and has a very interesting presence all throughout it. It also helps that he gets the best action sequences in the film, which showcases his martial arts background nicely. Tran, on the other hand, has such a striking look to her, and has such a strong personality that cuts through some of the flatness of the rest of the cast. I would love to see more from both of them, and I wish that they were in a much better film than this one.
The remainder of the cast is quite bad, to be frank. I was personally hoping that Megan Fox would do a decent job, but I was pretty disappointed in her work here. It doesn't help that the character is so one-dimensional, but I was hoping for more from her. Instead, it feels rather phoned in and wooden. Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson's involvement was one I was curious to see, and he isn't terrible here, but he feels so flat throughout much of the film, and doesn't add much to it. Andy Garcia is shockingly bad here, as he is generally pretty good in most things, but this is pretty weak stuff from him. He feels robotic in some scenes, and when he does get moments to let loose a little, he either comes across as awkward or uncaring. It's not like the role he's playing is particularly challenging, but he whiffs it pretty badly.
For a film that had a $100 million budget, it looks quite cheap, and features some of the worst CGI I have ever seen in any major theatrical release. Furthermore, the lighting and green screen is also pretty bad, making some of the shots look incredibly artificial. An early scene with Stallone, Statham, and Fox showcases this perfectly, as it has this sitcom-esque lighting and fake background that makes it abundantly clear they filmed on a soundstage. If the whole film leaned into this look, I might have been willing to give it a little more grace on this front, but there are moments where the film looks perfectly okay, which makes the film's poor VFX even more blatant. A scene late in the film between Jason Statham and Andy Garcia is particularly bad, as it uses shot/reverse shot between the two, and has different looks for both of them. Statham's shots have a more standard look to them, while Garcia's have the saturated, fake look that plagues some of the worst moments of the film. It is confounding to me how this film got released in theaters looking like it does, as it looks so amateurish. Again, if it fully committed to this specific look, or if it was released direct-to-streaming, I might not be harping on it so much, but as it stands, this is one of the worst-looking films I've seen in recent years.
I know that the Expendables movies aren't meant to be high art and are more concerned with being big and over-the-top than they are with being well-made films, but Expend4bles can't even manage to be the big, dumb action movie it wants to be. It ends up being a shoddy, dull affair that make it both the nadir of the franchise and one of the worst action films of the past several years. Given that no property stays dead in this day and age, I wouldn't be all that surprised if another Expendables movie gets made in the next few years, especially if it is a spin-off or a reboot. If this does happen, I hope that it comes closer to the franchise's roots than this film does, but after this film, I think it would be best if the series is laid to rest once and for all. I just don't think there's anything these films do has that other action movies don't do ten times better. The franchise as a whole is a mixed bag to say the least, but this film is the one that lives up to its title the most, and truly feels expendable.