EXPEND4BLES is the official title, not just the internet nickname, for the fourth EXPENDABLES movie. It’s hard to believe that this series has now been going for 13 years – the first one is as old as COP LAND, ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA AND AMERICA, THE PEACEKEEPER, THE JACKAL, BATMAN & ROBIN and DOUBLE TEAM were when it came out. So most of us have long since given up on our dream of what we thought an all-star team up of iconic action stars could or should be. THE EXPENDABLES was never a return to the glory days of ’80s and ‘90s action, always hamstringing itself with misguided attempts to appeal to some other audience. It was never an amplification of the stars’ powers, as they had to work so hard to fit them all in that most of them didn’t get a chance to shine. And it was never the action genre at its best, as the scripts were never focused enough, they were often too winky, with jokes that were so basic they arguably don’t even count as jokes, and even the one Stallone directed had him trying to fake some bullshit modern style instead of do what he did best.
Surprisingly for a part 4, and one that came out a full 7 years after part 3, EXPEND4BLES is not trying to reinvent the wheel or correct any of those missteps. It’s just like yeah, we’re stilling doing these, why wouldn’t we? It looks cheaper than the others (with the most generic settings imaginable, even when they’re just fake looking green screen backdrops), but for the most part not all that much worse or better than I remember the others being at the time, though admittedly I haven’t rewatched them. This has a few funny ideas, a few okay fights, some funny splatter moments (digital), but mostly its strengths are that it still has some of the same guys, who I enjoy seeing in movies, and also it has some new guys who I enjoy seeing in movies. Even though this is none of their best work.
Case in point: Iko Uwais (MERANTAU, HEADSHOT) gets to play the villain, Rahmat. Like most characters in these movies he wears boring tactical gear and uses guns more than kicks, which in my opinion is a misunderstanding of how to make movies or create joy. But it’s what we got. Was it worth his time if it took him away from making an Indonesian movie, any Indonesian movie? Of course not. Is it a better Hollywood use of him than SNAKE EYES? In my opinion no. But does it make this particular movie better than if it was somebody else playing that part? Yeah, I think so. We get to see him nimbly leaping around, spinning and slashing some motherfuckers, a few fights that are shot from too close up but pretty cool, a showdown with Statham in a setting that reminded me of the Tommy Lee Jones vs. Steven Seagal knife fight in UNDER SIEGE, and it lasts shorter than you would want but longer than Statham vs. Scott Adkins in part 2, at least.
You know what’s funny – I honestly think Uwais is good at playing evil, but even in his character poster he just looks like a nice, happy guy. Look at this!
Anyway, Rahmat and his crew, including lead henchman Bok (Daren Nop, fight arranger for FAST X), working for a mysterious terrorist called “Ocelot,” violently take over what is labelled on screen as “Gadaffi’s Old Chemical Plant” in Libya to get control of some nuclear warheads.
Meanwhile, in “USA, New Orleans,” Expendables leader Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone, DEATH RACE 2000) gets his right hand man Lee Christmas (Jason Statham, DEATH RACE) to help him try to get back his favorite skull ring, lost in a thumb wrestling bet at a biker bar/strip club called Tainted Spoke. Basically, Barney tricks Christmas into fighting a short guy named Jumbo Shrimp (Mike Möller, ULTIMATE JUSTICE) and a huge bartender (World’s Strongest Man 2017 Eddie Hall, “Saxon Warrior,” TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT). This whole scene is very stupid, but it’s the stuff I like best in these movies – the banter between Barney and Lee is the Expendahumor that works best for me, I always enjoy the less plot-oriented diversions in formula action movies (if it wasn’t a bar fight it would be stopping a convenience store robbery), and I love the detail that the guys at this bar fuckin hate Barney and chose to humiliate him by displaying his prized ring behind the bar on a double-dick dildo.
The giant skull ring really is a trademark that distinguishes Barney Ross and THE EXPENDABLES from other Stallone characters. That’s why he’s introduced by the camera hovering around his fetishistically souped up motorcycle, exploring its every chromed and engraved engine detail and piece of flair as his feet walk into the shot and mount it. The camera finds a cigar between his fingers gripping the handlebar before it finally shows his face and he drives out through the Aztec-inspired-skull-design garage door of the Expendacave. Later on there will be a fun scene where Statham’s character rides a MACHETE-style machine gun motorcycle, but Barney’s love of motorcycles does not figure into the action – it’s just how he expresses himself. His soul looks like the tacky maximalist design aesthetic of tattoo shops, motorcycle garages and strip clubs. He loves oversized jewelry, leather jackets, neon lights. The logo for this installment is a skull with a liberty spike mohawk made out of guns and knives, with many of the guns on fire. The Expendables live in a world where every time you start doing something awesome an electric guitar starts wailing. I honestly wish the guy playing would just rise up out of the floor so we could see his poses and facial expressions to really emphasize how cool what we’re looking at is supposed to be. Otherwise how can we truly understand?
Even without that, EXPEND4BLES occasionally has shots of the cast walking together in slow motion looking badass (sometimes with Tony Jaa spinning his knife around) and for those couple seconds I would think, “Yeah, okay. This is pretty cool.”
After the ring situation is sorted out, some speechifying CIA suit called Marsh (Andy Garcia, 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE, DEAD AGAIN, THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU’RE DEAD) hires the Expendables to attack Gaddafi’s Old Chemical Plant and destroy the detonators before Ocelot can use them. The team includes returning favorites Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren, DEAD TRIGGER) and Toll Road (Randy Couture, TODAY YOU DIE), plus newcomers Easy Day (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, GET RICH OR DIE TRYIN’) and two others who haven’t done any movies with “death” or “die” in the title: Galan (Jacob Scipio, WITHOUT REMORSE) and Lash (Levy Tran, “Race Starter,” FURIOUS SEVEN), the latter joining later when the team is led by Christmas’ volatile on-again-off-again girlfriend Gina (Megan Fox, TILL DEATH).
As always, Dolph is a highlight. He’s mostly comic relief here. In the past he was the crazy one (and a traitor) and now he’s trying to be enlightened. As a guy much younger than Dolph whose eyesight is starting to get worse, I like that he wears round glasses and is having trouble aiming (though he jokes that his sniper scope is prescription). Sadly he solves that problem by breaking his six month sobriety streak and instantly powering up like Popeye eating spinach.
But his most memorable shtick here is that he’s excited about bringing an ax on the mission and later he refers to it as “The Traumahawk.”
I think I’m alone in this but I always enjoy Couture in these. He’s a particular type of genuine tough guy that’s different from the usual movie idea of tough guys, so it’s fun to see him up there as a silly, friendly nerd character always excited to talk about his cauliflower ear.
50 Cent being added to the cast is funny because I remember in the Ain’t It Cool days Stallone did Q&As about the first movie as it was in progress. 50 had been reported to be in the cast, which caused outrage/disappointment for people who didn’t think a non action star, or a rapper, or that particular rapper deserved to be in a cast they thought was gonna be all action icons. (I believe he was replaced by Terry Crews, who hadn’t earned it either, but people accepted him.) But at this point 50 Cent has done around ten DTV action sequels and been Stallone’s sidekick in the ESCAPE PLAN series, so nobody’s surprised. He serves a similar role here, mostly a serious exposition guy, and he’s fine.
The least acceptable new blood is the character Galan, who’s supposed to be the son of Antonio Bandera’s part 3 character Galgo, and he’s always babbling and trying to charm everybody but they all hate him (and he has a urine fixation?). It’s very unfunny and annoying stuff, and it actually does feel unearned – Banderas’ character was playing off of us already loving him from other movies, this guy we don’t know from Adam. But luckily there’s a gimmick that makes him shut up for most of the movie and then he’s fine.
I also didn’t know where I knew Tran from (FEMALE FIGHT SQUAD, GEMINI and The Haunting of Hill House, it turns out), but I thought she was cool, having kind of a punk look, using a razor wire whip, trying to check out Toll Road’s dick when he’s peeing, etc.
Throughout the run of this series many, including myself at times, have noted that they don’t really take advantage of the multi-star format to expend any of the expendables in an EXECUTIVE DECISION type manner. Some seem to think that makes it a misleading title, but that’s a misunderstanding – in action movies you complain that you were treated as expendable. You don’t consider yourself actually expendable. As the tagline for this one says, “They’ll die when they’re dead.”
But here’s a big first act SPOILER that won’t necessarily surprise you. Just as I suspected when the first trailer came out and Stallone had an “and” credit, Barney gets killed during battle in the first act and they all want to go after the guy who did it. I think they use it well. Barney is flying overhead in his beloved seaplane while the others are fighting below, and a gun is about to shoot him down. He orders Christmas to not worry about him and go after the detonators, but instead Christmas diverts to try to save Barney, who gets shot down anyway. Christmas runs to the wreckage and finds Barney in the cockpit burnt to a crisp. Then they’re in a bar having a small memorial for him and they made a little shrine of skulls surrounding a burnt human arm posed with the middle finger up, wearing the skull ring. Just in the middle of a bar where other people are enjoying a cover band. Beautiful. And also they get some drama out of it because Easy says Christmas made Barney’s sacrifice worthless by blowing the mission and Gunner shakes the shit out of Easy saying “Nothing Barney did was worthless, do you hear me!?” and it’s good shit. But mostly it’s worth it for the burnt up arm.
It turns out Barney was the last surviving member of some special ops mission, and his death triggered the unsealing of a file about a witness who can identify Ocelot. Gina is put in charge of the team to follow this new lead, but Christmas is kicked off for disobeying an order and fucking up the mission. There’s a comical interlude where he becomes bodyguard to a famous livestreamer douchebag while dressing like Frank Martin, then he breaks into Gina’s house and safe and they have a playful fight and makeup sex and the scene ends on a lovely overhead shot of post-coital cuddling with Gina clutching Chrismas’ big Expendables-branded hunting knife.
Then they split up, both trying to accomplish the same thing. While the Expendables fly to a CIA black site in Hong Kong or whatever, Christmas goes to Thailand and finds an old friend of Barney’s named Decha (Tony Jaa, MONSTER HUNTER). As always in his Hollywood movies, Jaa is not as good as he’d be in a starring role but better than almost anybody else would be. They gave him an appropriately Tony Jaa character type (the warrior who has sworn off violence and become enlightened, but then finds out Barney’s friends are in trouble so he puts on face paint and a headband and busts out a fancy engraved blade and the flying knees and elbows). Also he gets to be a goofy weirdo in some parts, which he’s good at.
I’d say Decha is my favorite part of this one, but Fox is probly the new cast member given the most room to play a character. She’s doing a whole “bitch” thing but it’s not like Lee Christmas is a good boyfriend and she does prove herself worthy of the team. I hesitate to bring this up because I generally don’t like to make assumptions or comments about actors’ cosmetic choices, but I really mean this as a compliment: she makes a good counterpart to Stallone, because both of them have a sort of exaggerated body image and gender expression that has pushed beyond trying to bullshit you about what’s natural and become more of a “this is me, this is how I see myself, fuck off if you don’t like it.” Also, while Fox doesn’t have a comparable body of work, she was once very popular while being disrespected in the press, her work and relationships became the subject of gossip, she’s been nominated for eight Razzies (winning one for TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES), but she’s always had a pretty cool and unique screen presence and lately she’s been doing good work in smaller movies (or at least I really liked her in ROGUE).
So I think she’s a good choice for this role, but she deserved a more Expendabley name than just “Gina.” Like Gina Tigerheart or Gina von Klaw or Gina “The Storm” Stormington or something like that. Somebody should’ve gotten Stallone on that.
They make a big enough deal about this “Ocelot” guy that I started wondering what the fuck action star could be left that hasn’t been in one of these but would be willing to be in part 4 as a surprise that would seem like a big get. Or maybe it would be a sitcom star, following the EXPENDABLES 3 Kelsey Grammer precedent. I turned out to be barking up the wrong tree, it’s not a surprise cameo. The answer is more obvious but just stupid enough to be appropriate.
EXPEND4BLES is directed by Scott Waugh (ACT OF VALOR, NEED FOR SPEED), with a screenplay credited to Kurt Wimmer (EQUILIBRIUM, ULTRAVIOLET) & Tad Daggerhart (BLACK LOTUS) and Max Adams (HEIST , EXTRACTION ), story by Spenser Cohen (MOONFALL) and Wimmer & Daggerhart. Second unit director is Brian Smrz (director of 24 HOURS TO LIVE), Vlasto Ivanovic is listed as fight choreographer. Wikipedia says “the Jackie Chan Stunt Team handled stunt choreography,” citing a German article about Möller, and indeed Wing Lun “Alan” Ng is one of the credited stunt coordinators, so they must’ve done some of it.
Now here’s a last act DOUBLE SUPER SPOILER. As you may or may not suspect, Barney turns out to be actually alive at the end, and they have a goofy but makes-sense-within-this-world explanation for it. And I admit I was happy to see Barney still alive even though it’s kind of an ESCAPE PLAN DTV sequel type move to build the story around making his shooting schedule short. But overall I think I’m against undoing his death. It doesn’t cheapen it, because come on man, nothing in THE EXPENDABLES series is cheapenable. I just don’t like that it erases what had been my favorite thing in the movie: that they were willing to barbecue the hero to death. I thought that was hardcore when it seemed like they killed one of Stallone’s three ongoing franchise characters and instead of treating his death with reverence and have him dramattically die in someone’s arms or triggering a crucial explosion or something it was just “Yep, there he is, a burnt pile of meat in a beret. Whoops.” I loved that. But it was another guy, turns out. The ol’ Michael Myers switching clothes with the ambulance driver routine.
The one thing we do get out of it is that the probable last scene in this whole franchise is a reveal that our hero murdered a guy for beating him at thumb wrestling. That’s pretty weird.
In retrospect, I have a theory for why THE EXPENDABLES series could never get much better than passable. The action movies these actors all excel at, that they’re trying to recapture here, are built on personalities. They’re usually a star vehicle for a particular actor and the story is built around how awesome their character is, or how much you like them even though they’re a fuckup. And the fact that they “work alone” and drive around on a motorcycle and have to count on themselves, no matter how many old friends they can get favors from, is part of the appeal. There can be more than one strong personality in these movies, but usually it’s two guys that are partners and bicker at first but learn to get along, and hopefully a good villain and a good top henchman, but not much more than that. That’s why I think these work best during the parts where they’re more of a Stallone vehicle or Statham vehicle or Stallone and Statham buddy movie, and worst when they’re slotting one of our other favorites in but not giving them room to be their best selves. Most action classics are showcasing the skills or persona of one main actor – they never have to figure out how to have five different alpha males and several noteworthy supporting players going around together wearing matching outfits and berets.
It’s just not the best format. But it’s cute for a while. Put that on the poster in metallic stencil font surrounded in sparks and flames.
p.s. One way you can tell THE EXPENDABLES was a million years ago is that I reviewed the screenplay for The Ain’t It Cool News