Sigh. I’ve got the same note for all of the Expendable movies to date; why can’t they deliver on the promise of the title and make all the characters seem, well, expendable? If there was one franchise that could have got away with a different cast every time, it was Sylvester Stallone’s all-star, all-macho mercenary action flicks. From John Ford’s They Were Expendable onwards, the notion of soldiers of fortune as voluntary cannon fodder, treated as dispensable by authorities or whoever hires them, would allow for regular personnel changes, ideal in a studio system where returning talent costs more and more. But if anything Expend4bles, the fourth entry in the Expendables franchise (the all female one never happened) also feels like a cheaper, budget version, with no big guest stars of the calibre of Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris and all the action set in one dull location after an initial planes and cars opening in Libya.
It’s during this frenetic action sequence that the series main character Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) appears to die, burned alive in the cockpit of the plane that he uses to drop the other Expendables on location like a dutiful soccer mom. The crew find an impossible charred body with Barney’s ring on one finger, so that’s a positive ID and case closed, right? Sigh. Removing the central character, which failed in the Bourne or GI Joe movies and was mooted for Mission Impossible for a while, rarely works, even if the mantle falls on the dependable Joe Christmas, played by the even more dependable Jason Statham. Christmas falls out with the rest of the gang, who oust him and replace him in a like-for-like substitution with his girlfriend Gina (Megan Fox). Experienced soldiers like 50 Cent, Randy Couture and Dolph Lundgren don’t take kindly to Gina’s gal style, but when she leads the gang into a trap on an oil tanker, Christmas comes to the rescue with the help of a tracking device he gave Gina in a hunting knife…
Serving up more of the series’ traditionally awful CGI explosions, and with fights from Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais having much less impact than they have elsewhere, each of the Expendables movies feel like a greatest hits package; Christmas complains that he doesn’t like cover bands, but Expend4bles runs through a set of scenes that we’ve all experienced many times before. Without guest stars and stunt casting to break the monotony, this feels more like a spin-off than a continuation, and it’s no surprise when Barney’s death is finally revealed to be a red-herring; treading water is a central tenet of the modern blockbuster, and nobody ever really dies. That indestructible quality runs firmly against what the potential strength of the Expendables movies might have been; for now, this is passable, forgettable action cinema for hardened veterans with an emphasis on nostalgic indulgence.
Thanks to Lionsgate for big-screen access. Expend4bles is out now (22 Sept 2023)