The Expendables 4, or Expend4bles, is a yea or nay type of movie. It’s not going to get a glowing technical score from anyone maintaining the slightest objectivity, but on an entertainment level, it’s either your brand of fun or it isn’t. The real question is whether it delivers on that promise, as the first two Expendables movies did and the third one didn’t. This one does, although it falls somewhere between those poles. It’s got issues, but if you’re an action fan, you’ll probably have fun, just as surely as you’ve already got your ticket booked.
The Expendables are once again working for the CIA, this time sent to Libya to stop a group of terrorists from stealing Gaddafi’s nuclear weapons cache. When the mission goes awry, Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) finds himself expelled from the group and on a personal revenge mission against the terrorist leader, Rahmat (Iko Uwais), and his mysterious master, Ocelot, an old nemesis of Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone).
The plot is relatively threadbare, as expected. There are a few “twists” and mysteries that are telegraphed a mile away; the identity of Ocelot should surprise zero moviegoers, for example. But the Expendables movies aren’t designed to be labyrinthine puzzles that challenge the mind. They’re here to get the heart pumping and the blood rushing, and Expend4bles does that pretty well. It doesn’t have the relentless, grand guignol action of the first two, but it’s face-paced and doesn’t skimp on the blood and gore. As promised, it wears the R rating proudly on its sleeve, with plenty of exploding bodies, stabbings, shootings, and bone breaking to satisfy action fans.
Expend4bles also has some nice, subtle subtext. By their nature, the Expendables movies are written off as “dumb action movies,” but they’ve always been meta commentaries on the action genre and related topics. The first one was about the male bonding these films elicit, the kind of friendships men forge and how they’re stronger than anything else, be it a romantic relationship or one’s own life. The second was about the emerging generation of pretty boy action stars and how they can’t hold a candle to the real deal. (Take note of who dies about thirty minutes in and what Stallone’s Barney Ross says about him; “What’s the message in that?” indeed).
This one uses some of its new characters to explore emerging action themes. Megan Fox represents the girlboss who loudly proclaims she’s better than the heroes we’ve come to see, while Jacob Scipio’s Galan is the action movie fan who uses his idols as inspiration to make it through tough situations. There’s also a funny scene with a social media influencer that contrasts today’s online version of phony “alpha males” with the real deal. It’s not done as well as it has been earlier, but I appreciate that these movies are self-aware in a good way, instead of the obnoxious way superhero movies have become.
Notice I didn’t mention a couple of other new Expendables: Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and Levy Tran, who play Easy Day and Lash. These two are adrift, there just to be there, and they add nothing to the story or team dynamic besides a few extra bodies. The actors are fine in the roles, but they’re extraneous, and I’d have preferred they’d gotten some real action stars instead. That’s something Expend4bles is missing: the fun of seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris, Wesley Snipes (though he was wasted; God, the third one sucked), and the like on the screen together. Why waste time with 50 Cent and a model, especially if they don’t serve a purpose?
There are a couple of action stars featured in Expend4bles, though, and they’re both used well. First is Iko Uwais, star of The Raid, who plays the main villain. He’s really good, and the movie makes use of him. He does some truly evil things early on, and he’s even more sinister because he smiles the whole time, never losing the easy-going visage of a barroom buddy even while he’s murdering people. Then, there’s Tony Jaa, who plays a deadly old friend of Barney’s who now walks a more peaceful path. I won’t tell you where this goes, but you can probably guess, and Jaa is a lot of fun. The Expendables themselves are in good form, too; Randy Couture gets some really funny lines, and Dolph Lundgren looks like he’s having more fun than he’s had for most of his career as Gunner.
But, as Stallone said ages ago, Expend4bles is Jason Statham’s movie, so your enjoyment rests on how big a fan of his you are. I’m a huge one, so I was fine with this shift. Statham’s Lee Christmas doesn’t so much change or grow as he does reiterate his bond with Barney and his ability to destroy anyone who hurts his friends. With him being featured in four movies in 2023, I was set for a year of non-stop Statham action. Unfortunately, Operation Fortune was awful, he was little more than a cameo in Fast X, and Meg 2 was… Meg 2. Expend4bles is the best of the bunch by a mile, which is not exactly a ringing endorsement on its own, but it lets Statham be Statham, and it’s as fun to watch as it always is.
The action is a bit of a mixed bag, unfortunately. It’s fun, and there’s a lot of it, but it’s not as spectacular as it has been, and it isn’t shot as well. The first two Expendables movies had more than an R rating going for them; they were directed by Sylvester Stallone and Simon West, who know how to make action look good and raise your pulse. The third one was directed by Patrick Hughes, who had made one film before that, and the result was a choppy, over-edited music video. (Some of this may have been for the PG-13 rating, but the result is the result, and a later Hughes movie, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, was filmed poorly as well.) Expend4bles is directed by Scott Waugh, and while he’s certainly better than Hughes, I wish he’d have stopped shaking the camera in certain scenes. The music is bland as well, with the Expendables theme nowhere to be found; again, we’ve gone a step down, as Brian Tyler is replaced by Guillaume Roussel, and Tyler is sorely missed.
So, it’s not a great movie. But I had a lot of fun with Expend4bles, and I’d gladly watch it again. It’s not as good as the first two Expendables movies, but it’s a relief after the dud they made of the third one.