In “Expend4bles,” the action is more digitally propulsive than it was in “The Expendables” (2010), “The Expendables 2” (2012), or “The Expendables 3” (2014). Yet the preferred mode of killing is reassuringly primitive. In scene after scene, characters use knives to slit people’s throats, or they’ll sometimes jam a knife directly into the throat (the villain does this in the opening sequence, which is the movie’s way of saying “Welcome!”). “Expend4bles” is punctuated by those quick homicidal bursts of blood spatter. They’re effective, but because they feel a lot like the video-game slashings in a “John Wick” movie, the defining spirit of the “Expendables” series — the aging action heroes of the Reagan era all gathered together for a big dumb neo-’80s marathon of old-school combat destruction — now feels nearly as far as away as the ’80s did when the first movie came out.
The first two “Expendables” films had a relatively stable cast, with Easter Egg cameos by folks like Chuck Norris and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But by the time of “The Expendables 3,” the franchise had begun to rotate in actors — Antonio Banderas, Kelsey Grammer, Wesley Snipes, Mel Gibson — in a way that theoretically expanded the series’ appeal even as it watered down the original dirty dozen. In “Expend4bles,” which revives the series after close to a decade, the revolving-door casting has now gotten so random that it’s starting to feel like the action equivalent of “Celebrity Rehab.”
Reigning badass Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) has an ex-girlfriend, Gina (played by Megan Fox), the two of whom like beating each other up as foreplay, which may be why they broke up. When Christmas gets bounced out of the Expendables for an infraction, Gina, a CIA operative, takes over his leadership position — and much as I like Megan Fox, I can’t say that she’s particularly convincing in that role. Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson is on hand, clipped and likable but reminding you why his big-screen crossover career never quite panned out, and so is Antonio Banderas look-alike Jacob Scipio as Galan, the son of Banderas’s Galgo. The new behind-the-scenes honcho is played by Andy Garcia, who somehow makes you feel like he’s been in every one of these films.
The heart of an “Expendables” movie should be the interplay of Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham, and the two get their ball-busting on in a couple of early scenes, when Sly’s Barney Ross is trying to retrieve his heavy-metal death ring from some stooge who won it in a bet. Statham and Stallone take on a bar full of refrigerator-size goons and defeat them as if they were swatting flies.
But then they go on their mission, which is to stop Suarto (Iko Uwais), a mercenary terrorist, from getting his hands on a collection of nuclear detonators. As they ambush the compound where Suarto is holed up (it’s Muammar Gaddafi’s former chemical plant in Libya), Barney zooms into the action on the Expendables’ shark-mouthed plane…only to get shot out of the sky. At the crash site, we see the stump of his head, his charred finger with that ring on it. But I would guess more than half the audience will say, “Not quite sure I’m buying that.”
With Barney out of the picture, Christmas officially gets sidelined for the crime of letting the bad guy slip away — but all because he was trying to save Barney. (No loyal deed goes unpunished.) Then again, Christmas isn’t really out of the picture. Having teamed up with Desha, an ex-Expendable played by the Thai martial-arts star Tony Jaa, he’s ready to sneak back to the rest of the team as they infiltrate a ship outfitted to look like a U.S. aircraft carrier. It’s there that Suarto has a nuke all rigged and ready to go; he wants to detonate it once the ship enters Russian waters, so that he can start World War III. (Ah, these villains and their eminently relatable plans.)
Throat slashings aside, I haven’t said a lot about the action in “Expend4bles,” and that’s because it’s…okay. As staged by director Scott Waugh, it is, I guess, relentless enough and kinetic enough, yet there isn’t much of a stylistic imprint to it. The plot has almost no twists, except for one big one at the end that can only be called corny. And since the action no longer feels rooted in the kamikaze analog aesthetic of the “Commando”-meets-“Cobra” ’80s, this may be the first “Expendables” movie that doesn’t feel linked to the old Cannon Films spirit of trash taken to the extreme. This is true 21st-century trash: a movie in which the action itself is expendable.
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