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“The Expendables” had a simple enough concept—gather a bunch of '80s-era action cinema icons, including Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Dolph Lundgren, and Mickey Rourke, and bring them together for an old-school-style shoot-em-up in which they, along with such current familiar faces (and pecs) as Jason Statham, Jet Li, Randy Couture, and Steve Austin, joined forces to blow things up real good. The film was no masterpiece, but the aggressively retro approach—it felt like exactly the kind of thing that the late great Cannon Films might have conjured up if they were still in business—had a certain lunkheaded charm, and it wound up being a surprise hit. Two sequels followed in 2012 and 2014, and while neither one lived up to the exceedingly mild promise of their predecessor, they served their purpose as B-movie fodder and a way for veteran action stars (including Harrison Ford, Chuck Norris, Wesley Snipes, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Antonio Banderas and, inexplicably, Kelsey Grammer) to kill a couple of adequately-paid weeks reliving the good old days—sort of the genre equivalent of a Hall of Fame game.
That said, it has been nearly a decade since the poorly-received third film was released, and despite no discernible outcry for its return, the franchise has been revived with “Expend4bles.” Okay, perhaps “revived” is not quite the right word to describe this laughably lazy exercise in utility-grade meat-and-potatoes filmmaking. It's the kind of concussive contrivance that, to judge by the closing credits, seems to have more co-producers than actors with speaking roles and where the countless shootings, stabbing, and punches on display are nowhere near as excruciating as the listlessness with which they have been presented here.
This time around, veteran Expendables Barney (Stallone), Christmas (Statham), Gunner (Lundgren) and Toll (Couture) are joined here by new recruits Easy Day (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) and Galan (Jacob Scipio), who is supposed to be the son of the Banderas character, for a brand-new top-secret mission supervised by the shadowy CIA agent Marsh (Andy Garcia). Arms dealer Rahmat (Iko Uwais) and his army of goons have broken into one of Gaddafi’s old chemical plants in Libya and stolen a bunch of nuclear detonators for Ocelot, a mystery figure who decimated another squad of Barney’s years earlier. Alas (Spoiler Alert, barely), the mission goes sideways for Barney. When Christmas deviates from the plan in an effort to save him, he winds up getting booted from the group entirely.
However, there is still a loose Ocelot out there, and when it appears that they are hoping to instigate WW III between the U.S. and Russia, the Expendables once again go off to save the day, this time with Marsh along for the ride and with the leadership of the group taken by Gina (Megan Fox), who also happens to be the on/off girlfriend of Christmas to boot. Of course, Christmas won’t take no for an answer, and, accompanied by another old friend of Barney’s, Decha (Tony Jaa), also sets off in pursuit. Eventually, they all wind up on a massive shipping vessel containing the set-to-explode bomb and battle waves of anonymous bad guys as they try to save the world in the ta-daa nick of time.
My problem with “Expend4bles” is not that it is a boneheaded action film; it has been made with such obvious indifference from all involved that you can practically feel their contempt in every scene. The screenplay by Kurt Wimmer, Max Adams, and Tad Daggerhart conjures up the kind of slapdash narrative one rarely encounters outside Mad Libs. Director Scott Waugh proves to be equally lackadaisical in his duties—the big action beats are staged in a startlingly flat manner that's further dulled by some of the chintziest CGI I have seen in a major movie in a while. There are many points where "Expend4bles" feels less like a legitimate continuation to a franchise that has been quite profitable to many involved and more like a cheapo television pilot that was mercifully scuttled before it could air.
The film's biggest, most inexplicable flaw is that it takes the irresistible hook that has driven the franchise to date—the chance to see past action icons strutting their stuff once again—and bizarrely elects to dispose of it here. At least in those earlier movies, there was a certain degree of frisson, as it were, at the sight of seeing the likes of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis together for the first time (at least outside of a Planet Hollywood stockholders meeting) and the first two sequels managed to keep that up as it brought new old faces into the fold. Here, with fewer returning cast members than before (and with Stallone himself barely in it), the balance shifts heavily towards the newer additions and, except for martial arts faves Jaa and Uwais (who contribute the only real thrills during the brief moments when they show their stuff), none of them are exactly action icons and a couple of them stretch the definition of “star” to the breaking point. The most ridiculous of the bunch by far is Fox, who seems to be there to serve as a reminder of that once-promised all-female “Expendabelles” spinoff and to show us that she can do anything that her male co-stars can. In this case, however, “anything” seems limited to delivering every line in a monotone and looking made up to such a degree that she might have shot this between set-ups for this year's Sports Illustrated photoshoot.
"Expend4bles" is just an embarrassment from start to finish, and the only positive thing to say about it is that it should pretty much put a nail in the coffin of a series that has clearly overstayed its welcome. At least for another decade.
Now playing in theaters.
Jason Statham as Lee Christmas
Sylvester Stallone as Barney Ross
50 Cent as Easy
Megan Fox as Gina
Dolph Lundgren as Gunner Jensen
Tony Jaa as Decha
Iko Uwais as Rahmat
Randy Couture as Toll Road
Andy García as Marsh
Jacob Scipio as Galan
Levy Tran as Lash