Sylvester Stallone built his Expendables empire around everything Expend4bles fails to be. The third sequel whiffs on delivering the nostalgic bliss of our favorite Action Seniors trading each other’s famous catchphrases while gunsmoke stings our nostrils. Expend4bles feels like an ‘80s action sequel generated by an AI, fed only C-tier made-for-television releases, where actors never even spent a day on set together. You can probably pin the absurd green screen reliance on Covid-19 shooting restrictions, but that doesn’t change how strangely appalling set pieces present themselves.
You’ll get your ‘splosions, codenames, and double-crosses as promised — in the worst Expendables movies by miles and miles.
Jason Statham’s knife-happy mercenary Lee Christmas takes center stage this time around in what could cheekily be referred to as A Christmas Story. There’s still a top-secret mission run by Sylvester Stallone’s cigar-sucking Expendables leader Barney Ross that involves everything from Libyan Gaddafi-era compounds to nuclear detonators that could spark WW3 — but this is Christmas’ journey. From Christmas’ volatile relationship problems with his CIA-superstar lover Gina (Megan Fox), to Christmas’ existential crisis about working too hard (murdering war criminals), to Christmas’ broship with Barney — he’s all the main focus. As a result, Expend4bles plays like a bait-and-switch franchise entry compared to the rest (without revealing other massive spoilers).
That’s not to say Expend4bles fails to ignite any bursts of entertainment. At its simplest, when Statham is doing a Die Hard on a massive freighter vessel, or he and Stallone pull a brass-knuckled Road House barroom brawl, we’re reminded of the franchise’s simpler ass-whoopin' pleasures. When bullets fly, violence becomes so gorily cartoonish, that you can’t help but chuckle as director Scott Waugh experiments with a million grotesque ways to eviscerate human bodies. Statham and Fox destroy household furniture while sex-brawling steamy Mr. & Mrs. Smith style! The squad creates a distraction using a boombox playing 50 Cent’s “p.i.m.p” even though he’s playing the character Easy Day, not himself! Antonio Banderas' Galgo gets a son played by Jacob Scipio who does silky-smooth impressions of ... Antonio Banderas! Choice glimpses suggest Stallone’s macho-mayhem franchise still has some dumb-fun action opulence left in the tank, but hardly at the level of consistency fans deserve.
The struggles of Expend4bles are a buffet of blunders. Most notably, the film looks downright unsightly for head-scratching stretches. Obscene green screen usage cheapens the photography: vehicular chases move across blurry backdrops, boats are caught between pixelated waves, or New Orleans housing units peek through open doorways. Cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones tries to mitigate damage by hyper-zooming on characters in these instances, which forces odd perspectives and doesn’t hide the jarring inauthenticity of actors on separate sound stages continents apart. Add in the inexcusable excess of dismissable computerized blood that erases any resemblance of fake-blood-heavy ‘80s actioner inspirations, and Waugh’s command of visuals — or appropriately lack thereof — becomes an abundant problem.
Performance woes are an even more unexpected fault across the majority cast. It goes beyond Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson projecting no presence beyond namesake stunt casting. We’ve seen these legends — even in the same brutally boneheaded franchise — command the screen like their heavyweight selves, but here they’re a range of energy-devoid to awkwardly inept. Statham and Dolph Lundgren (as sober sharpshooter Gunner) are tapped for emotional memorial moments that read more wooden than sobering. Randy Couture’s demolitions expert is sabotaged by bottom-of-the-barrell dialogue. Fox and Indonesian martial arts wizard Iko Uwais as terrorist villain Suarto Rahmat are the few rare standouts, even though Fox is reductively introduced as a shrieking “crazy lady” caricature. Scipio loses points due to the script’s unfunny usage of his horned-up character’s lewd words, although the golden shower payoff did make me chuckle. (Seriously, what is this movie?)
Of course, you’re watching Expend4bles for the action extravaganza. Who cares about lax development when you’ve got Tony Jaa performing choreography mapped by 8th-generation Jackie Chan stunt team member Alan Ng? The bread and butter of Expendables attraction happens when bodies hit floors, and Waugh at least delivers all brands of battlefield carnage. Uwais isn’t wasted in a movie like Mile 22 where he’s just getting bodyslammed by Mark Whalberg, nor does Jaa’s astonishingly agile bladesmanship go to waste. Fight choreography understands how to flow with Statham’s sense of humor, Jaa and Uwais’ nimble assassinations, even Stallone’s older age. That was never going to be an issue, nor is it.
The issue is, nothing around Expend4bles supports ultra-graphic violence you can see in exceptionally better action titles like the Uwais-starring The Night Comes for Us or even Stallone’s own Rambo (2008). Writers Spenser Cohen, Kurt Wimmer, and Tad Daggerhart go all-in on Christmas but script the most frustratingly nonsense-in-a-bad-way Expendables film yet; too preoccupied with all the testicular humor they could squeeze into conversations.
Expend4bles feels like a bargain-brand imitation of the series it’s part of — a regression in quality that’s achingly visible on screen between billowing fireballs and splattered noggins. Here’s hoping there’s another sequel down the road because the Expendables don’t deserve to let this defeat define their otherwise dependable record.