The aging franchise is seeing diminishing returns, but remains a fun action staple
The Expendables’ fourth outing once again finds the team of mercenaries taking on a mission against impossible odds, this time taking on the mysterious “Ocelot”, a ghost from Barney’s past, in a race to stop a delivery of WMDs. I’m a fan of the series, though it admittedly peaked with the incredible second film that best delivered on the promise of having all the “old guard” of 80s action stars on board for a glorious jam session. I enjoyed the third film as well, but the series seems to be chasing diminishing returns. Still, even at their worst these are immensely enjoyable movies and one of the best modern action franchises, and putting up big budgets and playing theaters in a genre which has mostly gone to VOD.
Mainstays Barney (Sylvester Stallone), Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunner (Dolph Lundgren), and Toll Road (Randy Couture) make their return, with new cast members Megan Fox, 50 Cent, Andy Garcia, Jacob Scipio, and Levy Tran joining the squad.
If that description feels a little like deja vu, that’s because the third film already tackled the same idea of mixing in a new team of young recruits to complement the old. Bizarrely, none of those new characters that we spent the whole last movie introducing are back for this next round, which feels a little deflating, not to mention narratively odd. What happened to those guys? KIA? Quit? Defected to Barney’s better-paying competitor Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger)? Whatever the reason, the narrative fallout is that the same story framework is playing out again with a new gang of recruits.
Unfortunately the biggest and most palpable loss is that of fan favorite Terry Crews, who left the franchise in protest when producer Avi Lerner asked (threatened) Crews to drop his sexual harassment allegations against Adam Venit, leaving a vile taste in the mouths of many fans – myself included – probably not completely unrelated to this fourth film’s poor box office showing.
Despite the casting losses, there’s also a very exciting addition, that of two Asian martial arts superstars who bring immense hand to hand combat skills (based on muay thai and silat, respectively). Tony Jaa (Ong Bak, The Protector) joins forces with the Expendables as a mysterious ally, and Iko Uwais (The Raid, The Night Comes for Us) exhibits wanton cruelty as the heavy. Both get a chance to show their stuff, which is significant considering this is a franchise that had – and tragically wasted – Jet Li.
There’s some more upfront female representation this round with Megan Fox and Levy Tran joining the squad, but any goodwill this might drum up is dashed almost immediately as Fox’s character Gina (who in addition to being the team’s third-in-command is also Christmas’s girlfriend) is introduced as a psychotic raving bitch. You know, for laughs. Yeesh.
Scott Waugh (Act of Valor, Need for Speed) is in the director’s chair this time around, and I appreciate that he brings his stunt experience and a love for tactile physical action, preferring big stunts – like wild dune buggy chases and a motorcycle battle on a cargo ship – over CGI.
Unfortunately, despite a pretty huge $100M budget that afforded an enormous cargo ship deck set and tons of giant fireball explosions, the movie often looks cheap in appearance, garishly digital and overly vivid. When CG is used (often for incidental effects like background fill, flying sparks, bullet reports, and blood splatter), it looks cartoony, and composited backgrounds sometimes look unusually fake for a movie of this stature. This is a movie that tends to look good in lower light but more stagey and TV-like in daylight and other brightly lit scenes.
At the same time, I want to show a little grace in the current climate: I don’t know the specifics of this movie, but I do know that a lot of current movies were made during or following covid restrictions, and it doesn’t help that big studios like Marvel are sucking up the resources of all the top effects houses.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Stallone, the original orchestrator and handler of the franchise, seems to be taking a back seat. A plot twist puts his Barney out of commission early in the film and promotes Statham to the lead. I can certainly applaud that Sly’s a humble enough guy to essentially hand his starring vehicle over to his pal, but he’s also not credited on the script, and the big takeaway is that it feels like his signature is missing this round.
This review may be coming off as pretty negative, because I acknowledge this is a pretty flawed movie and a low point for the series. But in truth I still really have overall positive feelings about it. There’s some stellar action and some chuckles, and I like that Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais are in a big Hollywood movie that doesn’t waste their talents (“Tell that to Kanjiklub”).
Statham is a consummate action performer and deserving of his success: if there is to be a changing of the guard for this franchise, as this film seems to suggest, then he’s certainly the natural choice to take the lead.
I can totally see this becoming a silly comfort movie for casual watching, but if this series continues I’d like to see it be a little more cohesive and faithful to its original concept of being the best dad-action extravaganza packed with the top stars of the 80s and 90s: Give us the Cynthia Rothrocks, the Sigourney Weavers, the Linda Hamiltons. The entire cast of Predator. The Michaels Dudikoff, Ironside, Wong, and Biehn. Hell, I’d love to see Eddie Murphy suit up. And how has Danny Trejo never been in one of these? I think audiences would be way more invested in these films if they stuck truer to the original template.
I’m reviewing the 4K UHD release, which comes in a combo edition with Blu-ray and a QR-scannable Digital Copy insert. Lionsgate is inconsistent on VOD formats but typically includes both iTunes and Vudu options on their tentpole franchises – not so in this release, which is Vudu-only.
My copy came with a glossy slipcover, with cutaway corners per Lionsgate’s usual packaging norms (rounded on 4K releases, square on Blu-rays).
Special Features and Extras – 4K UHD and Blu-ray
Extras are on both the 4K and Blu-ray discs. This practice is something I always respect about Lionsgate, whereas most other studios relegate them to Blu-ray discs only.
Audio Commentary with Director Scott Waugh
Bigger, Bolder, Badder: The Expendables in Action (16:57) – Several producers, crew, and cast, discuss the developing the film’s action sequences and stunt work, trying to deliver a fresh experience in an established franchise. Special attention is paid to the film’s vehicular action.
More Than an Team: New Blood Meets Old Blood (19:07) – An exploration of the film’s large cast of characters, with emphasis on the newer members.
Theatrical Trailer (1:52) – A fun red band trailer that emphasizes the R rating, coming off of the third film’s unpopular choice to release as PG-13.
The Amazon exclusive edition includes additional extras:
Costuming the Expendables (11:33) – Costume Designer Neal McClean describes his method and choices for gearing up the Expendables, starting from military and tactical styles and incorporating character personalities and styles. Several cast members also join in to briefly discuss their wardrobe.
We Get the Job Done: Breaking Down the Fighting Styles (8:57)
Producer Kevin King Templeton, director Scott Waugh, and cast members describe the film’s many character-based fight styles, and incorporating martial arts.
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Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.