In 2010, two years before Marvel made the crossover movie mainstream, Sylvester Stallone started up his own shared universe. The Expendables gave nostalgic action fans the chance to see Sly share the screen with former rivals including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, even passing the mantle on to whippersnapper Jason Statham.
It was a huge hit, spawning two bloated sequels featuring anyone who was over fifty and fancied a payday. Nine years on from the unsuccessful third film, Stallone revives the franchise for one last ride (again).
He returns as Barney Ross, government operative in charge of the missions that the government keeps off the books. Barney and his second in command, Lee Christmas (Statham), take on a covert mission to intercept a terrorist (Iko Uwais) smuggling a nuclear weapon. When the mission goes wrong, Christmas goes rogue to finish the job and get some vengeance.
The original concept of an action hero team up has been abandoned in favour of something leaner. Only four actors from the previous films remain, while the new recruits are notable but cheaper inclusions like Andy Garcia and 50 Cent. On one hand, this means it does lose a lot of the nostalgia factor. Yes, action fans will adore seeing Statham and The Raid star Uwais tangle, but it’s hardly Sly and Arnie meeting for the first time. That said, this reduction makes for a more streamlined action film, as director Scott Waugh (Need For Speed) doesn’t have to fit a dozen cameos into every sequence.
Stallone takes a back seat, making this basically a Jason Statham movie with some prestige support. It’s certainly the right actor to trust it with, as The Meg star is still spry enough to do the tough stuff and can verbally spar with the ensemble. The duo’s chemistry together is sorely missed when Stallone is gone, but if there is meant to be a fifth or sixth film (presumably Expendable5 and Expenda6les) then the change had to be made.
Outside of the stars, the performances are mixed. Megan Fox is a strong addition as Lee’s girlfriend, Gina, who understands the tone of this type of film and has a pleasant back-and-forth with Statham. Uwais is great in arguably his highest profile English role, nailing the Bad Guy histrionics with ease, while action legend Tony Jaa makes a pleasing appearance later on. When it’s bad, however, it’s really bad. Garcia seems half-asleep as the government connection giving the team their mission, while UFC star Randy Couture flounders with an expanded role (the running joke about his cauliflower ears wasn’t funny in 2010, and it isn’t now).
Even without the original USP, Expend4bles is a serviceable action film that will likely satisfy those in search of violence and explosions. It’s difficult to see where the series goes from here, given that the Fast and Furious films offer a similar experience with a much higher budget. However, as a late summer blockbuster, this comeback is 100 minutes of disposable thrills.