Back in 2010, Sylvester Stallone created the mother of all geezer teasers in “The Expendables,” collecting every over-the-hill action star in a single movie like they were Pokémon – gotta catch ‘em all. Since then, our favorite monuments of masculinity have come and gone, but nevertheless, the Expendables persist, whether we want them to or not. A full nine years after “The Expendables 3,” we have the confoundingly titled “Expend4bles,” with Stallone back in the cockpit with trusty Jason Statham riding shotgun.
Scott Waugh, a former stuntman and stunt coordinator who directed “Need for Speed,” helms this latest iteration, which concerns a crew of easily expendable baddies who take on various secret missions like every other juiced-up action franchise. This one happens to run on digital blood spatter, bootleg CGI and japes about genitalia, but the animus behind these films is nostalgia for the kind of retro action movies of the 1980s and ‘90s, where the men were muscly and the misogyny was cool with everyone – at least that’s the kind of image we’re presented with in the profoundly silly “Expend4bles,” a film that verges on self-parody.
Waugh and cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones bring a bright, cartoonish look to the film, while writers Kurt Wimmer, Tad Daggerhart and Max Adams deliver the corny one-liners (Spenser Cohen contributed to the story, Dave Callaham the characters). This is especially evident in their opening mission, where Barney Ross (Stallone) and Lee Christmas (Statham), and the rest of the Expendables crew, attempt to retrieve a set of nuclear detonators from a crafty thief, Rahmat (Iko Uwais) who has stolen them from Moammar Gadhafi’s compound in Libya.
The action is messy, the geography indiscernible, and a few shots seem stitched together with but a single pixel and a prayer. As Christmas chortles atop an all-terrain vehicle while wielding a .50 caliber weapon, it looks like it could have been shot with rear projection, the green screen work is so shoddy. The scene is so incredibly bad and unbelievably wacky that one simply has to laugh in disbelief.
But that is far preferable to the rest of the film, which becomes mind-numbingly dull. Stallone dips out, and Gina (Megan Fox) takes over leading the Expendables, though Fox seems exceptionally disinterested in the whole affair. Perhaps because this gig requires Gina to HALO jump and fight bad guys in a crop top, full glam, and astonishingly long and unwieldy hair extensions.
The look is laughably impractical in 2023, when even Hayley Atwell tied her hair into a ponytail for her big action scene in “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One,” and you can see Fox barely holding back her eye-roll. It’s strange that even though she’s distanced herself from her role as the lust object in “Transformers,” she’s back in another testosterone-fueled action movie with little to do other than be ogled. That’s not Fox’s fault, but rather these filmmakers who can’t imagine anything more for her, even if she is ostensibly in charge of this mission, delivering a few lines detailing the plan.
Gina’s team now has to liberate the same set of nuclear detonators from a container ship en route to Vladivostok. But they are quickly confined by Rahmat’s henchmen, and spend most of the movie standing around a small room, or sauntering around the ship trading stale jabs. Christmas has been left out of this mission for a minor infraction, but he makes his way aboard nevertheless, and thank goodness, as he’s seemingly the only Expendable with any pep in his step.
“Expend4bles” is the Statham show, but is this really the show in which he wants to star? He gamely goes through the motions, while Fox seems bored out of her mind, delivering every line dripping with sarcasm. Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson is also there. Randy Couture and Dolph Lundgren are the two other original cast members to return, while Jacob Scipio and Levy Tran round out the team, as Galan and Lash, respectively.
Not even the two most reliable action movie ringers, in legendary martial artists Iko Uwais and Tony Jaa, can help “Expend4bles” achieve liftoff. Uwais is relegated to growling threats into a walkie-talkie for most of the movie, getting only one fight scene at the end (wasting Iko Uwais is an action cinema crime). Jaa jazzes things up a bit, and when this film briefly flirts with becoming a martial arts movie, there’s a spark of genuine potential.
But Waugh doesn’t take advantage of what he has to work with. “Expend4dbles” wants to be the kind of movie that’s best seen on cable with commercial breaks, or on a beat-up VHS tape, but there are far more entertaining action classics that can get the job done – there’s no need to enlist this tired team.