Picture the scene: You’re sitting down for a night at the movies and are treated to a preview of a forthcoming attraction, where Jason Statham and Megan Fox are seemingly playing a couple of spies playfighting over a secret file, only to be rudely interrupted from this combative foreplay by Sylvester Stallone at the door.
It is difficult to accurately describe the sound of an audience audibly and physically deflate when what appeared to be a trailer for a Mr. & Mrs. Smith-style action rom-com turned out to be a bait-and-switch for the fourth Expendables movie.
Search online and the only synopsis you will find is “Armed with every weapon they can get their hands on, the Expendables are the world’s last line of defense and the team that gets called when all other options are off the table.” That is not a plot, that is merely the raison d’etre of the group. The plot, if interested, revolves around stopping Iko Uwais from detonating a nuclear bomb, and the search for a Keyser Soze-style criminal mastermind’s identity.
Anyone with a basic grasp of the movies and storytelling 101 will realise this is setting the film up for a big “twist”. The problem with building in a plot twist is that for it to be effective, it has to come as a genuine surprise to the audience. This one is so clearly signposted, you can see it from space.
One of the early “jokes” made by the crew relates to Dolph Lundgren‘s character’s eyesight. The implication being he is so old, he might compromise the mission. Unfortunately, it is not old age but general incompetence that handicaps any chance of success the movie might have had, as it fails on almost every level of storytelling, character development, editing, and more.
It is simply poorly constructed from the ground up. It begins with a cold open of Iko Uwais’s character executing a raid on “Gaddafi’s old chemical plant”. It then switches to an extended sequence with Stallone and Statham leading to them being assigned a mission to stop Uwais getting his hands on the nuclear detonators. This must take place over the course of a day and a half but they then arrive during the raid.
It could have all been achieved in an extended prologue before cutting to the title card. However, the confusing structure screams of changes in the editing room to provide more scenes of Stallone and Statham together. For reasons that will become clear as the film goes on. One must make use of someone with an “And… ” credit where they can.
The subplot that sets up a dynamic where lovers Statham and Fox are at odds when she is named team leader, sees any potential for tension and character development fizzle out like a damp squib in favour.
It also becomes just the latest in a long line of Hollywood movies to completely waste the talents of its Asian stars. Uwais and Tony Jaa have shown the world just what they are capable of in films such as The Raid and Ong Bak. Able to deliver incredible feats of brutal action in long extended takes, that ability is masked by overuse of CG blood splatter and choppy editing on a par with the Liam Neeson jumping over a fence cut in Taken 3.
Finally, the biggest issue with the film, and its predecessors, is not following through on the notion of the characters’ expendability. These extremely dangerous missions should have a cost to their success. Yet, like the recent Scream sequels, there is a reticence to biting the bullet, sometimes literally, and sacrificing their stars for the mission. It creates a barrier for the audience in terms of believing the danger and stakes in play.
These movies were, to take an analogy from The Big Short, the synthetic CDO of the action movie industry. Where audiences might not pay to see a movie centred around one single ageing former action hero, but they might pay to watch a movie featuring several of them together. On this evidence, they might ask for a refund!
The definition of Expendable is “of relatively little significance, and therefore able to be abandoned or destroyed.” It used to refer to the disposability of these guns-for-hire. Sadly now, it refers to the franchise as a whole. Of little significance and should be abandoned and destroyed.
Expend4bles is in UK cinemas from September 22nd.