‘Expend4bles’ Is ‘Mission: Impossible’ for Morons
Last year, Quentin Tarantino made the fairly obvious observation that audiences don’t go to movies for stars anymore — they go to see a character they love. (Chris Hemsworth is nice and all, but you’re really buying a ticket to see Thor.) But if there’s one franchise that’s the exception to that rule, it’s the Expendables. I defy even hardcore fans of the franchise to tell me the names of its main characters, which are Barney Ross and Lee Christmas. Nobody is going to a new Expendables flick to catch up with Barney Ross and Lee Christmas. They’re there to watch Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham do their shtick — a shtick that, remarkably, has now extended over four films. This series is proof that if there’s anything moviegoers crave more than action, it’s older dudes cracking terrible jokes back and forth to one another.
Expend4bles, the first movie in the franchise in nine years, reunites Barney and Lee, sticking them with a whole new group of past-their-prime movie stars. Don’t worry: Dolph Lundgren and Randy Couture are back, too, reprising their roles as… Gunner Jensen and Toll Road. (Admit it, you had to look that up, didn’t you?) It’s a sign of the sophistication of the humor wielded in this series that a lot of the supporting players have dopey names. 50 Cent plays Easy Day. There’s a character named Lash. Perhaps my favorite is Megan Fox, who is Lee’s tempestuous girlfriend — her name is Gina. Everybody else sounds like they’re a knockoff G.I. Joe action figure — meanwhile, she’s just… Gina. Considering the amount of character development that goes into Fox’s role, it’s a miracle she isn’t called Girl Expendable or Boobs.
Not much has changed in the world of the Expendables over the past decade. Barney and Lee still exchange putdowns, each actor grumbling his in a mumbly monotone. But soon, they and the rest of their team must stop nuclear weapons from getting into the wrong hands, traveling to Libya to do battle with the evil terrorist Rahmat (The Raid’s Iko Uwais). The Expendables fail in their mission — even worse, one of their members dies — and the gang spend a scene licking their wounds before their boss Marsh (Andy Garcia) orders them to go after Rahmat. Our weathered warriors accept their assignment with relish — this is now personal for the Expendables.
Directed by Scott Waugh (Act of Valor, Need for Speed), Expend4bles very much follows the template of earlier installments. The action is incredibly violent — after foolishly going for a PG-13 rating with The Expendables 3, the new movie is back up to R — and the bad punchlines never stop flying. From the beginning, Stallone (who directed the 2010 original) leaned into the joke that these films were ridiculous, allowing washed-up older dudes like him one more opportunity to pretend they were badass soldiers killing America’s enemies. It turned out, though, that there was a sizable aging audience who loved these actors, happy to pay money to watch Jet Li, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Terry Crews and Bruce Willis do their thing. (Mickey Rourke was also in the first film: His name was Tool Ross.) Capitalizing on the popularity of geriaction flicks thanks to Liam Neeson’s Taken blockbusters, The Expendables and its fans reveled in nostalgia, the sequels amping up the carnage and the get-off-my-lawn humor.
Hilariously, the new film tries crafting an emotional undercurrent by killing off a beloved character early on. How will the Expendables be able to go on without (redacted)?!?! But although the team’s revenge mission is meant to be laced with grief and regret, fear not because Expend4bles is just as stupid and corny as the previous movies. There are still a ton of groan-worthy quips delivered by actors who have never been known for their comedic timing. Because the lines aren’t very good, the ensemble — the ens4mble? — mostly employ the same technique, which is to say them in a bored, blasé way meant to make these heroes seem hardened and cynical, but instead leaves the impression that they’re sleepy and need a nap. Among the cast, Statham is easily the best-equipped to do jokes since he’s made a career creating a wry ironic distance from the junky action films in which he usually finds himself. When he and Stallone exchange barbs, it’s not a fair fight: Stallone stumbles over the words while Statham growls with panache. He’s the one guy in Expend4bles who’s actually legitimately funny as an action star. (As a side note, when can we have that Spy sequel?)
There’s always been a fascinating dichotomy at the heart of this series, which celebrates its muscle-bound, graying supermen, who always sport massive machine guns or hardcore hand-to-hand combat weapons, while insisting that the whole thing’s really just tongue-in-cheek. On occasion, these movies, despite their neanderthal “dudes be blowin’ shit up” vibe, can be quite charming in their “not ready for primetime” lightheartedness. At a moment when the Fast and Furious and Mission: Impossible franchises feature huge budgets, elaborate set pieces and gigantic stars — chronicling the astounding derring-do of experts in the art of takin’ care of business — the Expendables movies are meagerly over-the-top, relying on excess over finesse in their action sequences and parading some of the worst CGI in human history. But if anything, the franchise’s threadbare qualities — which extend to the caliber of actors who appear in these movies (Statham, part of the Fast and Furious universe, is really the only legitimate marquee name at this point) — are part of the appeal. We’re meant to laugh with these decrepit soldiers, who know they’re too old for this shit but keep going out there anyway. What else are they supposed to do? Retire with dignity?
It’s not just that Expend4bles wants to resurrect these bygone stars’ glory days — these films also seek to reclaim the hallowed period of action films in which buff dudes said little beyond moldy catchphrases and awesome puns when the bad guy dies. The franchise has done its best to bring back the 1980s, when Stallone ruled, reveling in the sort of woodenly-acted flicks that don’t really exist anymore. Back then, it was just accepted that Stallone or Schwarzenegger would kill a bunch of people and, usually unintentionally, also be funny. Not that you would call Cobra or Predator an action-comedy, but the cheesiness of those bro-out extravaganzas made you laugh nonetheless. Like the three films that preceded it, Expend4bles isn’t oblivious to how dopey it is — quite the contrary, the film embraces its cheese factor, albeit without the wit or inspiration necessary to make that distinction matter. The movie is like a lame, lumbering ‘80s flick, except now it keeps actively trying to be comedic — sadly, these things were more amusing before they were self-aware.
Maybe that’s why some of Expend4bles’ best bits are the straight-up dumbest. Gunner Jensen is a recovering alcoholic trying to stay sober on the battlefield — a searing inner conflict we’re meant to care about because Lundgren keeps staring blankly at a flask in his pocket. (If I was on the Expendables, I would be a good friend and simply take the flask away from him.) How that gets resolved is stupendously stupid — it will no doubt not be championed in AA meetings across the land — but by that point, you may be too busy asking yourself, “Wait… am I crazy, or did they make a Mean Girls reference a little while ago? And did they really do a Rambo joke?”
Would it surprise you to learn that, at one point, the Expendables blast a 50 Cent song, even though 50 Cent (not playing himself) is also in the movie? (Hey, come to think of it, 50 Cent was also in Spy. Boy, that was a good film.) And, in case you wondered how a fine dramatic actor like Andy Garcia gets into character to play a no-nonsense CIA agent, the answer is, “He chews a toothpick in every scene.” Why he’s named Marsh and not Toothpick is best left to brighter minds than you and I.
The grunting, wholesomely idiotic Expend4bles caters to people who don’t ask much of their action movies: just some gruesome kills, some muscular fights and some awful jokes. Other blockbusters flaunt how fleet they are, but the Expendables movies have always been more meat-and-potatoes. People throw grenades and shoot massive guns. Guys stab the shit out of other guys. Where John Wick is brutal and efficient, the Expendables just lay waste to everything. It’s a volume game with these folks — volume in terms of the square footage of destruction and the noise level. (No doubt that’s to help with the older audience, whose hearing is probably shot.) And when the Expendables aren’t killing, they’re clowning around. In Expend4bles, there are jokes about penis size, how chicks are crazy, the way Asians flip the bird and how uncool it is when people show their feelings. Megan Fox and Levy Tran are the film’s principal female characters, but as far as everyone’s concerned, they’re just one of the guys — albeit guys that the rest of them enjoy sexually harassing.
Watching Expend4bles in the theater is like going back in time to when sexism was as important as steroids in action flicks. There’s a meathead quality to the film that’s funny as long as you don’t think about it too much. Stallone and his buddies are long in the tooth — Fox, who’s 37, is practically an infant by comparison — and they refuse to walk off into the sunset. Let other franchises be sharp, sleek machines — these guys (and gals) are content to be oafish mercenaries who chomp on big cigars and prefer walking in groups in slow-motion, somehow always getting the job done. Expend4bles is Mission: Impossible for morons.