Expend4bles (R) ★ by Mark Kanter

In Expendables 4, we’ve got a brand-new crew of stars jumping into the mix for another epic action-packed adventure. They’re inviting back the old guard, featuring the likes of Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, and the legendary Sylvester Stallone. But this time, there’s a fresh injection of talent with Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Megan Fox, Tony Jaa, Iko Uwais, Jacob Scipio, Levy Tran, and Andy Garcia.

These folks aren’t just showing up empty-handed. They’re packing serious heat and know how to wield their weaponry like pros. When the world’s in trouble and all other options fall flat, you know who to call – The Expendables. But this time, with these newbies on board, “Initial Success. Total Failure” is about to take on a whole new meaning.

It seems we live in an era where Artificial Intelligence (AI) is quickly taking over the world. In terms of scriptwriting, the concept of generating a narrative within minutes through algorithms and machine learning by clicking the “Enter” button is disconcerting yet alluring to a production with a limited budget. AI-generated scripts can’t rival the creativity, depth, and originality of human-authored works. “Expendables 4” feels like it was written with the aid of AI. Nothing about it doesn’t lead me to believe that isn’t true. It’s a mishmash of themes and movies we’ve all seen before. It feels more like a watered-down copy of borrowed concepts from action classics like “Die Hard,” “Under Siege,” and “Bad Boys.” Regrettably, it lacks the enjoyment of those movies on any level.

Without giving away any spoilers, Sylvester Stallone’s presence in the film is notably diminished, explaining his secondary billing on the promotional materials. The chemistry between Stallone and Jason Statham, a franchise highlight, is scarcely present in this one. It becomes evident that Stallone’s limited presence cannot be substituted by any of the other characters, thereby depriving the movie of its distinct “Expendables” identity and, consequently, its entertainment value. It could be labeled “Generic Action Movie 4” rather than “Expendables 4.”

And, not for nothing, this entire movie franchise started as a “Love Letter” to the 80s action movies from the past. Only now, we have a new cast of characters who were in diapers or nonexistent when we all heard lines like “I’ll be back” and “You’re the disease; I’m the cure.” Now it’s the “Jason Statham action film with some other people shooting at stuff and things a bit too.” It’s safe to say the “Expendables” franchise has lost its way.

The seemingly AI-generated script oscillates between disjointed set pieces, from obligatory bar fights that evoke a TGI Fridays turned into a biker bar for a costume party to scenes on a boat and in an abandoned warehouse. Yes, a couple of good action scenes are on the boat, but all action unfolds without meaningful contributions to the story. I get it; it’s an action movie, so we don’t need it to be “My Dinner with Andre.” But even so, character development and story always come first. Always. Even when blowing stuff up.

Humor, a staple of action films, falls flat throughout “Expend4bles.” The poorly timed and uninspired jokes fail to engage the audience on a relatable level, missing the mark entirely. Even the characters don’t seem to enjoy the jokes when they’re told to each other. We follow their lead.

Special effects, predominantly computer-generated, appear unconvincing and expose the film’s shoestring budget. Background images of smoke and explosions pale in comparison to many of today’s video game graphics. At one point, I saw an explosion that looked like it came from “Super Mario Odyssey” when our favorite Italian plumber stomps on a “Koopa.” The subpar special effects were distracting at times, leaving me with the impression that it was not actually happening. While budget constraints are understood, focusing on enhancing the script and dialogue could have compensated for a smaller budget instead of resorting to just “Nintendo” level explosions.

Most of the action unfolds aboard a ship, reminiscent of “Under Siege,” transforming the film into a maritime version of “Die Hard” led by Jason Statham. I can practically hear the pitch meeting in my head over a $63 ham sandwich in LA (In fairness, that would include fries). Then someone had the brilliant idea to make it an expendables film, and “BAM!” It’s easier to distribute and raise money for a known IP.

Unfortunately, the characters’ lack of vulnerability or relatability makes it difficult for the audience to invest emotionally in anything they’re doing. While Statham’s prowess in action sequences is convincing, a compelling action movie demands more than that. That’s when editing and choreography come into play, and it’s lacking on both fronts. You have two incredible martial artists, Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais, who are all but wasted in this project. They are shot and edited to showcase none of their impressive martial arts talents.

Megan Fox’s introduction to the franchise feels over-the-top and lacking in authenticity. Her portrayal is more theatrical than genuine, particularly in a peculiar whiskey-drinking scene where she’s trying to come across as tough. FYI, she drinks whisky weirdly. There isn’t a worm at the bottom of the shot glass, Megan. Just saying, “Look what I can do” acting isn’t convincing, but she was credible in the action sequences. That’s a huge compliment to Fox.

Tony Jaa stands out as a bright spot in the cast, infusing charisma and depth into his character, thereby elevating the script’s quality through his performance. Similarly, Iko Uwais impresses with a captivating portrayal of the antagonist. More of them, especially Jaa, would have helped the movie. Why not make Jaa a main character?

One puzzling aspect of the film is the covert operatives prominently displaying their logo throughout the series. This conspicuous branding appears counterintuitive for operatives working clandestinely. It’s like a black van labeled “CIA” parked next to a government building or an undercover police vehicle marked “Speed Trap.” I picture the main antagonist telling his henchman, “Just look for the Expendables logo and shoot at it.”

In summary, “Expend4bles” falls short on multiple fronts, grappling with the challenge of harmonizing its scattered elements into a coherent narrative. Despite a handful of commendable performances and roughly 20 minutes of engaging action sequences, the film’s heavy dependence on seemingly AI-generated scripts and disjointed execution leaves me questioning its purpose and the reasons behind its creation. Next time, how about drawing inspiration from the 90s instead of the 80s? Then you could have “Urkel” from “Family Matters” shoot down a plane, look at the camera, and utter his “Did I do that?” catchphrase. See, I just created a better premise without needing AI to do it.

It’s playing in theaters now.

Director: Scott Waugh
Writers: Kurt Wimmer, Tad Daggerhart, and Max Adams
Cast: Jason Statham, Sylvester Stallone, 50 Cent, Megan Fox, Dolph Lundgren, Tony Jaa, Iko Uwais, Randy Couture, Jacob Scipio, Levy Tran and Andy Garcia
Distributor: Lionsgate
Production Co: Nu Boyana Film Studios, Media Capital Technologies, Campbell Grobman Films
Runtime: 1h 43m

Mark Kanter September 23, 2023