Jason Statham Proves His Loyalty By Sticking Around for the Junky Expendables 4Movies Reviews Jason Statham
Through all the stilted phoniness of the male camaraderie that Sylvester Stallone’s Expendables films attempt to make their stock-in-trade, a fleeting sparkle of truth emerges: Stallone and co-star Jason Statham must genuinely like each other. In the first movie’s attempt to throw back to classic muscled-up ’80s action pictures, Statham and Jet Li were the designated sorta-young members of the all-star team, with Statham’s Lee Christmas positioned as the right-hand man of Stallone’s Barney Ross. Ever the loyal lieutenant, Statham has stuck with the series, even after his recruitment into what has become a more legit, contemporary-minded equivalent to the series. Think about it: Which has a more formidable line-up of active on-screen ass-kickers, Expendables 3 (featuring Kelsey Grammer and Kellan Lutz) or any given Fast & Furious movie from the past decade? Now The Expendables 4 (or Expend4bles, as it’s laboriously billed, the numeronym equivalent of Stallone-penned banter) presents the opportunity for Statham to inject new blood into the series – or make a clean break, given that he’s made many bigger hits since his last go-round with the boys.
Statham opts to accept a promotion to series lead, with his pal Sly playing uncharacteristic second fiddle. In their first scene together, Barney extracts Lee from a fight with his on-and-off girlfriend (and off-books-soldier coworker) Gina (Megan Fox) so he can help the older man retrieve a ring he lost in a bar bet. It’s a goof of a detour that exists primarily to let Stallone and Statham trade wan male-bonding insults about baldness and aging (and secondarily to set up a truly ghoulish callback later on). Yet there is also a recognizable mutual affection between the two men as Barney feints about his supposedly bad back and Christmas jumps into the fray to protect the honor of his pal’s costume jewelry. The guys are plainly having fun together.
Contrast this with an exposition-dump scene that follows shortly thereafter, which consists largely of Expendables returnees like Dolph Lundgren and Randy Couture asking each other who series newbies (played by rapper 50 Cent and Andy Garcia) are, and receiving clunky non-answers from the movie’s screenwriters. There’s no natural chemistry, even among actors who have appeared in multiple previous films together: Lundgren mutters something about his new sober lifestyle, Couture does his schtick where he explains cauliflower ear, and 50 Cent stands stock-still for his non-reaction shots. They’re all just milling around until Stallone or Statham tells them where to fire their oversized guns.
Those guns can only get them so far. After that opening mission goes sideways, like so many Jeeps careening across green screens, Christmas is unceremoniously booted off the team, essentially for placing his love for Barney over his duty as an Expendable. Gina then leads a new team (including two whole female mercs, Gina herself included), under the supervision of CIA handler Mars (Garcia), to finish the job: The usual bunkum about recovering stolen nukes from terrorists to prevent World War III. Christmas quietly skulks after them, plotting revenge on the bad guys and meeting the mysterious Decha (Tony Jaa) along the way.
Refashioning The Expendables into a Statham star vehicle only highlights the wrong kind of expendability from many of his long-time costars; why can’t we just watch our man kick ass on his own or in various duos? To the extent that The Expendables 4 succeeds, and by most reasonable terms it does not, it’s predicated on pairing ol’ Stath with various other stars to trade testy barbs, affectionate barbs or meaningful glances. First, he bullshits with Stallone. Then he and Fox – who, like 50 Cent, is appearing in this film more for her name recognition than any particular experience in the action genre – flirt and fight like a dirtbag Tracy and Hepburn. Fox understands that insouciance is the best tactic for creating some version of romantic chemistry with such an immovable object. Too briefly, Statham also teams up to fight alongside Jaa who, in addition to his physical dexterity, brings an ineffable good cheer to his every move.
Few of these fights, shoot-outs and stabbings are well-choreographed by director Scott Waugh, beyond some of Jaa’s flips or the stray well-executed bit of goremongering. (Most of the R-rated bloodspill looks like its levels were decided well into the post-production process.) The Expendables 4 moves quickly but not gracefully, spending a fair amount of time with a bunch of Expendables trapped on a large ship, a kinda-sorta Die Hard scenario that doesn’t die very hard. For a bunch of forgotten scapegoats who charge headlong into danger, there isn’t much ultimate bodily risk to being an Expendable, at least not in the short-term; whatever health problems await Lundgren’s Gunner Jensen after he cavalierly throws away months of hard-won sobriety are deferred so that it can play as a late-movie gag. (If you’re like a drunken master but for shooting people, doesn’t that just make you a violent alcoholic?) And it’s hard to sell a sense of stoic mortality when The Expendables 4 can’t even sell a sense of the heroes actually being near an ocean. It’s not surprising or even all that offensive that a “big” action movie would rely so heavily on green screens, but it’s a little disappointing that no one except Jaa or Raid series veteran Iko Uwais (playing the heavy) seems especially committed to acting or fighting their way through the illusion.
Yet there are pieces of The Expendables 4 that seem poised for reassembly into a livelier piece of junk. Maybe get Statham, Fox and Jaa to form their own mini-Expendables, outside the husk of ’80s nostalgia. Then you might have something. Even what the movie offers instead has an eye-rolling, ramshackle charm — an oaf you can’t stay mad at. If Stallone has gone through long stretches of unrelatability in his worst movies, The Expendables 4 does bring him back him down to the common man with its flashes of dorky buddy-movie glee: Hey, I like Jason Statham too!
Director: Scott Waugh
Writer: Kurt Wimmer, Tad Daggerhart, Max Adams
Starring: Jason Statham, Megan Fox, Sylvester Stallone, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Tony Jaa, Iko Uwais, Dolph Lundgren, Andy Garcia
Release Date: September 22, 2023
Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.