None of The Expendables films are strictly necessary, are they? The clue is in the title. But instalment number four of the elite mercenaries series manages to not be entirely extraneous to our entertainment needs, disarming as often with easy charm, as with a high-kick to the hyoid.
Sylvester Stallone launched the franchise back in 2010, as both writer-director and preeminent star among an action all-star cast that then included Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and straight-to-video stalwart Dolph Lundgren. Lundgren is still going, at the relatively sprightly age of 65; Willis, 68, announced his retirement last year following a diagnosis of aphasia; Stallone is now 77, which means he’s aged out of even the (rightfully) popular middle-aged-but-still-mean subgenre.
Jackie Chan is reportedly making another Rush Hour movie; Bob Odenkirk will school more young punks in the Nobody sequel, and there’ll undoubtedly be another Expendables. Stallone won’t be in it, though. The time has come, both in-universe and in reality, for team leader Barney to hand over cockpit control to his trusty number two, knife-expert and former SAS soldier Lee Christmas (Jason Statham, a fresh 56, now also credited as producer).
It would be a spoiler to describe exactly how this handover is carried out, suffice to say it involves some awkward sentimentality in a biker bar, but Statham is worryingly stiff in these early scenes, like a iron man who could do with some WD-40 on his joints. He eventually loosens up enough to participate in an entertaining plot diversion, in which Christmas gets a job working private security for an extremely punchable social media influencer… and punches ensue. There should have been more of that. Instead, it’s on to another top-secret, CIA-issued, World War III-averting mission, big on bombast and hazy on the details.
Among the Expendables’ many death-defying stunts, it’s usually the stunt casting that risks most, and these new additions are a typically mixed bag: 50 Cent fits right in, but Megan Fox is underused in action scenes, and unconvincing in dramatic ones. Ultimately, it’s the least familiar cast members — to western audiences, anyway — who deliver most. Thailand’s Tony Jaa (from the Ong Bak films) and Indonesia’s Iko Uwais (The Raid, The Raid 2) rejuvenate every scene they’re in with thrilling martial arts and — in Jaa’s case — enjoyably idiosyncratic line delivery.
Nostalgia for the action flick’s Eighties heyday may have launched The Expendables, but clearly the genre’s present-day innovators will be needed to sustain it.
103 mins, cert 15