Jason Statham entertains in an otherwise very ropey action sequel. Here’s our The Expendables 4 review:
Last year’s grossly underseen Noah Baumbach film, White Noise, starts with a lecture on car crashes. Specifically, American car crashes. More specifically, American car crashes in cinema (that last addendum makes it much less depressing).
Aside from being very funny to hear Don Cheadle’s earnest academic discussing the artistic legacy of the US while watching a bunch of model cars being detonated off cliffs, the monologue actually makes a pretty decent point. While it’s easy to dismiss big, bombastic action set-pieces as empty fluff, there’s a real artistry that goes into these staples of action cinema. Anyone can blow up a Ford Carola (please don’t try this at home); it takes a lot of skill to blow a car up well.
Where am I going with this? The explosions in The Expendables 4 (or Expend4bles, if you want to give pronouncing that a go) are very bad.
I’ll briefly get the plot out of the way before I get back on my soap box. Jason Statham’s Christmas and Sylvester Stallone’s Barney are hanging out, expending (punching) things and generally looking rather blasé about the frequent killing sprees they’re sent on by Andy Garcia’s suit-wearing pencil pusher, Marsh.
One of these missions (which the screen tells us is set in “Gadaffi’s Old Chemical Plant”) goes a bit wrong, and for one reason or another, the gang have to get back together to kill Iko Uwais’ sharpened baton-wielding Rahmat before he detonates a nuke on the Russian border. Admittedly, Rahmat’s threat would be a lot more alarming if the resultant explosion seemed to exist on this side of a green screen.
In most films, even most action films, a bit of dodgy CGI wouldn’t be a deal breaker. But this is The Expendables. This is the testosterone-stuffed, gratuitously violent boom-fest whose first instalment saw a man split in half by a thrown machete. The explosions and unusually bloody take-downs are literally the reason we’re here.
It sounds like the filmmakers knew that going in, too. Much has been made in interviews and the film’s marketing about the franchise returning to its violent, gritty roots. After the controversy surrounding The Expendables 3’s decision to aim for a PG-13 rating in the States, 4’s freshly minted R rating has been paraded around like a badge of honour.
The problem is, it’s really quite hard to see why. Aside from a slightly steamy fight scene between Jason Statham and Megan Fox early in the film (during which no clothes are taken off, no injuries are sustained and no actual, er, business takes place) there’s very little to justify a higher rating. Not that there has to be, you understand, but if the filmmakers were trying to recapture what made the first films work, they haven’t quite managed it.
On a purely technical level, one explosion (which is actually very integral to the plot) looks like it’s been lifted from a Nintendo 64 game. Every time a vehicle is hit with a missile, the interior shot shows a cast-member gently leaning to one side even when the blast has knocked off a wing or a door panel. Fight scenes are shot with the camera so close to the action, and edited so bizarrely, that it’s really quite difficult to tell what’s going on.
Appreciating that there must have been some pretty hefty difficulties during production, the whole thing feels very rushed. Every scene is noticeably over-lit, the use of green screen is more obvious here than in any film I can remember from the last few years, and the script sort of peters out at what feels like the end of the second act.
True, Statham, Stallone and the rest of the cast do their best to give the story some kind of stakes. If nothing else, it’s quite nice to see them on screen together again after eight Expendable-free years. But it is a shame that Megan Fox’s Gina proves to be a horribly underwritten and outdated addition to the franchise who is often relegated to her role as Christmas’ crazy girlfriend. In hindsight it might be a bit of wishful thinking to hope The Expendables of all franchises would make moves towards gender equality, but, I mean, come on – it would’ve been nice to see them making an effort.
Instead, The Expendables 4 feels like a film out of time in more ways than one. With an ageing cast, poor visual effects and a premise that doesn’t do nearly enough to distinguish itself from its past, it’s hard to find much in Stallone and co.’s latest outing to justify another bite of the apple. After 13 years and more explosions than we can count, it feels like this particular franchise has finally run out of gas.
The Expendables 4 is in cinemas from 22 September.
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