Tom Jolliffe looks at the impending production of The Expendables 4, long-delayed but now seemingly ready to rumble…
Eleven years on from the first film, the time seems nigh for the fourth instalment in a somewhat unexpected franchise. The faded appeal of a collection of action icons from the 1980s was the starting point in the first instance, that struck a nostalgic chord with predominantly men of a certain age. The bulk of said fan base hasn’t really changed much in the last decade either – we’re all just a bit older and pudgier. Still, despite a drop in takings for the third film, it made enough around the world (notably China) to keep the idea of a fourth one on the table.
Sylvester Stallone’s gravitas and standing in the genre was key in magnetising this collection of occasionally interchanging action men into the films. It was his brainchild and he was the only one who could pull it off. There’s no escaping the fact that the first three films have been a decidedly inconsistent. Some parts are good, some not so good. The second instalment, laced with a little more winking irony and the most coherent final cut, remains the best, even if it borders on spoof at times. The moment Chuck Norris walked onto screen, with his own ‘facts’ referenced on screen, was the moment you knew that they were rolling with the silliness of the whole concept. Some fans liked that approach. Others wanted something better. They wanted something more concerned with making a piece of film and not merely an open stage for simple nostalgic retreat.
It’s been seven years now since the last one, which was overstuffed with cast, and had the misguided idea that the male fans over 25 actually wanted their old guard heroes to be fazed out in place of young blood like Kellan Lutz. This, we did not. Almost every summer we get the grapevine aflutter with news that the film is going to shoot in the winter. It’s usually Randy Couture who starts the talk, but this time Stallone (as well as Couture) has made the suggestion and it would seem like a very strong likelihood that we’re finally going to see this going into production. A rethink in the last few years has of course been understandable. The disappointing returns of the last instalment would have stung, but additionally there has been noted friction between Stallone and Millennium head honcho Avi Lerner. At one time it looked like they’d parted ways. There was also much publicised beef between cast member Terry Crews and Millennium. It would seem most certain that he won’t be a part of the next one.
Does the world need or want a new instalment? The fan base remains. The franchise carries with it the lingering sense of unfinished business. Not so much of story arcs of any kind, but mostly due to the fact that we all wanted a much better film. We wanted something that was worthy of standing alongside our iconic era classics like Predator, Commando, First Blood, Lethal Weapon etc. We wanted something genuinely old school and with strong, clear, concise direction. We haven’t had it yet. We’ve had messily constructed films (with a consistent theme of last minute rewrites, and difficult post productions hampered by differing creative visions). The films have crammed together massive casts, but have been unable to suitably disperse adequate screen time, or effective character development. Villains have been underused (disappointingly given Eric Roberts, JCVD and Mel Gibson respectively stole the first three movies at a canter). The opening film did seem to have an enjoyable chemistry between Jason Statham and Sly Stallone, which was lost in the second and third where Statham became more of a background player (in part due to scheduling).
What we have right now is an ample opportunity for something like this. Streaming is becoming a bigger market than ever, and there’s a sense that the idea of synchronised releasing with cinema and PPV could be a viable way to move into a post-COVID landscape. There should also be a willing audience in Asia who can bump up the worldwide theatrical takings for a new Expendables too. So how can they do it right? How can they finally make the right Expendables film?
Firstly, we need stakes. The clue is in the title. Thus far though, these boys haven’t been very expendable. The current feeling is that the fourth film will be the one that closes the franchise. After all, Stallone is 75 now and it’s clear they have to re-evaluate their expectations on what this should make in takings. Word is that the returnees will be the Boss Man, Statham, Couture, Dolph Lundgren, Wesley Snipes, and Antonio Banderas. Undoubtedly there will be additions and other names thrown into the mix, but the roster should be keep smaller than the last film for certain. Our old heroes will definitely need some interesting villains too. Some of these guys will need to be killed off. It needs to matter and we need the blaze of glory aspect. This film needs to be The Wild Bunch, with 80’s action heroes. Sam Peckinpah’s iconic western featured an old guard of past it cowboys going down in a blaze of glory. It’s the route The Expendables 4 should go.
Here’s my big rug sweep suggestion. Kill off Barney Ross. Yep, I said it. Stallone goes out all guns blazing in an opening that sets up the rest, as the gang, being hunted by a connected villain, take the fight to the hunter. A year or so back, rumours of a Statham-centered spinoff did the rounds. It might make sense to forgo that in a spinoff and bring that idea into this final franchise instalment. Right now, Statham is the bankable star of the group. Since his last outing as Christmas, he’s been on something of a rise with hit films like Spy and The Meg whilst becoming a key cog in the Fast franchise, as well as the spinoff Hobbs and Shaw. Though Statham is now well over 50 himself, he still represents the baby of the group, maintaining plenty of speed and agility. The new leader of the group for the last hurrah.
I’ve long said it and I’ve said it prior to every sequel, but make these characters more interesting. Give Lundgren, Snipes et al, something to do beyond being background artists. Lundgren’s Gunner Jensen was one of the more interesting characters in the first film, but felt underused. He became more of a comedic side line in the second, which actually worked quite well, but lets give him some gravitas in the next one, whilst Wesley Snipes, on something of a comeback himself, needs the opportunity to show his acting chops and make his character more engaging.
Another important thing will be to lock in their script. Keep it simple, character focused and create an engaging world for this gang. Sly became notorious for last minute hand written changes on a morning of shooting, which would then have a bearing on the story going ahead. There comes a moment here too, where Stallone needs to step back, trust his writer and director and focus on his performance. The director, whether Patrick Hughes returns or someone else comes in, needs to be able to deliver a vision not hamstrung by Stallone and Lerner. Much of the last film’s incoherence came down to a distinct feeling it was a confused star and producer’s vision which Hughes tried his best to adhere to. There’s a great film in him and I rate Red Hill a lot. To bring some of that dusty, atmospheric modern Western tone back could be beneficial. Whoever helms needs space to do it and to deliver a hard R action film because it’s also time for Lerner to realise that there isn’t a younger audience interested in these films. Cater to your core demographic and deliver a decent action film.
Finally one of my biggest bugbears has always been too much reliance on CGI. There’s more than is necessary and belies the repeated declarations from the cast and producers that this is a proper old school franchise. Further, Millennium’s CGI is never up to par and ends up cheapening the films. Hope remains, albeit slim, that this will be the one which gets it right, that gives each cast member enough space to shine in a film that feels worthy of those the concept was born from. If not, there’s always John Wick: Chapter 4, another instalment in a franchise that got things very right.
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Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.