There aren’t many action franchises like the Expendables movies.
Just ask Expend4bles director Scott Waugh. He calls the movies “escapism,” “tongue-in-cheek” fun where the action is tailored around one-liners. They’re loving throwbacks to an era of cheesier action movies, with stars just as capable of delivering a punchline as a vicious right hook.
“It feels like an amusement ride, right?” Waugh tells Polygon. “Like, you’re gonna go smile, you’re gonna laugh, you’re gonna watch some actors do some pretty badass stuff, and hopefully leave with some enjoyment.”
2023 has been a good year for Waugh. After a six-year gap since the release of his last movie, the Josh Hartnett survival feature 6 Below: Miracle on the Mountain, both Expend4bles and Waugh’s Jackie Chan/John Cena action comedy Hidden Strike came out within two months of each other. (Waugh tells Polygon Hidden Strike took seven years to complete.) Waugh, a former stunt performer — brother of fellow stunt performer turned director Ric Roman Waugh and son of stunt performer Fred Waugh — now has his hands on one of the biggest action franchises in America.
For Expend4bles, Waugh reunited with stunt coordinator Alan Ng and the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, who worked with him on Hidden Strike. The reunion was a no-brainer for Waugh, who praised Ng’s “ingenuity and violence” when talking to Polygon. He pitched their involvement to Jason Statham, who takes over for Sylvester Stallone as the franchise lead in this entry in the series. Statham was “super excited” to work with the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, Waugh says. Ng’s team and the cast’s stellar skills make the movie’s action the best the franchise has seen yet.
“I wanted to change the hand-to-hand combat and knife fights so they’re different to the previous Expendables,” Ng says via email. “We tried to implement some Hong Kong style with the timing.”
Ng says he studied the cast’s previous work to tailor the action’s fighting styles to their individual strengths. Expend4bles villain Suarto Rahmat (Iko Uwais) uses spiked tonfa weapons to play into Uwais’ speed and agility, while Megan Fox’s fluid choreography takes her dance background into account.
One more secret weapon came in handy on Expend4bles: Waugh grew up immersed in motocross. His affinity for racing, which previously led him to direct the 2014 crime movie Need for Speed, was a direct influence on Expend4bles’ best action scene.
When Statham’s character, Lee Christmas (Lee! Christmas!), launches a covert mission on a cargo ship, he has a lot of space to cover, with a horde of bad guys blocking the way. He stumbles across a motorcycle, and the rest is action-movie magic, as he rides up stairs, around tight hallways, and directly over people in one peak Expendables moment.
It was a particularly difficult sequence to film because of the tight quarters while shooting, Waugh says. The team considered shooting on a real ship (“We talked about it for quite some time”), but settled on using a set.
“It was challenging to figure out how to navigate all of those spaces in there and find ways to elevate, climb up stairs,” Waugh says.
But it wasn’t enough for Waugh to have a scene with a motorcycle driving on staircases and taking out bad guys in tight hallways. The motorcycle needed something else: mounted machine guns.
“That was my first thing when we were talking about the sequence,” Waugh says. “They were originally just riding around [on the bikes used for shooting], and I was like, No way. We’ve got to put some guns on these things.”
Waugh says it took some “serious engineering” to add the guns to the bikes, but the team made it work. It took two weeks to film the sequence, and Waugh brought in some extra help.
Most of the motorcycle riding was done by Statham, who Waugh says is “a skilled rider.” But for the scene’s final jump and explosive finish, Waugh called in X Games gold medalist and motorbike stunt performer Robbie Maddison. The big jump took multiple takes, because of the massive height Waugh needed Maddison to clear.
“The last one he did for me, he did it five times,” Waugh says. “I came up to Robbie and I said, ‘Hey, bud, I need you. Would you do me a solid? I need you to try to wick it even more this time and get inverted. Because I want those guns pointed straight down.’ And he looked at me and kind of smiled. He goes, ‘All right, brother, I’ll try one more.’ And that’s the one that’s in the movie. And he almost bit the dust on it. But he saved it. He had to over-rev to bring it back, and he saved it, and he was like, ‘Yeah, I think that’s about it.’
“It should just make you smile, because it’s kind of silly in its own respect,” Waugh says. “We don’t take ourselves that seriously. We’re having fun, and you’re gonna, too.”
Expend4bles is now out in theaters.