The key to the Expendables film series is, “If at first you do succeed, keep it going.” That quote isn’t taken from anywhere but applies to the characters, as the fourth film in the franchise, Expend4bles, hits cinemas this weekend.

Having recently revisited the first three films, it is clear that the characters come first. Humor breaks up the drudge created by the onslaught of action, and Scott Waugh’s Expend4bles is in no short supply of either. Common sense comes from Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), a leader who puts his people first while conforming to the mission parameters.

For this fourth entry in the franchise, Stallone isn’t credited with writing the story or screenplay and plays Barney as a lovable hard-ass. The mission is the priority, but what makes Barney interesting is how he treats his people. He knows that to get the job done, a leader depends on his team’s skill sets and specialties, working in harmony.

Whether it’s a joke shared with Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) or openly mocking Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren) for his new hairstyle, Barney knows his people, with a penchant for safety first while achieving the mission objectives.

The story, by Spenser Cohen, Kurt Wimmer, and Ted Daggenhart (screenplay by Wimmer, Daggenhart, and Max Adams), has transition on its mind, as Barney takes a literal backseat to Christmas. Statham assumes his function assuredly as Rahmat (Iko Uwais) steals nuclear warheads from Libya, with the team having to stop Rahmat and a murky figurehead, Ocelot, from inciting World War III.

If the story sounds heady, it really is. Although the world isn’t emboldened by the Cold War and the fact that nations want other nations’ resources today, we’re still in the middle of a growing conflict, and an outright war is something of a concern for Marsh (Andy Garcia), the CIA handler of the hour. Jokingly, after Bruce Willis’ tour of duty in the Expendables franchise came to a loggerhead with the production after the second film, the CIA representative rotated between the third and fourth entries in the series. It does manage to keep things fresh in terms of characters if the rotation spins itself out of control. It’s like a box of Crackerjacks – you never know what the prize is inside, but you always hunt through the kernels to get at it before enjoying the kernels you just sullied to get at it. And you’re never disappointed. It’s the satisfaction of digging for the prize and enjoying the kernels afterward.

Amongst those kernels is Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson as Easy Day. He’s as laid back as the next, with a keen eye and even keener intellect. Megan Fox is Gina, Christmas’ former girlfriend (the scene where they have it out is hilarious). Jacob Scipio plays Galan with a connection to another member of the Expendables, serving with a long arm and a longer stream (you’ll get the joke when you see the movie.) Levy Tran stars as Lash, a former CIA operator, and a new team member, and she can definitely hold her own. Randy Couture returns as Toll Road with the same story about his elephant ear. Not having reviewed the first three entries, this is the first opportunity to speak on that, which is to say that I like how the character’s affliction is a part of the story rather than being objectified. Wear and tear on these mercs is imperative – what they do and how they get the job done is an integral part of their legacy, which is where Tony Jaa as Decha comes in. Within his peaceful nature, you know the character is on guard and, with a swift kick, can knock you to the ground.

Uwais, who first impressed in The Raid, brings his expert form of martial arts to bear and literally takes no prisoners. His directness and swiftness are not to be questioned in his second villainous role. The character’s function in the film isn’t as assured. That’s not a function of the character but of the story. Like Barney, you always feel “transition” at the back of your neck regarding Rahmat. That transitionary nature does not diminish the power Rahmat has over the other characters.

The story uses its character’s transition to play itself out. Thinking more about it, the twist in the plot is obvious, but the characters involved in it keep their cards close to their chests. Even though it is an ensemble, Expend4bles is not a Fast & Furious-level ensemble. They are a unit rather than a family, but the concept is the same: the characters have each other’s backs.

Predicated on first-person-shooter video game play, the cheesiest element of all the films in the series is the special effects; blood doesn’t look natural, and explosions are too shimmery. What Expend4bles does get right, though, is the balance between overwrought action and the team. The over-the-top explosions and violence are a means to an end, and the movie doesn’t mind that the effects are noticeable.

Waugh (Need for Speed, Hidden Strike) knows his way around action, and we’re never disengaged from the story. He uses his camera well and visually plays the gags for what they are.

Expend4bles isn’t mindless entertainment. There is value inherent in the meaning of being a leader while focusing on the team – the people who can get the job right. The film uses all the characters, and although the story plays the transitionary nature a little too heavy-handed, Iko Uwais is the film’s MVP. We believe in his menace through the actor’s performance, and we believe in Christmas (ha!) through his commitment to the team.