Sylvester Stallone returns to the big screen in The Expendables, where the action hero fights against all odds to overcome the bad guys.
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It shows Stallone-still in remarkable shape at 63-being body-slammed into a brick wall in the catacombs of what is supposed to be the capital of a Latin American island republic. Stallone, a solidly built 5-foot-10 with what looks to be about 4 percent body fat, is the slammee-and the slammer is the massive "Stone Cold" Steve Austin of World Wrestling Entertainment fame, a daunting 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds of manhandling brutality.
A cloud of dust rises-and as it settles, Stallone calls cut, then says, "Shit," puts a hand to the back of his neck and walks off the set.
Back in his office, Stallone hits "pause" on the remote, then reaches into a drawer in his desk, rummages around in a file and comes up with an X-ray: his neck, with what looks like a small clothespin on one of the vertebrae.
"I've got a bolt in my neck where he cracked the vertebra," Stallone says. Then he flicks the DVD back into action: It's Stallone, looking at an MRI of his shoulder from the same hit, with a doctor telling him he needs surgery to correct the blown rotator cuff he also suffered.
"I knew it was really fucking bad," Stallone says, indicating the image on the TV screen. "The doctor wanted to fix my neck and my shoulder right then. But that would have meant closing down the movie."
Stallone eventually had a quartet of surgeries to repair the damage that comes from doing 90 percent of your own stunts-but not until after filming was complete. The Expendables, set to open in mid-August, never halted production for Stallone to have his injuries repaired.
"I just wanted to do something original, something physical, something that would keep me young in the brain-so I don't have to admit I can't do this anymore," Stallone says with a rueful smile.
Still, he has another message as well: I'm human. When Stallone escapes Austin's clutches and gets back to his own men, one of them asks, "Where have you been?"
"Getting my ass kicked," comes the reply, with an "At least I survived" shrug.
As Stallone points out, his first paying job as an actor was in 1970-which means that, as of 2010, he's been in the business for 40 years. But in all that time, a Sylvester Stallone character had never uttered those words.
"It was an ad lib," Stallone says, lighting up an OpusX and leaning back in a chair behind a rugged wooden desk in his production company's office, one nicely appointed floor of a nondescript building in Beverly Hills, within a couple of blocks of the Beverly Hilton. "I just thought it was important to demystify the Rambo and Rocky legend as being unbeatable. Just because you get your ass kicked doesn't mean you're over. And the audience gets that."
Not surprisingly, The Expendables, which Stallone co-wrote, directed and stars in, is an underdog story. At the age of 63, with a career that's had more ups and downs than a Six Flags roller coaster since "Rocky" won the Oscar for best picture in 1977, Stallone still feels like an underdog.
"That's my journey in life-along with choosing the darkest, least traveled road," Stallone says. "I wish that things could be handed to me. I wish a great script would come in with financing and everything else in place. But it ain't happening. For me, everything has been do-it-yourself. And it hasn't stopped yet. I'm still basically generating projects for myself. I'd rather have someone else generating them for me. But that's not my thing, apparently."
Stallone knows he doesn't have the box-office juice he had from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. He's at least a generation removed (if not more) from the largest demographic of the movie-going audience, the one that only knows his movies from cable and home video. And he's battling other perceptions as well: that he can't compete at the box office with the younger action stars because his core audience has aged to the point that it doesn't go to the movies anymore. The fact that his last couple of non-Rocky or Rambo films went straight to DVD doesn't help.
"I read the little digs from other people: ‘the ancient Stallone,' ‘the aging stallion,' that sort of thing," he says with a shrug.
But the underdog still believes that there's an audience out there who wants what he has to offer. And he's been right lately: He had international hits with his returns in Rocky Balboa (his sixth Rocky film, 2006) and Rambo (the fourth in that series) in 2008.
Now Stallone has aimed straight for the action-movie audience with The Expendables. To do so, he's assembled an all-star cast representing a variety of fighting disciplines. Along with pro-wrestling star Austin, Stallone has Hong Kong martial arts master Jet Li, British action star Jason Statham, mixed-martial arts champion Randy Couture, the mammoth Dolph Lundgren and wild cards Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts.
Stallone never meant to be an action hero. Now he needs an action hit-the kind he's best known for-to open up possibilities for future projects he'd like to direct (if not necessarily act in).
"If The Expendables is a hit, opportunities will present themselves," Stallone says. "You have to be very sensitive about the opportunities you're given. They're few and far between and diminishing quickly. You don't get many second chances. If this were baseball, it would be two strikes and you're out."
Just to cross-pollinate the audience further, he rounded up performers who were already major figures in a universe other than Hollywood-Couture, Austin, even Jet Li, it could be argued-to give the film the kind of want-to-see factor to crossover beyond the action-movie audience that ensures a big opening weekend.
"The hard part was putting together a team where everybody is somebody, where everybody is known and has a following and isn't an X factor," Stallone says. "They've all got an ongoing relationship with the audience. People want to compare this to The Dirty Dozen, but in The Dirty Dozen, with the exception of Lee Marvin, they were still mostly unknowns. Telly Savalas? Trini Lopez? Unknown then. Even John Cassavetes wasn't a big star."
The Expendables also features a casting coup of sorts: a scene which, for the first time, puts Stallone on the same screen with his old box-office rivals Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis.
"It was Bruce's idea to have us all in a room, nose to nose for one scene," Stallone says. "I give him total credit. But we were only finally able to shoot it four months after the rest of the movie wrapped. We shot it at 4 a.m. and four hours later Arnold was on to his political duties, we struck the set-and it was like it never happened."
Dolph Lundgren, who was a Swedish engineering student when Stallone plucked him from anonymity to star in Rocky IV as Russian boxer Ivan Drago, says that Stallone brings the same intensity to the set that he did 25 years ago.
"He's still in great shape," Lundgren says. "He's mellowed out a little but he's still very driven when he works. He challenged and inspired us as actors. You watch him and you want to do your best. Plus, when you're in a movie with that many talented people, it makes you work harder. Having that many famous actors in one movie gives it a special feeling that's quite unusual."
For Steve Austin, just the opportunity to work with Stallone-let alone pound him into submission-was thrill enough.
"I'm a huge Sly fan," Austin says. "I've seen all of his movies. So when I heard he wanted to talk to me, I didn't know what to think. But right away, when I went to his office, we started talking about working out. And he's a big wrestling fan. So we had a lot of common ground."
The Expendables stars Stallone as the aging head of a group of mercenaries, who are offered a job removing the dictator of a small Latin American island republic. But, while doing reconnaissance on the island, Stallone and partner Jason Statham are spotted; as they're making their escape, Stallone offers to take his guide, a spirited young female revolutionary, with them. She refuses-and Stallone eventually decides he has to go back and rescue her, if only to salve his conscience for the years of black ops and other hired killing he's done.
At one point, the young female freedom fighter is questioned by the dictator's men about the whereabouts of Stallone's character. When she refuses to talk, they lean her back, cover her face with a towel, then pour water over her face-trying to elicit information by waterboarding her.
"People ask, ‘Is it torture?' and I have to say, yeah, it is," says Stallone, who put himself through the process before filming the scene with the actress. "Is it horrible? Yeah. As soon as they start pouring water and it gets up your nose, you have no chance. You panic and start to breathe through your mouth-and then you start swallowing water, too. But she was great-she did it three times."
Stallone seems surprised when it's suggested that, given the politics surrounding the interrogation method, the film could arouse controversy.
"I do think it's going to sway a lot of people who might be on the fence, who will say, ‘This is pretty barbaric'," he says.
But it wouldn't be the first time one of his films became a source of provocation. His Rambo: First Blood, Part II (1985)-in which John Rambo went back to Southeast Asia to rescue MIAs and POWs and uttered the line, "Do we get to win this time?"-drew kudos from no less a critic than former film star Ronald Reagan, who happened to be president of the United States at the time.
"Reagan said, ‘Rambo's a Republican'," Stallone recalls. "He said that, after seeing Rambo, he knew what to do in Libya-and my blood ran cold. He took a fictional character and turned it into a philosophy."
For The Expendables, Stallone envisioned a scenario in which several of the stars with the most distinctive fighting styles would be pitted against each other. So there are a pair of Jet Li-Dolph Lundgren encounters (Lundgren, a third-degree black belt, is a former captain of the Swedish National Karate Team); the showdown between Stallone and Austin; and a final flesh-pounding battle between Austin and mixed martial arts ace Couture (a five-time UFC champion).