There was a time when action movie stars reigned supreme. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, former body-building champ (and future governor of California) Arnold Schwarzenegger was the highest-paid actor on the planet. His closest rival, Sylvester Stallone, enjoyed similar success with his Rocky and Rambo movies – Rocky IV broke all box office records on release in 1985, and that same year he was invited to the White House to give a special screening of Rambo: First Blood Part II to then-president Ronald Reagan.
But times change, and after being lost in the movie wilderness for almost two decades, Stallone reignited some of his pull at the box office by dusting off old favourites Rocky Balboa and John Rambo for recent outings in 2006 and 2008. Maybe there’s life in the old action movie yet.
Testing the theory, new film The Expendables pulls no punches, and is eagerly awaited thanks to its impressive cast of current and past action stars – Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke, Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Bruce Willis and even old rival Arnold Schwarzenegger. Expect big explosions and cheesy one-liners all round. We caught up with Stallone to find out more.
How did The Expendables start out?
With Jason and Jet. It was originally a different story, about the CIA, and had people such as Ben Kingsley and Forest Whitaker. Someone suggested I lose that part, so I thought, ‘Let’s just fill it up with bad-asses.’
Why did you choose to shoot The Expendables in Brazil?
Brazil was great; they allowed us to blow up everything! We couldn’t do that in America. We couldn’t do those kinds of stunts and use real fire – in America everyone is trying to save the squirrels, and unfortunately we are more limited, so that’s why everyone is using CGI. Down there you don’t need CGI, you just blow it up.
What was it like the day you, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis were on set together?
It was kind of like ending up in an old-age home with your best friends. Wow, let’s rock in the chairs together and talk about the good old times. We were glad to see each other because we talk in shorthand and we’ve known each other for so long. But we were nervous. No one wants to look foolish, and it’s one thing to say, ‘Okay, Governor, say this’ and, ‘Come on, more energy,’ and you never know when he’s going to say, ‘Shut up’ and leave. But it all worked out great. It’s like we’d been avoiding doing this for years, and now it’s on film forever. We were joking, saying we shouldn’t smoke cigars in the church where we filmed the scene, but we kind of just took it over.
What about the competitive aspect?
Dolph Lundgren said he saw a clip of you working out on YouTube and it propelled him to get into shape. I leaked that, to throw down the gauntlet. It freaked those guys out, and sure enough it worked.
You’re 64 now. How does your body respond to the action?
My body doesn’t respond to kindness any more. I was working with Dolph [in Rocky IV], but I could not do that fight today and take those falls and hits – I watch it in awe. What was I made of – rubber? So you lose flexibility and everything hurts a little more. What I’ve learned is how to maintain pain and deal with it.
How have action movies changed during your career?
They’re now geared to a very young audience. We tended to do a bolder kind of film, where in the end we didn’t end up very happy, you didn’t always get the girl. Today, once Batman has Velcroed his muscles on, it’s different. Our action was very close quarters, man on man, and it was never man against beast, against spaceship.
What’s the hardest film you’ve directed?
Rocky Balboa [in 2006], because everything was against me: it was like a public joke and there was no money. If I told you I was going to do a boxing movie about a 60-year-old guy who still fights, and when the Rocky movie before that was a disaster, it was the hardest thing to get money for – but that made it personal for me. So it’s the movie I’m most proud of, because it was the most difficult. In The Expendables, you’re following other people’s journeys. I tried to mathematically figure it out so it had the same amount of action as Rambo, but it’s about five times as much.
Would you ever follow Arnie into politics?
First I’d make politics illegal. Do you want to see the US go to hell? Have you seen my movies? I bomb everything.
The Expendables is showing in UAE cinemas now.