Generally speaking, a press conference will stereotypically be populated by hardened hacks, cynical about their work and the celebrities they have been sent to interview, desperate to catch out the interviewee on anything which might qualify as a scoop. When faced with Sylvester ‘Sly’ Stallone, Jason Statham and Dolph Lundgren (best known as the evil Russian opponent in ‘Rocky IV’), however, a room full of journalists will suddenly turn rather polite, even enthusiastic. This may have something to do with the actors’ physically imposing statures – they tower over the room at a collective 18 feet – yet it isn’t just fear that wins over the hacks. Instead, the surprising truth is these beefy action stars are polite, funny, intelligent and (in Lundgren’s case) even a little shy.
Such politeness is not necessarily expected by all, particularly as we have already been subjected to ‘The Expendables’, the film they are here to promote. It’s a loud, brash, and extremely stupid film, so bursting with testosterone and manliness that you leave the cinema intent on starting a fight with a passer-by or shooting an endangered animal. This is primarily due to its stellar action cast: alongside Stallone (who co-wrote and directed the film), Statham and Lundgren, The Expendables stars Jet Li, Steve Austin, Randy Couture, Terry Crews (from those incredible Old Spice adverts) Bruce Willis and even Arnold Schwarzenegger. Stallone is the first to admit that he struck gold with the ensemble: ‘I could never have afforded Bruce and Arnold [25 years ago] – I mean, that would have been the whole budget of the movie… Jason – well, he’s a lot of money but well worth it. I mean seriously, £100 a week! It’s unbelievable!’ He laughs, and, whether because they’re charmed or terrified, the room full of journalists laugh along with him. ‘But things have changed now. I mean, prices are dropping rapidly. You are lucky to get work, so people who were getting ten million are down to two, and they’re going, ‘Thank you.’ But this was all favours; it was done really low budget, some of these guys almost worked for nothing… I certainly couldn’t have gotten Arnold and Bruce back then. Not a chance – ever. Just too expensive and too busy.’
However, as well-connected and liked as Stallone is, he wasn’t able to get everyone he wanted. ‘At one time I wanted Ben Kingsley as the bad guy and Forest Whitaker… And then we called Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal, but they had different ideas about their careers. I did the best I could!’ Stallone laughs again, and it’s just as infectious. Regardless of the film’s final quality, there is a sense that Van Damme and Seagal missed a trick by turning him down. Few action movies have been so hyped, due in large part to the formidable cast, even without the muscles from Brussels and the pony-tailed Buddhist. This has led to a high level of anticipation amongst action aficionados, and Stallone is certainly aware of the enormous expectations. ‘It’s a lot of pressure, because sometimes you come in with a film and you’ve got a major turkey and it’s not even Thanksgiving. It’s bad. But this time, this is the other end where there’s great expectancy, and I didn’t expect this when we started making this. So you want it to live up to expectations.’
In some ways, it’s surprising a film like this even got made. Stallone seems a little frustrated when he reveals how the film industry is no longer willing to take chances. ‘Nowadays, there’s no more, ‘I’ve got a gut feeling. I’m going to take a gut chance, and I know everyone will say no but I’m going to try it anyway.’ Well, that’s gone, it’s now all very scientific and now every actor is going to be weighed up to see what they bring from different territories. It’s like a math project.’ Then again, the pitch for The Expendables is a fairly straightforward and, it must be said, intriguing one – in describing it, Stallone, Statham and Lundgren all repeatedly come back to one phrase: ‘old school’. The cast saw it as a chance to return to the simpler action films of the 1980s, complete with physical stunts, big explosions and no subtlety in sight. For Statham – at 37 years old the relative youngster onset – such straightforward simplicity was a relief: ‘The good thing about when movies get made when Sly’s there, in control, is that he shoots a lot of the stunts in the camera. A lot of action directors of today tend to rely on the movie as a visual, and it becomes very boring because it’s a lot of CG and people don’t really care too much about it. So when you’re doing an action movie that requires real men doing real action, it’s an opportunity to do that, and that’s all we’re looking for. We can’t wait to get stuck in and do that kind of stuff.’
Stallone is keen to point out Statham’s commitment to such realistic action, and recalls how, ‘Jason does an action beat and he’s very physical – you’ll see it in the [DVD] documentary, his hands were in ice and he keeps leaping onto baked ground over and over, and he keeps wanting to do it, but I said, ‘Stop, stop, stop.’ Then the next fella who has to do it, his stunt guy, says, ‘Thanks a lot.’ It keeps building, and that’s why you have such a physical, physical, testosterone filled movie, because men are just naturally competitive and they want to keep upping the ante… You had to be tough on this show.’ But there must have been stunts that even the action-hardened cast refused to do? Statham pauses, before proclaiming, ‘I won’t wear a flowery shirt, no.’ Is there anything Dolph Lundgren is scared of doing? The 6ft 5inch Swede thinks for a moment, then, in his first comment of the afternoon, mutters, ‘Saying too much at a press conference.’
On reflection, such reticence isn’t particularly surprising from a star known for brawn rather than brains, yet Stallone reminds us that Lundgren is a PhD graduate in Chemical Engineering and a Fulbright Scholar, while the star of Rambo and Rocky isn’t too dense himself. Although he laughs off any suggestions of complexity in his art – advising one questioner to ‘go with Christopher Nolan, pal; I’m just guessing my way through this!’ – when discussing films in general, he seems surprisingly eloquent, effortlessly pulling apart studio politics and casually referencing the philosophy of Joseph Campbell. With this intelligence in mind, it is of particular concern whether Stallone is able to justify the huge swathes of violence in his film. He doesn’t seem surprised by the question. ‘I believe that the violence is very justifiable… The one thing in my films is to only kill people who really need to be killed, or [have] killers killing killers… Let me put it this way: the ones who deserve it get it – and get it good – and the ones that go after women get it really good, you know what I mean? People say, ‘Well isn’t that overkill?’ and I say, ‘Well, I’m not going to have a man having his way with a woman and wrecking her life, and then just shoot him with a bullet. It’s too civilised. He’s going to feel real pain.’ And I think the audience has this cathartic feeling… So I don’t feel guilty about it at all.’ He stops for a moment, then laughs, ‘But if you want me to, I will.’
It’s with little comments and quips such as this that Stallone manages to endear himself to interviewers, even those – myself included – who found his film far more banal and stupid than the mind behind it. Disappointingly, he later reflects how he no longer feels the need to pursue dramatic or complex roles: ‘I have kind of done my mind movies, and probably I think people are not really that interested in seeing me do that any more. I think I am past my prime in doing drama… Maybe it becomes a kind of pathetic cry out to be recognised as a serious dramaturge… I did my little moment, and am very proud of my drama, in ‘Rocky Balboa’, which is about as deep as I can go.’ Despite this self-deprecation, he appears to be much more than just another meat-headed action star, and seems capable of far greater things than just running away from explosions in slow motion. It would be a great shame if, at 64 years old, Sylvester Stallone really is content to expend his considerable talents on ‘The Expendables’.