Interviewing movie stars is, by and large, not that intimidating. Micro-managed one-on-ones in plush surroundings, the talent slickly styled and on their best behaviour. Faced with neverending conveyor belts of press, it’s the actors who might get jittery.
Sitting three feet across from Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Wesley Snipes, Dolph Lundgren, Antonio Banderas and Randy Couture, fresh off the set in full combat gear, all staring impassively as you formulate a question is another deal altogether.
“You’re lucky to be in this room,” Stallone growls at IGN. “You’re in the presence of greatness, kid.” These are The Expendables. You’re merely, well, expendable. Small ‘e’.
Stallone’s face creases into a smile. Just kidding. The others chuckle, booming away in sub woofer stereo. The atmosphere here in Sofia, Bulgaria, even amidst an epic, hectic shoot, is super relaxed. If anyone’s trying to one-up anyone else, it’s with humour.
“I was really happy to see all these familiar faces again – because I could get the $100 Dolph owed me,” cracks Statham. Snipes is asked what his preparation was for this film. “I watched Expendables 1 and 2,” he deadpans to widespread laughter. “I do my research…”
Group confidence, then, is palpable. And looking at the cast list for Expendables 3, no wonder.
While superheroes and their assorted super-powers are all the rage, these guys, box-office heavyweights of the 1980s and 90s, relied almost exclusively on their own physical prowess to get the job done. You want Earth’s mightiest – action – heroes? Take the existing Expendables crew. Then add Antonio Banderas and Wesley Snipes. Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson.
The result? The biggest roster of action screen icons ever assembled: Rocky. The Terminator. Indiana Jones. The Transporter. Mad Max. Desperado. Blade. And that’s not even mentioning the Young Expendables – which we’ll be writing about in a future feature – potentially the next generation of action stars.
It’s Stallone’s very own equivalent of the Avengers.
“The hardest thing is to find an action star,” Stallone decrees. “I don’t give a damn what anyone says, stars they come and go. An action star, you can count on one hand.” Or, given the size of this cast, presumably two or three.
“So to get them together,” he continues, “is an Event. That’s the key word. We’re trying to make an Event Movie – like The Avengers. And I think we’ve accomplished it.”
“I’d be framing up shots,” EX3’s energetic Australian director Patrick Hughes (handpicked by Stallone, a big fan of Hughes’ Aussie modern Western Red Hill) tells me later, “and there were quite a few days I’d just revert to the names they’re known for. ‘Hey Terminator, you’re going to stand there. And Rocky, you’re going to sip your coffee and then Desperado’s going to walk through the door. And then we’re going to whip-pan to Blade…’”
That didn’t rile anyone up? “All the guys were loving it,” Hughes insists. “There were zero egos on set. It can be daunting but we all really gelled and had an absolute blast shooting this film.”
Our set visit to Nu Boyana Studios confirms this. The first thing we see on arrival is Snipes, Lundgren and Banderas kicking back and joking around in their name-adorned chairs. Snipes plays Doc (aka ‘Doctor Death’), a former medic whose dab hand with a, ahem, blade leads to some intense knife rivalry with Statham’s Lee Christmas. While Banderas’ Galgo has an unexpected connection to the young guns.
Both Snipes and Banderas are former Stallone co-stars who had their own action franchises. So what was the appeal in joining Sly’s crew?
“Sly and I did a film a long time ago called Demolition Man,” recalls Snipes, “and that was my first foray into the world of big action movies. In some sense he’s my mentor when it comes to that. So to get a call to come and join this wonderful cast and work with my friend again, it was a no-brainer.”
Despite his former Desperado and Zorro derring-do, Banderas is perhaps physically the more unlikely fit – El Mariachi a more slinky, feline presence (Puss ‘n Shoots?) than some of his bulked-up co-stars – and he’s well aware of it.
“Definitely when I arrived here on the first day, he admits, “and I saw all these muscles, I said to myself, that’s not my forte! I have to go another way.”
It’s something factored in by veteran fight choreographer/stunt co-ordinator J.J. Perry, who, after giving IGN a primer in stealth maneuvers with a (mock) M-4 carbine gun, gives us a pre-viz taste of some of the individually tailored fight scenes.
“We get a script, have a conversation with the director, sometimes with the actor and look at what they can do,” Perry outlines. “For Galgo, we took some of Antonio’s Zorro and Desperado moves and put them in there.”
Next up he shows us a vicious, martial arts-infused rumble for Young Expendable – and current UFC champion and judo expert – Ronda Rousey’s Luna. “We started watching her old fights and choreographed it with her in mind,” Perry says with glee. “We want Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, to be smiling in his grave when he sees this movie.”
Ford and Gibson are absentees today – Gibson has yet to start shooting – so Stallone outlines their characters. “Harrison is a new character, Drummer, who’s sort of the government side behind the scenes. He brought a sort of elegance and class.”
Gibson’s Conrad Stonebanks is this film’s antagonist – an Expendables co-founder gone rogue, left for dead and out for revenge. “Mel’s a fantastic filmmaker, a great actor,” enthuses Stallone. “He and I are going to have a real one-on-one fight that’s going to be pretty violent and interesting. And he’s getting into some very physical shape for this, he’s not taking it lightly at all. I’m getting worried!”
It’s another indicator that, the boys’ own backslapping vibe aside, Expendables 3 is serious business. The scene being filmed today is Stallone leading the old guard through an abandoned casino to rescue the imperiled young whippersnappers. As the team weave through the bombed-out building in slick formation, the shot ends with Stallone, gun poised, snarling into the camera, the same fierce intensity in evidence take after take.
“Everyone has this conjecture that action films are somewhat… less prestigious than dramatic films,” Stallone sighs. “Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve done them both and this is hard and dangerous. I mean, Jason here nearly drowned to death – lucky he’s a great swimmer.”
Stallone’s referring to the incident when Statham plunged into the Black Sea inside a truck with bad brakes. Statham himself, a cool customer, won’t be drawn on his near-miss accident, but Stallone’s somber tone says it all. “All of us would’ve been walking around the bottom of the Black Sea by now. Well, not walking but floating.”
Such accidents, of course, are very rare. More common is the dilemma of how to up the ante with each installment. “People think it’s easy to make a sequel,” shrugs Stallone. “It’s not, because you’ve lost the element of surprise. How do you keep putting on layers without getting too pretentious or trying too hard – you know, when in doubt, shout.”
Director Hughes agrees, accentuating the importance of “aligning the emotion with the action. One thing I said to Sly really early on was, let’s not just slot these actors in for a one-off easy gag.”
“If some dude just walks in and walks off, yeah, you can get a cheap laugh. Or, you can weave them into the fabric of the story.” No one mentions Chuck Norris’s somewhat random Expendables 2 cameo, but it’s definitely the first thing that springs to IGN’s mind.
“That’s the element you’re getting here, some real heart,” agrees Stallone. “I look on it as more of an Adventure rather than an Action Movie. Action Film is really easy to do – just get in a car, smash some things and it’s called action. The real difficult and key skill is what happens in-between – when it’s quiet. Do you care these people? Loud is easy. Quiet – ooh, real hard.”
Good to hear, but let’s be honest: action fans demand Loud too. And Expendables 3 is pumping up the volume. “The opening scene is the extraction of Wesley from the most heavily-fortified, armour-plated train via helicopter – and it’s real,” Stallone beams proudly. “So you’re going to see something that’s not CGI and is pretty extraordinary. And that’s just your opening.”
“Everything’s big,” laughs Hughes. “I had my assistant keep count of how many people we killed each day and literally at Day 16, we were at 1200 people! That’s just one of the things about the Expendables – the waves of bad guys you’ve got to take down. It’s not just a couple of henchmen, we’re fighting an entire friggin’ army.”
An all-star team taking on overwhelming numbers of bad guys? Action and adventure balanced with heart and humour? There’s that Avengers analogy again. So, does that mean we get the circular hero group shot from Joss Whedon’s blockbuster? And if so, who gets to be the Hulk and roar into the camera?
Stallone ponders this for a moment. “Randy’s the Hulk,” he nods with a grin. “He’s the toughest guy, no question about that.” No one disagrees. And if Stallone and co can pull off together even a fraction of their former individual glories, there’s only one outcome here:
The Expendables 3 will be released in the UK and US on August 15th and elsewhere the following week, while you can find out who Sylvester Stallone’s surprising casting choices are for a future instalment by heading here.
The published article can be read on IGN – ‘Why The Expendables Are Sylvester Stallone’s Avengers‘