Last action heroes
Sylvester Stallone tells Donald Clarke about his old-school reunion
IF THE MOVIE STAR really is dead, then The Expendables must be the wake. And who better to toast the departed than Sylvester Stallone? For the past few years, cinema’s anthropologists have spent much time pondering the decline of Homo Starticus. It is not, you understand, that such supernovae have become any thinner on the ground. Stroll through your local perfumers and you will encounter Lindsay Lohan’s Nonchalant, Cameron Diaz’s Symposium and Amanda Peet’s Antithesis (or whatever). Yes, stars can still sell perfume. They – or their cellulite – can certainly flog supermarket tabloids.
Unfortunately, they are no longer as good at selling films. The prime evidence for their imminent obsolescence came with the 2009 box-office chart. Last year was, of course, a record year for the cinema, but none of the films that drew in the really big money – Avatar, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen – could be regarded as old-fashioned star vehicles.
Think about it. When Titanic broke the alltime box-office record, expectant eyes suddenly fell upon Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Their next moves became a matter of great debate in the Clapperboard Arms. Seven months after Avatar passed out Titanic, Sam Worthington (he was the lead, remember) can still buy a choc ice without getting molested. Did anybody you know refer to Half-Blood Prince as “the new Daniel Radcliffe film” rather than “the new Harry Potter film”? I thought not.
Further proof arrived last week when Forbes magazine published its annual chart of the most highly paid female actors. The five hottest moneybags were as follows: Sandra Bullock, Reese Witherspoon, Cameron Diaz, Sarah Jessica Parker and Jennifer Aniston. Hang on a moment. The most recent films by all but one of the stars – the resurgent Ms Bullock – underperformed at the box-office. Indeed, the last time any one of them could deliver a guaranteed hit, the main mode of exhibition was the travelling magic lantern show.
Things are slightly less grim for male actors, but, when the seemingly indestructible Will Smith laid an egg with Seven Pounds, it became clear that any large investment in any actor, however adored, constituted a significant gamble. For all George Clooney’s fame, he remains box-office poison.
All of which explains why The Expendables (resonant title, incidentally) seems so much like a quaint anachronism. An unapologetically chaotic piece of work – something about an evil dictator and his beautiful daughter – Stallone’s flick gathers together more stars than you expect to encounter at your local nebula.
“THERE AREN’T MANY BAD ASSES LEFT OUT THERE WHO JUST WANT TO GET IT ON”
Joining Sly in the adventure are Jet Li, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, Eric Roberts, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Bruce Willis and – briefly, but unmistakably – Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Statham and Li should feel very honoured. They have been invited to join a royal family that, since its inception in the 1980s, has generated more revenue than Central America’s underground coca-plant entrepreneurs.
Glamour still hangs about them. The hacks have to kick their heels grumpily before, halfan-hour late, Stallone, Statham and Lundgren enter a side room in London’s Dorchester Hotel.
The three men are presented as equals, but the hierarchy is apparent from the moment the interview begins. Statham, the 37-yearold English baldie, hangs back respectfully. Lundgren, still chiselled at 52, punctuates the odd pause with a Scandinavian grunt. Stallone, also director and writer of the picture, radiates pumped-up charm, but, a silverback of formidable bulk, he leaves us in little doubt as to who occupies the alpha-male boulder. Take his banana at your peril.
“At first it was just myself and Jason and Jet Li,” the great man explains. “Then I began thinking of other characters: maybe Ben Kingsley as the bad guy, Forrest Whittaker, maybe. Then I thought: why not go really old school. I called Dolph and he was very respectful.”
He pauses and lowers his voice in mock apology.
“Look, I mean no disrespect to anybody, but there aren’t many bad asses left out there who just want to get it on. I do believe there are some young guys who want to prove themselves, but there aren’t many around.” Did anybody turn him down? “Well, we called Jean-Claude Van Damme
“Sometimes I’m out there and I know I’ve got a turkey and it’s not even Christmas. This one was the other way round”
Planet Hollywood in orbit again: Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger reunite, briefly and Steven Seagal and they had, erm, different ideas about their career. So . . .”
The ellipsis implies a half-hearted rebuke of those two martial arts stars.
It’s always a mistake to think of any earlier era as “a simpler time”, but, for those examining the relationship between movie stardom and capital, few epochs appear less complicated than the 1980s.
When, in the late 1970s, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg – neither great star-makers, curiously – tidied up Hollywood after its flirtation with post-hippie experimentation, they cleared the way for a new breed of easily digestible movie titan.
Stallone was always Stallone: mumbling, violent, but good-hearted. Schwarzenegger was always Schwarzenegger: robotic, but amusing in spite of himself. Cruise was always Cruise: an action doll whose veins ran with undiluted self-belief.
“THERE IS A LOT AT STAKE TODAY ... EVERY ACTOR IS WEIGHED AGAINST WHAT HE IS GOING TO ATTRACT IN EACH TERRITORY. IT’S LIKE A MATH PROJECT”
He may be 62, but Stallone trails waves of ambition about with him. Can Hollywood still contain this class of old-school icon? I ask him how the business has changed. Do