Stallone: ‘Bat­man’ made mus­cles ex­pend­able

With new movie, ac­tor tries to re­vive ac­tion-hero genre

Austin American-Statesman - - MOVIES & LIFE - By Geoff Boucher

LOS AN­GE­LES — The lights were down low in Sylvester Stallone’s Bev­erly Hills of­fice on a re­cent af­ter­noon, so it was im­pos­si­ble to see the 64-year-old movie star’s eyes be­hind his plum-tinted sun­glasses. His snug Ital­ian suit em­pha­sized his still­mus­cu­lar frame as he sat ram­rod straight. His face doesn’t move much, ei­ther, so he seemed like a statue, un­til he started re­count­ing the moment when he knew that he was be­com­ing ex­pend­able.

“It was that first Bat­man movie,” he said, re­fer­ring to the 1989 film star­ring Michael Keaton, an ac­tor never known for bi­ceps. “The ac­tion movies changed rad­i­cally when it be­came pos­si­ble to Vel­cro your mus­cles on. It was the be­gin­ning of a new era. The vis­ual took over. The spe­cial ef­fects be­came more im­por­tant than the sin­gle per­son. That was the be­gin­ning of the end.”

Yes, even ac­tion he­roes get misty-eyed at times. In the 1980s, Stallone was one of the biggest names in Hollywood in movies in which he punched, shot or (in a film rightly called “Over the Top”) arm-wres­tled his way past over­pow­er­ing odds as an es­pe­cially sinewy ev­ery­man. And, de­spite the ar­rival of an era when ac­tors such as Keaton, Johnny Depp or Tobey Maguire could play the ac­tion hero, Stallone never re­ally went away. He didn’t be­come small; Hollywood’s col­lec­tive bench press did.

“I wish I had thought of Vel­cro mus­cles my­self,” Stallone mused.

But Stallone is back in the heavy­weight game this week, at­tend­ing the Comic-Con In­ter­na­tional, the pop-cul­ture expo that runs through Sun­day at the con­ven­tion cen­ter in San Diego and where Vel­cro mus­cles are prac­ti­cally handed out at the door. He’s pro­mot­ing his ridicu­lously retro film “The Ex­pend­ables,” due in the­aters next month.

The movie is a low-tech, deliri­ously unironic re­turn to the sort of com­mando movies that were a pop­u­lar cin­e­matic sec­tor dur­ing the Rea­gan era. Movies just like it get rel­e­gated to the small ball­rooms at Comic-Con all the time, but “The Ex­pend­ables” will be front and cen­ter in Hall H, the 6,500-seat han­gar of a room where An­gelina Jolie, Nicolas Cage, Will Fer­rell and Jeff Bridges will be part of a celebrity pa­rade dur­ing the four-day expo.

How did Stallone rate? Sim­ple: He drafted an army of new friends and old ri­vals into “The Ex­pend­ables” for a sort of “Mag­nif­i­cent Seven” ap­proach to his bat­tle-zone fan­tasy. Bruce Wil­lis and Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger ap­pear in the film (briefly). So do Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts. And Bri­tish tough-guy Ja­son Statham and Chi­nese su­per­star Jet Li. There’s also a for­mer NFL player (Terry Crews), a pro wrestling icon (Steve Austin), an Ul­ti­mate Fight­ing Cham­pi­onship star (Randy Cou­ture) and Dolph Lund­gren, who Stallone en­joyed punch­ing back in the good ol’ Cold War days of “Rocky IV.”

Stallone plays Bar­ney “The Schizo” Ross, a mer­ce­nary who has as­sem­bled a team of paid killers who look like the Sylvester Stallone, cen­ter, stars with Ja­son Stratham, left, and Randy Cou­ture in ‘The Ex­pend­ables,’ which screens at this week­end’s Comic-Con ex­po­si­tion. mod­els for a “United Col­ors of Har­leyDavid­son” ad cam­paign. Statham plays Schizo’s sec­ond-in-com­mand, Lee Christ­mas. A mis­sion takes the team to South Amer­ica, where nasty sur­prises await. Rourke plays a tat­too artist and some­time spir­i­tual ad­viser; Roberts is the bad guy.

Wil­lis and Sch­warzeneg­ger play mys­te­ri­ous king­pins who meet with Stallone’s char­ac­ter for a fleet­ing un­der­world sum­mit staged in a church — per­haps they are the trin­ity of Amer­i­can ac­tion movies for fans of a cer­tain age.

Stallone, who co-wrote the screen­play, said he was “a ner­vous wreck” on the day of the shoot. And, as a re­flec­tive di­rec­tor, it got him think­ing about the three ac­tors he would be guid­ing.

“Each of us chose a dif­fer­ent style. Arnold was king of the one-lin­ers. Bruce was witty and talk­a­tive; he had all these ver­bal pirou­ettes. And I was pretty silent. My guys seemed haunted, a lot of the time, but Bruce’s guys were usu­ally Te­flon. Arnold was re­lent­less, like this per­fect ma­chine. Peo­ple asked if I could have played the Ter­mi­na­tor. Are you kid­ding? Not a chance; I never could have played the Ter­mi­na­tor.”

Stallone didn’t com­plete the corol­lary, but Sch­warzeneg­ger could never have in­hab­ited the role of ev­ery­man Rocky Bal­boa, the neigh­bor­hood lug with hound-dog eyes and a heart full of sad­ness who never gives way to sur­ren­der.

Stallone is can­did that the movie lurched and stalled at times. It was sup­posed to be a com­edy but then, af­ter see­ing early footage, he re­al­ized di­rect­ing a com­mando com­edy is a lot harder than it sounds.

“I think it would have been a dis­as­ter,” he said, adding that a doc­u­men­tary team recorded much of the pro­duc­tion, for pos­ter­ity. “The Ex­pend­ables” ended up as a straight­for­ward wolf-pack ad­ven­ture that re­calls some tex­tures of the old “Missing in Ac­tion” films (which starred Chuck Nor­ris, who some­how didn’t get called to duty).

Stallone is a man of ac­tion but has as­pired too to be a war­rior-poet in his own way. Crit­ics have sav­aged him through the years with some no­table ex­cep­tions (he was praised for his nu­anced turn in the 1997 “Cop Land,” for in­stance). He got de­cent re­views in “Rocky Bal­boa” (which dropped the Ro­man nu­mer­als for the dig­i­tal age) but his retro com­mando film might be march­ing to a beat that leaves young au­di­ences con­fused.

Sit­ting in his of­fice — next to shelves full of ac­tion fig­ures, prop weapons and a la­tex de­cap­i­tated head plucked from the set of a Rambo film — Stallone ex­plained the mind-set of the char­ac­ters in his new film, but he seemed to be talk­ing about more than movies.

“When the bat­tle is on, that’s easy. When box­ers are in the ring they’re sim­ple. It’s when the fight is over, that’s when the other fight, the real fight, be­gins. That’s the prob­lem. It’s like Frank Capra said in his book: Re­al­ity started when he drove through the gates of Para­mount. The sur­real life started when he drove back home. Why do some ac­tors want to do nine films a year? It’s their el­e­ment. They’re more com­fort­able in the un­real world.”

“Ex­pend­ables” is a cu­ri­ous film to hand­i­cap, com­mer­cially. The cast and ComicCon will stir in­ter­est, but will the film win over young fans whose word-of-mouth is es­sen­tial? Lion­s­gate saw the hard-knuckle comic book movie “Kick-Ass” light a fuse of pub­lic in­ter­est and press but fail to de­liver any big bang; the stu­dio picked up the Stallone project, which con­ceiv­ably could be a re­run.

Stallone doesn’t seem fazed. He’s more in­ter­ested in chew­ing on the story of the film and the old lions who reload for one more mis­sion.

“Peo­ple that spend time in a fox­hole — they’re never go­ing to find that re­la­tion­ship any­where else again … ev­ery­thing else pales next to that. When you think about the Sec­ond World War vets — more than even the Viet­nam vets — there’s a broth­er­hood. They’re 90 years old now, and they’re still wear­ing the hats. The way they feel about each other. Time stopped.

“That was the ul­ti­mate of life. Ev­ery­thing af­ter it was anticlimactic. Af­ter that it just wasn’t the same …”

Stallone paused, went back to statue mode. Then he found the metaphor he was search­ing for, be­hind those shades. “Af­ter that, their life was straight-to-video …”

Karen Bal­lard

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