Return of the all-action hero

IF ever a film, cinematically speaking, had nothing to lose, it would be The Expendables. Its genre, hard action, peaked in the 1980s. And the dozen or so bruisers in its ensemble cast are even older, on average, than the women in Sex and the City 2.

• Sylvester Stallone with his fellow Expendables. Picture: Complimentary

"You're pretty well limited as to how gullible people are," says the film's director and star, Sylvester Stallone. Stallone, who is 63, is referring to what he called "the age factor" and his own return to an action role, this time as Barney Ross, a mercenary who shoots to kill but will do it by hand if he must. Yet The Expendables, a relatively high-budget production from the usually low-budget operators, Nu Image and Millennium Films, is beginning to look like a potential late-summer winner for Lionsgate, which is set to release it in August after a big promotional push at the Comic-Con International fan convention in late July.

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An early media screening at Lionsgate's Santa Monica headquarters last week drew a full house and whoops in all the right places as Stallone led his team of hired guns on a mission to a drug-infested island.

Stuff explodes. Men die. Cigars are smoked in (short) contemplative moments in a movie whose script is credited to David Callaham and Stallone but that owes much to precedents like The Professionals, The Wild Bunch and The Dirty Dozen.

The cast matches older stars, like Stallone, Mickey Rourke, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts and, in a dual cameo, Bruce Willis and – all over 50 – with some slightly younger ones.

Those include martial arts expert Jet Li, along with the fight and wrestling circuit champions Randy Couture and Steve Austin, and an NFL veteran, Terry Crews, all in their 40s. At 37, British tough-guy Jason Statham, whose credits include Crank and Revolver, is the baby.

In a complicated bit of deal-making, the Expendables title was wrangled from another project at Warner Brothers, where the current film, then called Barrow, was born about six years ago in a pitch by Callaham, who was working with producers Basil Iwanyk of Thunder Road Pictures and Guymon Casady of Management 360.

The idea was to make an old-fashioned action movie about soldiers of fortune, "back when 'mercenary' wasn't such a dirty word" because of private contractors' dealings in Iraq, according to Iwanyk.

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In the 1980s and early 90s, Warner was something of an action factory, churning out dozens of heavily armed hits like the Lethal Weapon series, along with the Stallone vehicles Assassins, The Specialist, and Demolition Man.

As the studio turned toward fantasies like Harry Potter and rebooted superheroes like Batman in The Dark Knight, however, it lost interest in simple grit and let The Expendables go to Nu Image and Millennium with Stallone, whose idea from the beginning was to make a throwback.

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"I would sure like to bring the genre back a little bit, so some young guys could pick up the banner," Stallone says. Asked what killed classic action films like his Rambo and Rocky series – both of which eked out a respectable performance with retro-style sequels in the past few years – Stallone answers in a word: "Technology."

When stars could "Velcro their muscles on, it was over," he says. A lithe but loopy Tobey Maguire could play a perfectly credible Spider-Man, as computer-generated effects made up for the raw athleticism that Stallone, Schwarzenegger and others brought to their trademark roles.

Meanwhile, attitudes changed, as Matt Damon, the self-doubting, Mini Cooper-driving hero of the Bourne films, set the standard for a new and less violent kind of hero.

Until, perhaps, The Expendables. The film was rated R in the USA last week "for strong action and bloody violence throughout". That is no surprise to Stallone, who used a stunt crew of about 75, and a budget of about $80 million, to shoot the movie in both Louisiana and Brazil.

It is about the kind of men who drop in on the bad guys from a plane with hidden machine guns in the front and a "Global Wildlife Conservancy" logo on the side.

Computer-generated imagery was used sparingly, for instance when an elaborate government building had to be toppled. "You won't believe this, but Brazil would not let us destroy their palace," Stallone jokes.

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But the pyrotechnics were real, he says, as were bits of debris that fell within two or three yards of the director's station. Rounding up the cast was not especially difficult, he adds, except for Jean-Claude Van Damme, who declined a role eventually taken by Lundgren. "He told me, you should be trying to save people in South Central," Stallone recalls of a conversation with Van Damme. "I knew I'd lost him."

Whether Schwarzenegger's brief appearance, in which he swaps lines with both Stallone and Willis, portends a return to the screen when his term as California governor ends in January is anyone's guess. "He gets asked (about his plans) every couple of weeks" is the response from Aaron McLear, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger. Stallone, meanwhile, says he would like to play the mobster John Gotti in a father-and-son story, and he has been spending time with John Gotti Jr in trying to get a film started. As for younger stars, Stallone sees more sweaty action ahead, as they tire of posing in front of a green screen to create digital effects. "Taylor Lautner, all of these guys want to step up," he says. "Given the opportunity to return to Vietnam, down and dirty, they'd be way up for it."

• The Expendables is released in the UK on 20 August