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 still-muscular 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. "I didn't have to go to the gym for all those years, all the hours wedded to the iron game, as we call it," he said, a reference to weight training.
But Stallone is back in the heavyweight game this week, at least for a day. On Thursday, he will be in San Diego at Comic-Con International, the pop-culture expo which runs through Sunday at the convention center and where Velcro muscles are practically handed out at the door. He's not going there to get vengeance on the nerd heroes (although that might actually be entertaining), he's going to promote 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." Not every hot-shot he-man actor particpated; Jean-Claude Van Damme, Forest Whitaker and Ben Kingsley demured.
Stallone plays Barney "The Schizo" Ross, a mercenary who has assembled a team of paid killers who look like the models for a "United Colors of Harley-Davidson" 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 advisor; 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. The three actors have a history — they were partners in the 1991 launch of Planet Hollywood, the theme-restaurant chain, and seeing them meet on-screen is the tantalizing lure of the movie's trailers and posters. Stallone says his old screen rivals showed up for no pay as a gesture of support.
Stallone, who co-wrote the screenplay with Dave Callaham, 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.