Tuesday, July 7, 2009

When Sylvester Stallone brings an explosive movie called 'The Expendables' to New Orleans, there's nothing small about it by Mike Scott

by Mike Scott, Movie writer, The Times-Picayune
Monday July 06, 2009, 5:00 AM
Picture Courtesy of Lionsgate.

The bullet casings littering the New Orleans-area set of the Sylvester Stallone action flick "The Expendables" didn't seem quite right.
They were strewn across the deck of a faux cargo freighter dominating a significant chunk of the 500,000-square-foot Louisiana Film Studios facility in Elmwood. To the untrained eye, they appeared to be .22-caliber shells or something similarly small, littler than the tip of a man's pinkie finger.
And in this movie -- built around an oversized cast, shot upon oversized sets and utilizing oversized weapons -- .22 caliber is unacceptably puny. Because the $80 million "Expendables" is not small. It's really big.
"It is very, very, very hard," writer-director-actor Stallone said, describing the shoot during a recent break, still wearing the black fatigues his character wears in the movie. "This is the hardest film -- and I know everybody says that -- (but) this is unbelievably difficult. It's just tough. There's just so much action."
Coming from a pedigreed action-film veteran with such titles as "Rocky" and "Rambo" under his belt -- not to mention their combined eight sequels (so far) -- those words mean something.
On this particular hard day's night -- which started about 8 p.m. and was still going strong at 3 a.m. -- Stallone already had overseen the near-hanging of one bad guy, a scripted fist fight between martial artists Jet Li and Dolph Lundgren, a bit of comedic improvisation with Lundgren, and a handful of increasingly jarring explosions that echoed through the studio complex while most of the cast was grabbing a 2 a.m. "lunch."
So the action star, who turns 63 today, can be excused for propping himself on the front of a golf cart to chat with pasty reporter-types.
"This started out as a dark comedy; it started out as a satire," Stallone said. "Then we thought, 'Let's make a really hard R' -- then I go back. It constantly was being just brutally changed. It wasn't until a week before filming that I said, 'Let's just make it this kind of movie.'"
And what is "this kind of movie"?
It's a high-adrenaline, well-muscled buddy picture in which Stallone, Jason Statham, Li and their team of mercenaries -- which includes Lundgren, mixed-martial-arts champ Randy Couture and NFL-player-turned-actor Terry Crews -- tackle the types of missions normally reserved for people whose combat boots and MREs come compliments of Uncle Sam.
Their missions come to them through a grease-monkey intermediary named Tool (played by Mickey Rourke).
"Let's say we dug up 'The Wild Bunch' and gave them one more shot," Stallone said. "These guys don't fit in this kind of world. They are 'The Expendables.' That's why they're called that."
Before the production wrapped late last week after two months in the New Orleans area, the sets for "The Expendables" sprawled all over the Louisiana Film Studios complex, a former Winn-Dixie grocery warehouse that saw its conversion into a film studio rushed along to accommodate Stallone and company.
In one section of the warehouse was the aforementioned cargo freighter deck, perched atop a 10-foot wooden platform. In another area was a set constructed to resemble the ship's cavernous cargo hold. There's also a wingless military plane somewhere, painted in the logo of the ornithology outfit that serves as the cover for the movie's mercenary characters. And, looming in the darkness outside, there's an expansive palace complex that had taken a pyrotechnic beating on previous nights.
Impressive stuff, to be sure -- but nowhere near as impressive as the film's alpha-male cast. In addition to Stallone, Statham, Li, Lundgren, Crews, Couture and Rourke, it also includes former pro wrestler Steve Austin and Oscar nominee Eric Roberts. There are plans for a cameo by Arnold Schwarzenegger, as well as a double-secret cameo from another action star whom the producers are playing coy about naming (*cough*cough*Bruce Willis*).
"We've got some tough men in this movie," Stallone said. "I mean some bad-asses, trust me. The extras -- you think I'm joking? -- we've got extras in this movie that could conquer countries. I went to Brazil and got the baddest, toughest mercenary group. It's staggering. Every one of them would just take all of us and snap us like spaghetti -- and they're extras."
Earlier in the night, and for much of the previous one, Stallone spent time choreographing the film's action-packed opening sequence, in which his titular team of mercenaries settles a hostage crisis with Somali pirates in the only way their know how: loudly.
("Don't be scared of the pirates," unit publicist Sheryl Main whispered unconvincingly to a group of set visitors.)
A motley band of mahogany hulks wearing tattered shirts and permanent scowls, the pirates are presumably among the bad-asses to whom Stallone was referring. When the cast and crew sat down for lunch, these guys had a table to themselves.
Even Crews -- who spent seven seasons as an NFL defensive end and linebacker -- found himself wide-eyed at the sheer scope of the action in "The Expendables."
"Everything is intimidating, dude," Crews said. "This is crazy."
Courtesy of Lionsgate"This started out as a dark comedy; it started out as a satire," Stallone said of "The Expendables." "Then we thought, 'Let's make a really hard R' -- then I go back. It constantly was being just brutally changed. It wasn't until a week before filming that I said, 'Let's just make it this kind of movie.'"
In a neck-and-neck race with Li for the title of most congenial member of the "Expendables" cast, Crews might also be the biggest. On one biceps is the skull-and-raven tattoo worn by all the members of Stallone's fictional mercenary team. Statham jokes that the version on Crews' supersized arm is the one that usually goes on others' backs.
Those biceps weren't of much use, however, when the movie's pyrotechnics experts placed explosive charges throughout the palace courtyard, a duplicate of a real complex in Brazil at which the production filmed.
"When they blew this whole set up, I swear it looked like 9/11. It was scary," Crews said. "I was really concerned about everybody on the ground. You start to worry, when the dust settles, 'Is everybody going to be OK?' I mean, that was a major, major thing. That was so huge. It was bigger than anybody thought it was going to be. It was like, 'Oh, wow. OK, I think we overdid it this time.'"
Overkill -- that seems to be a common theme on "The Expendables" set. It's the word Crews uses to describe his character's trademark weapon, an AA-12 semi-automatic shotgun. ("When I tell you it's the most insane thing you've ever seen -- each bullet, it arms itself with its own grenade," he said. "It's the king of overkill.")
It's also the word used by Lundgren, who's working with Stallone for the first time since playing rival boxer Ivan Drago in 1985's "Rocky IV," to describe his character. ("His special skill is overkill," Lundgren said. "He's got the biggest knife -- here's the sheath -- the biggest gun, which fires tank grenades that sort of vaporizes the person, liquefies them. When you hit him, it's game over.")
Stallone's character carries a pair of .45-caliber handguns. Statham's is a knife man. Li arms himself with steel-toed boots, which become lethal weapons when attached to his lightning-fast feet. And Couture's weapons are his hands.
Beneath it all, however, Stallone knows there has to be more than bloodied baddies to keep audiences engaged.
"Like 'Rocky, he said, referring to the career-defining 1976 movie that earned him Oscar nominations for acting and writing. "The whole thing about 'Rocky' wasn't about him boxing. It was about aging -- that was what made the movie. It wasn't him. It was about her -- him finding love, him making someone's life better -- and, before you know it, the audience identified with it."
In "The Expendables," he said he has created a group of characters who are hardened, heartless and invulnerable in combat. Off the battlefield, however, each is deeply flawed. "Every one of them has feet of clay," he said.
Strapping Statham's character , for example, has trouble relating to women; Stallone's has trouble relating to everybody; and Lundgren's is a homicidal maniac.
Although the movie, with its big action, big cast and sense of humor, is meant to be fun, Stallone hopes the undercurrent of vulnerability he's written into the major characters makes audiences connect with them. "If it's just about muscles and bullets, then it's a pretty limited thing," he said.
If such a connection is made, you can expect to see "The Expendables" back for more adventures.
"Definitely. We already have got some ideas about 'Expendables No. 2,' 'No. 3," said Millennium Films' Avi Lerner, a producer on the film. "Definitely, it's a franchise movie."
The cast's principals would jump at the chance to crack more skulls in a sequel -- assuming their characters are still around when the final credits roll on this first installment. The movie is called "The Expendables," after all.
Some even divulged that their characters survive the action.
And just like that, these "Expendables" don't seem very expendable after all.
"That's what I'm saying!" Crews said. "'The Renegotiatables' -- let's make that happen."

Movie critic Mike Scott be reached at mscott@timespicayune.com or 504.826.3444. Read him online at www.nola.com/movies or follow his Twitter feed at twitter.com/MikeScottTP.

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