The Expendables. If you’re an Action fan you’ve heard of it, and if you’re and Action star you’re probably in it. Seriously, look at this cast:
Sylvester Stallone Jason Statham Jet Li
Dolph Lundgren Eric Roberts Mickey Rourke
Bruce Willis Arnold Schwarzenegger
Terry Crews Steve Austin Gary Daniels
Some might call this the “Ultimate Action Film”. Others may consider it to be a star-heavy throwback cheesefest, destined to fail. While I remain cautiously optimistic (but probably leaning a bit closer to the former choice), I can’t help but feel excited just to see a single film featuring so many awesome faces. Still, astute fans of the genre will have by now noticed at least a few names conspicuously absent from the line-up. While there are many famous names in the genre, I am speaking of course about these three big ones: Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme.
From what I’ve heard, Norris wasn’t even offered a role. I think this is a shame because not only has he recently had something of a resurgence in popularity due to his appearances in Dodgeball and on Conan O’Brien’s late Late Show (see what I did there?), not to mention the ridiculous Chuck Norris Facts. If only for a minor cameo (we’ve got Arnie and Willis doing it, why not Chuck?), Norris seems like a logical choice. Maybe I’m that much of a fanboy, but maybe he’s just somehow been overlooked.
But Chuck was at the forefront of Action back in the day. A stay-over from the 70s, it was Norris’s An Eye For An Eye and Missing In Action that led the way for the kind of Action films the 80s would be known for. Though many credit Stallone’s First Blood for firing off the genre, it was far more of a drama than say, Chuck’s Lone Wolf McQuade. Rambo: First Blood Part II was essentially a retread of Missing In Action, but featuring a love interest, sweaty biceps and more yelling. Norris helped usher in the Ninja subgenre in 1980 with The Octagon. He’s practically the father of what Rantbo calls the Cheeseburger Deathmachine style of film (an American creation, so named in response to Spaghetti Westerns and featuring one-man armies and cartoonish violence). The guy may never have hit a stride like his younger contemporaries, but he was there earlier, paving the way. He definitely deserved to be in the line-up.
Believe it or not, there was a time when all of these guys hung out together. Somehow, during the height of their popularity, they never thought of making a film together. “It didn’t happen because of ego, ego, ego,” Stallone said in a recent interview. But now it seems the impossible has happened. Perhaps egos have shrank after the weathering of age. Whatever the case, Sly seems intent on bringing in the big guns of the past on his newest adventure, save for a few.
While Stallone tried to grab the other half of Tango & Cash, Mr. Kurt Russell, he was unable to do so, with Russell not being interested in ensemble acting. While it may be regrettable, Russell is less connected with the Action genre than you might at first think. Sure, the guy was Snake Plissken, but his name is not exactly synonymous with explosions and gunfire. The same cannot be said for Steven Seagal, one of the more curious absentees. But this one is more easily explainable.
“Seagal had complications because he was busy with his TV show,” Stallone said, speaking about A&E’s Steven Seagal: Lawman. Unfortunately Lawman‘s been postponed indefinitely due to allegations of sexual misconduct against the Aikido expert. Still, Seagal will appear in Robert Rodriguez’s Machete, later this year.
This brings us to Mr. Van Damme. A natural choice for a role in this film, it came as a shock to the Action community when it was revealed he’d turned down a slot on the roster. After the recent critical success of his movie, JCVD, it was sort of assumed perhaps the Belgian was merely attempting to branch out away from the genre that had made him famous. It seemed odd that if Stallone was able to recruit a regular C-lister like Gary Daniels he would not be able to snare Van Damme.
And things got even more confounding when Sheryl Main, Stallone’s publicist for The Expendables, responded to the question of Van Damme’s absence with the following statement: “My understanding is Sly sent JCVD the script and offered him a role but JCVD was making demands that Sly was not prepared to meet.”
Though this meant Van Damme was deciding not to depart from the Action genre (which fit in with his announced plans for future projects like The Eagle Path and the long-in-development The Tower), it seemed at odds with the star’s recent connection to smaller, DTV films. In fact, in a recent documentary, he revealed he prefers the DTV system to the studio one, citing the success he’s had in the market starting with Replicant‘s release.
Eventually, the question was posed to Van Damme himself during a press conference where he told reporters Stallone was less keen on character and story, which made him turn the role down. But considering Stallone was casting Action icons by type and writing the character around their strengths, this seemed odd as well. Van Damme’s longtime friend and frequent collaborator, Sheldon Lettich, called the rebuff of Stallone’s offer a “baffling and misguided decision,” adding “I wonder if Arnold Schwarzenegger — the Governor of California — asked “about his character” before he said yes?”
In an effort to clear things up, Sly said in a recent interview, “ lot of this has been blown out of proportion. Supposedly, he said ‘What is the character’s motivation?’ And I supposedly said, ‘Well, we’re making lots of money!’ Which I never said. I’ve never said that in my entire life! I said, ‘It’s about you and Jet Li. He defeats you.’ And he says, ‘That’s impossible!’ And I go, ‘It’s a movie.’ And he goes, ‘But it could never happen!’ And he said, ‘Why don’t you think of doing some other kind of movie? Maybe something that has to do with inner-city politics? And I go, ‘Well, that’s a little removed from where I’m at. So you hang in there and keep punching.’ A lot has been made out of it.”
Wordy though it is, his detailed response has come a long way in clearing up the situation. Lest Action fans become dubious as to the relationship between the two stars, it seems to still be amiable at the very least. Recent interviews show that Van Damme has somewhat realized his mistake in refusing to take part. He calls Sly a “smart man” and a “brilliant writer and director”, perhaps as a ploy to get back on the aging icon’s good side.
For his part, Sylvester Stallone recently added this bit: “He’s going in a whole different direction with his career and he just didn’t want to go there. I wish he had. There’s always a sequel, so who knows?”