With a nonpareil lineup of ass-kicking stars that includes the action trinity of Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis — along with such tough guys as Jason Statham, Jet Li, Mickey Rourke, Dolph Lundgren, pro wrestler Steve Austin, ex-NFL player Terry Crews and Ultimate Fighting Champion-ship star Randy Couture — it’s to be expected that fist fights and pyrotechnics take center stage in “The Expendables,” recalling the sort of old-fashioned, pre-CG testosterone shows that reigned supreme in the ’80s.
“The big challenge was choreographing action for huge stars who’ve done it all, and keeping it fresh and interesting for them,” Stahelski says.
To that end, the pair assembled a team of two martial arts choreographers and eight other experts from their action design company 87Eleven, “who then worked with the 80 other stunt guys on the film,” Stahelski explains. “It was a huge job.”
Stahelski says that while Schwarzenegger and Willis only acted (“their scenes didn’t require any stunt work”), Stallone and the others “were very involved in their stunts — especially Stallone, who’s the most hands-on of all. He shows up in workout gear, super-motivated, and he’s very practical in his approach. He wants his fans to see it’s really him in a fight scene, so he will rehearse, but he doesn’t rely on doubles and camera tricks. He wants to do it all himself.”
By contrast, Statham is “all about prep,” Stahelski notes. “His background is martial arts. So he likes every move to be meticulously choreographed. … Jason’s a rehearsal nut and he likes working with doubles and stunt guys, and there’s no room for improvisation. It’s all very precise.”
Li is “somewhere in the middle,” Stahelski adds. “He loves to prep, but also keep it loose on the set, to suit the environment. And true to his Hong Kong style, he’ll come up with an idea and gradually piece it together, and then change it as needed on the day.”
Stallone’s penchant for improvising within action scenes frequently gave Stahelski “a faint heart,” he admits. “He’ll change the moves on the day, but he does rehearse them first. He doesn’t just make stuff up oncamera, which isn’t safe to do.” Austin, who plays one of the villains, has a slightly different take on it: “Sly improvised a punch to my groin,” he recalls with a laugh. “He didn’t give me a cup-check question first, and I’m damn glad I had one on.”
Stahelski says Stallone “took quite a beating” during production, and suffered multiple injuries, including damaging his neck, head and ankle when he was thrown against a brick wall in a climactic fight scene with Austin.
“We shot the scene in an old underground tunnel in New Orleans, and it was very carefully choreographed,” Austin says. “I spent three weeks rehearsing it with Chad and the guys. But on the day, when the fight started off being very technical, Sly just changed it on the spot. He wanted it to be far more brutal and kick-ass, and he kept amping it up, and when the director tells you to kick his ass, you gotta kick his ass.”
The result? “We did a vicious headbutt the moment we started,” Austin says, “and he was bleeding and I had a huge bump on my forehead. And it’s not a good thing to bump heads with your star, as it tends to be your fault. So Chad had to change a few things, and much later, I found out that Stallone had also hurt his neck badly, but he never complained or stopped, and we fought all-out for two days.”
The body count escalated from there. “A couple of stunt guys got broken ribs from being thrown into poles, a few had black eyes, there were tons of bruises and ripped skin from rolling around on cement with sand everywhere. And Randy Couture smoked a few guys,” recalls Austin. “It was pretty crazy, as everyone wanted their fight scenes to be the best. When you get a bunch of macho tough guys like this together, no one’s holding back.”