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'Expendables' could re-energize action movies

Michael Cieply

LOS ANGELES 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."

"You're pretty well limited as to how gullible people are," said the film's director and star, Sylvester Stallone.

Stallone, who is 63, was 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 Aug. 13, after a big promotional push at the Comic-Con International fan convention in late July.

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 Stallone, Mickey Rourke, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts and, in a dual cameo, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger — 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, said Iwanyk.

In the 1980s and early '90s, Warner was something of an action factory, churning out dozens of heavily armed hits such as the "Lethal Weapon" films along with 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.

"I would sure like to bring the genre back a little bit, so some young guys could pick up the banner," Stallone said in a telephone interview last week.

Asked what had 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 answered in a word: "technology."

When stars could "Velcro their muscles on, it was over," he said.

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."