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Sunday 27 May 2018

Sylvester the sweetie: Stallone talks Katie Taylor, Hollywood rivalry, and the power of the franchise

Fighting fit: Despite creeping towards his 70s, Sly Stallone has two more instalments of The Expendables lined up
Fighting fit: Despite creeping towards his 70s, Sly Stallone has two more instalments of The Expendables lined up

Stephen Milton

'I usually grade the intensity of an injury by the quality of the film," Sylvester Stallone proudly explains, occasionally glancing at the luxurious face of a clunky, red watch on his wrist. He's chill. Charming. But there also appears to be a slightly harried vibe. Sly seems to be on the clock.

"First Blood, I'm falling on to trees, hitting each branch on the way down, getting wiped out. Rambo 3, we almost got hit by a helicopter while riding horseback. I was in pieces from that movie. Cliffhanger, I'm hanging from a wire, destroying my back. I hate heights and it was 4,000ft in the air. I think, 'How did they talk me into this?'

"On The Expendables films; I break my neck, damage my spine. Dislocate both shoulders. I got bits and pieces of me all over these sets."

Then comes the punchline. It's cleverly rehearsed. Insider is none the less amused. "And then I did Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot and I never got hurt once."

It's an unusual gauging method for a near 45-year career but the mumbling man mountain is largely on the money.

And he's fascinating to witness in person.

The hulking, bulging physique is now sinewy and slightly reduced, although nonetheless remarkable. The hooded lids hang heavy over the eyes while his lips and facial skin oddly glisten.

There's an intentioned effort to withstand the sands of time. I try to concentrate on the bottom half of his face where his lower lip, tongue and part of his chin were left paralysed at birth - a result of an inexperienced obstetrician's misuse of forceps - but there's little evidence to confirm. Only the slurred, signature speech style. His deep, booming vowels trip and merge into each other. It's all part of the underdog appeal. Because Stallone, despite the €4bn grossed from his movies, is the ultimate Hollywood underdog done good.

Stallone in Rocky
Stallone in Rocky

The eldest son of an Italian-born beauty-school owner and his astrologer wife, he was enamoured by the Tinseltown machine and consequently bulked and buffed up after catching Steve Reeves in Hercules Unchained.

"The first time I saw it, just something snapped in my brain. Because I was very, very thin and I had no direction, the usual adolescent insecurities. From that point on I had a real male role model. Of course, modelling yourself after Hercules is kind of a difficult thing when you're skinny, but that was it."

By 30, however, Sly was unequivocally fed up with movie biz.

A lead appearance in a softcore erotic feature, The Party at Kitty and Stud's - which was consequently recut as The Italian Stallion - was born out of desperation to avoid the streets.

A couple of follow-on filler roles in Woody Allen's Bananas and Jack Lemmon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue did little to fulfil.

And the actor knew success wasn't going to be handed to him. So he got creative and penned a script, inspired by the Muhammad Ali-Chuck Wepner clash in 1975 - Rocky.

Spending three sleepless days and nights on the typewriter, he produced a tale of rage and dogged spirit, a rags-to-riches story of a kind-hearted fighter who pushed the odds to achieve his dream. Autobiographical, as it were.

Producers saw Burt Reynolds or Robert Redford in the lead but with full creative control, Stallone optioned himself for the part and went on to secure Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Screenplay.

What's that, you say? Oscar recognition?

Despite the perception that he's preliterate, Stallone's the driving force behind half a dozen scripts.

And if you can believe this, one of only three to be nominated for Academy Awards for the same movie - the other two recipients of such honours; Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles.

His second film series would come five years later as John Rambo in First Blood. While based on the book by David Morrell, Sly precisely and leanly tailored the script, once again creating a balanced, identifiable hero - a dreamer and a destroyer.

By his 40th birthday, the actor was the central force of two phenomenally successful box office brands. But the commerciality withdrew credibility from his name.

"When I first started doing films that would be franchises I was ridiculed," he tells. "We all were. With television you have the same characters for 10 years in the same location, and yet you watch one film and for so many, that would be the end. Some films are designed like that but others have characters that continue to grow and manifest into different personalities."

The franchise, as a concept, has been Stallone's ever faithful loyal friend.

Even when the father of two sons [Seargeoh and the late Sage, from his first marriage to Sasha Czack] and his three teenage girls, [Sistine, Sophia and Scarlet Rose with model Jennifer Flavin] turned his back for a slew of 'misses' [Tango and Cash; Judge Dredd; Oscar; D-Tox] and the odd 'hit' [Cop Land; Cliffhanger], it remained a stoic advocate throughout his career and provided a lifeline with the sixth Rocky, Rocky Balboa in 2006 and the fourth Rambo in 2008.

Both reinvigorated interest in a waning star who hadn't had a hit since 1993's Cliffhanger.

Stallone was no fool. He knew a new film series would conjure more magic. So together with scriptwriter David Callaham, he created a punchy, schlocky homage to the action genre glitz of the 1980s. A wily, crack team of elite mercenaries tasked with a mission to overthrow a Latin American dictator. The Expendables.

Stallone found his stride again. He drafted fellow icons, Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke and Dolph Lundgren, teaming them with the younger generation of stars, Jason Statham and Jet Li. It pulled in nearly $300m.

2012's sequel brought an addition of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sly's old box office foe, Arnold Schwarzenegger. It made nearly $350m.

And this weekend's follow-up, featuring Harrison Ford, Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas and Mel Gibson, is poised to do even bigger business.

Insider wonders how these Hollywood egos co-exist on the one soundstage. "[It's] very competitive," he says. "No-one wants to be second, so that's why everyone pushes very hard, and why these people have established the reputation they have. Because they want to be the best. And they usually are."

Once upon a time, Sly and Arnie continuously jostled and sparred for the crown of Hollywood's king of action.

Was it difficult to leave behind that rivalry?

"Well, I'd like to say it was because it makes for a more interesting story.

"The key with men like us is very, very simple. If you give out respect, you get respect. If you disrespect then you're going to get that too. It's very, very simple."

In this latest instalment, Stallone's Barney Ross leads his mercenary group as they come into conflict with ruthless arms dealer Conrad Stonebanks (Gibson), The Expendables' co-founder, who is determined to destroy the team.

Along with close friend Mel, the new cast acts almost like a poignant reunion, with Stallone's old Demolition Man foe, Snipes and his Assassins' nemesis Antonio Banderas.

"I've got long-term relationships with so many of these people, I forget how far they go back.

"But I wanted them for a reason - these guys with their wide, colourful personalities, that's who I resonate with."

The glossy, explosion-fuelled franchise will continue for, most likely, another two cinematic episodes. But much curiosity surrounds the status of The Expendabelles - Stallone's all female twist on the tale.

"We are right now on the finals of the script," he tells. "But you've got a situation where you're in uncharted waters. To put all women together into one film, would that work? Or do you have to perhaps, maybe put in some women that are actually really known for being tough, like other MMA fighters. And are they a complete divorce from The Expendables?"

Mixed martial arts champion fighter Ronda Rousey brings in The Expendables 3's sole female quota. And last time Insider questioned Stallone, we put to him the idea of casting Irish Olympic lightweight champion boxer, Katie Taylor, to positive response. He still seems to like the idea for future chapters. Though this seems more to appease his inquisitor.

"[Katie] would fit perfectly in that mix. She'd be a great choice because we are going for odd choices. You have to give the audience something they don't expect at all.

"Like with someone similar like Ronda Rousey there was a debate which said: 'Oh, she's not really an actress, she's a fighter' and I'd say, 'No, she's a new kind of entertainer'.

"We now have a real hybrid of actors and athletes, and not just actors. I don't think movies like this could be accomplished with just all actors.

"There's some skills there which take a whole lifetime to learn which is something I think we all know something about."

Creeping towards his 70s, there's one word that spring to mind to describe Sly's remarkable Hollywood career - resourceful. When opportunity failed to come his way, he cultivated success from scratch. When this industry threw him on the scrapheap in favour of the younger model, he rose from the rubble.

There's been a lifetime of regrets and mistakes, from, as he once claimed, 'relying on unoriginal material and focusing on the money'. But creeping towards his 70s, he appears largely pleased with his output.

Though Insider fears the sting of Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot is forever burned into his soul.

The Expendables 3 is released today

Click here for The Film Show reviewing this week's other releases What If and The Rover

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