SAN DIEGO — With his business shirt, tie, and tinted shades, Sylvester Stallone looks more like a hipster movie executive than a battle-worn bruiser on a deadly mission in South America.
But beneath that shirt are the muscles he first revealed in Rocky, and behind those eyes is the grit that got his breakthrough movie made back in 1976. At 64, Stallone is still a tough guy, and he aims to prove it alongside a cast of killer comrades in The Expendables, which opens Friday.
In the film — another hat trick for the writer, director and star — Stallone leads a gang of impossibly muscular mercenaries who get caught up in a plot to overthrow the murderous dictator of a fictitious nation, though all is not as it seems.
The story serves as a backdrop for countless explosions and fight scenes between Sly's cast of tough guys, which includes Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, Terry Crews, former pro wrestler Steve Austin, and Ultimate Fighting champ Randy Couture, plus cameos by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The muscles, the fights, even the tattoos they sport in the film are real.
"They are all [tough], for real. Like they know how to hurt you," Stallone said of his cast from a hotel suite just outside the recent Comic-Con fan fest, where he presented clips of the film. "And the audience hasn't seen guys who can run through a wall and snap you like a pretzel, for real."
Stallone himself got pretzeled: He broke his neck and tore his shoulder while filming a fight scene with Austin.
"I still have two more operations to go on my shoulder," he said.
How's that for tough?
"The Expendables" started out as a more intellectual story, but then Stallone ditched half the script and focused on an action-filled tale of men on a mission to save the girl, their gang, and, he says, their very souls. He wanted to bring back the classic tough-guy characters and real big-screen fights that were popular before the advent of computer-generated effects and Velcro muscles.
He urged his cast not to hold back.
"I said, ‘You guys, we have to do something very physical without CGI that's interesting to watch. I mean, we have to throw down,' " he recalled. "They were all for it."
Even the stunt doubles brought their A-game to scenes with the famous fighters, said Austin, who with Lungren, appeared with Stallone in the hotel suite.
"You didn't see a lot of guys wearing wires and flying around all over the set. When you got hit, you got hurt, and that was nice," Austin said. "It was good, old-school physical stuff. It looked real and a lot of it was real."
Plus everyone tried to outdo each other on set, Stallone said, adding that all were afraid to fight Couture.
"Randy Couture is ferocious," Stallone said.
"Randy went through a couple of individuals," Austin added. "There were a few people who got carted off."
Austin and Lundgren said they kicked their training regimens up a notch so they could be bigger and badder for the movie. Couture is still in fighting shape, having recently competed with UFC.
"These are not just kid actors who pretend to be tough, no offense to anyone," Lundgren said. "These are real tough guys."
And though the cast is all over 40 (Crews is the youngest at 42), their age isn't acknowledged in the film.
"I wasn't trying to flaunt it, but it just seems that the tough guys, the ones I know, are mature," Stallone explained. "I haven't seen the young tough guys yet. ... Hopefully, if this works, you'll be able to find the young Rambos and the young this and the young Charles Bronsons, who want to show their machismo."
And as for Stallone himself?
"I look at myself as, like an 18-year-old with arthritis," he said. "I know we were called geezers and we're this and we're past our prime, but I said good, wait until you see this."