Dolph Lundgren interview: The Expendables, Expendables 2, Dark Angel and 80s power ballads

As The Expendables appears on DVD and Blu-ray, Duncan got to meet with the legendary Dolph Lundgren to discuss his back catalogue of classic action movies...

For those of us growing up in the 80s, Dolph Lundgren needs no introduction. However, since the interview took place, I’ve talked to several people, mostly in their late teens/early twenties, who haven’t heard of him and I’ve become increasingly aware of the generation gap. It was a subject which came up in the interview itself, so in the interest of inclusion, following the interview portion, there’s a very quick rundown of the films that encouraged such loyal geek fandom starting some twenty-five years ago.

At the interview, the man himself was incredibly polite, friendly and laughed at every available opportunity, also apologising at the beginning and end of our time for not being able to stand up to shake hands. (He was wired in to microphones.)

He made the most of not being filmed, by stretching out at various points, which proved to be a little intimidating on a couple of occasions. When he raised his legs and dropped them to the floor, there was an audible thud, as the floor of the hotel actually seemed to shake. Then, while stretching his back, he leant towards me, tensing all his facial muscles to the point where I thought he might explode.

Thankfully, when he spotted the edge of his face on my Rocky 4 t-shirt (mostly hidden behind my jacket) as I walked in, he commented, “Nice t-shirt! I like you already!”, instantly relaxing the atmosphere as we started the interview.

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Before The Expendables came out, there must have been a slight concern, because it was such a throwback to the 80s style of action. The fact it was such a big success must have been quite a vindication. Did you feel quite relieved?

Yes, I did, and so did everybody, of course, in the film company and Stallone himself, a lot. Nobody knew. We all knew that Lionsgate was putting a lot of money behind it in the States and we did a hell of a lot of publicity but… we had heard people talking about it. We could tell people were excited, saying, “Oh that movie. I have gotta see that!”. But, no, we didn’t really know, so when it happened it was great.

It was interesting to see the different reactions to the film, depending on whether people had been raised on 80s action or not. Some of us spent years wondering what would happen if you fought Jet Li, while others thought the scene was gratuitous. How did the whole experience feel for you?

It was exciting to be a part of it and it was exciting just as an actor to get that role, that Sly wrote, which is a good role and it was actually cut down quite a bit, as we tried to fit everything in. I don’t think he was sure whether people would understand that character, whether that character was too offbeat for the film.

It turned out that a lot of people liked the fact the guy had a lot of problems, and my character and Mickey Rourke’s character were kinda interesting, more interesting I’d say. So, that was the best thing for me was playing that character. Fighting Jet Li was cool, but for me, I do that in a lot of movies. If it is not Jet Li, it is some guy you haven’t heard of, but people like the performance and I was very happy with that.

It must have been quite flattering to get that role, because arguably the character of Gunnar was the most interesting because of his problematic side…

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Yeah, it was, because I hadn’t been on the big screen for 15 years and I don’t know if anyone really knew if it was gonna work, or if people were gonna respond to it, or if I was gonna hold my own, which I guess worked out pretty good in the end.

I noticed at the press conference (for The Expendables cinematic launch) that you seemed to downplay the importance of your involvement in the film, albeit humorously, which I found strange as you’ve made a lot of films that people have loved over the years. Why was that?

[Laughs] Well, you know, I just try and keep it all in perspective, because I don’t want to get caught up in it myself, because it could be over one day and even if it isn’t over, I try to be normal and have a normal life, (one that’s) apart from my screen persona . I don’t want to get caught up in all that stuff. Maybe that is why I act that way. Whether the movie is a huge hit, or not, I still try to play it down for myself.

Going to back to your character of Gunnar, do you know if there is more footage of him in the extended cut?

Yeah, I think so. I haven’t seen it, but I heard Stallone mention to me, when I saw him last, that he… yeah he said [Dolph breaks into a great Stallone impression, which he uses any time he’s quoting him], “We are gonna put this moment in here, when you do this and it’s great…”. So, you know he is gonna do that! [laughs]

I thought one thing that was missing from The Expendables, in keeping with the 80s tradition, was it didn’t have a power ballad behind it. It didn’t have a Hearts On Fire-type of track, like they all had and I know that you play the drums…

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[Laughs] I see where you’re going with this! Alright!

Have you contemplated approaching Stallone, or Brian Tyler, who did the score, and saying, “Maybe we should do a power ballad”?

Yeah, that’s not a bad idea! I’ll ask Stallone next time. A power ballad… you are right. All the 80s movies have that! Maybe like Flashdance…? No!

Who would you get to do the vocals on that?

Shouldn’t it be like some Bon Jovi, or someone like that, yeah?

Or Kenny Loggins?

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Yeah, Kenny Loggins, even better! [laughs] In like overalls, white overalls, with like long hair [laughs hard] and sneakers…

…and skin tight jeans? I would pay money to see that!

This could be a question you get asked a lot but, obviously, now with The Expendables 2 moving ahead, there is always speculation as to who will be in it. Have you got any preferences? Perhaps someone you haven’t worked with, or have worked with before, who you’d like?

[Still laughing] Well, I don’t have any say in the matter, because Stallone makes all the decisions. But I suppose Van Damme could be interesting, because people haven’t seen him for a while and he has gone up and down and had a lot of interesting moments in his career. But I suppose, yeah, I guess he could be in there and Stallone said something like, “Yeah, I want you to break his fucking neck somehow…”. So, we’ll see what happens! [laughs hard again]

So, I think that there’s a certain chance he’ll be in it. As a bad guy he would be cool. I think he should play a bad guy. It’s a great way to come back, you know, because people aren’t used to that, doing a whole bunch of evil crap. People will be like, “Woah, he’s killing all these innocent people! Jesus!” That’d make them feel something. [laughs]

I thought maybe someone like Thomas Jane, or Ray Stevenson, as you’ve all portrayed The Punisher?

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Yeah, that could be great. Also, maybe some young actor would be cool. I know they were talking about someone really young, like that guy, what’s his name? The guy that was in G.I. Joe?

Channing Tatum?

Yeah, Channing Tatum, or someone like him to bring that audience. Twentysomething guys, or chicks, I guess it would be for him! [laughs] That would be good.

Have you ever taken a step back to analyse your fanbase? Especially with The Expendables being so important to those people, who grew up on your movies.

Well, you know, I’m not one of those people who sit there and analyse my career every day. I am not too smart about that stuff. I just do what I feel like. Expendables did have a lot of young fans and I think there is a middle ground. Stallone said the same thing. The guys in the middle who grew up on The Matrix and those type of movies, they don’t get the older style.

The young kids get it because they watch MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) and they like guys getting pounded and blood everywhere, and they think all the other stuff is sissy, you know? Ten kicks in the head and the guy is still standing up and climbing all over the walls.

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But there is that middle ground. The guys who may be about 30, or something and maybe they don’t get that? I mean I don’t know whether they get the tough thing.

I suppose there is a bit of a hole in the middle and that is the market they’re trying to get to, ‘cause you know, the young kids and the older guys are gonna like it. But I find people of all ages seem to respond to it, from what I can tell.

You have someone who has been around a long time, like I have, I suppose –  in the business, unfortunately, I have been around for a while, and people aren’t used to it because things go so quickly now. So, if Stallone and I show up somewhere in person, people are like, “Holy shit!” you know? “Are those guys really for real?” Because you’ve seen us around for so long, Stallone for 30 years, I guess, me for 25 years or so…

I wanted to ask you about some of your older movies that I’m a fan of and that a lot of our readers enjoy. Dark Angel (as it was in the UK, aka I Come In Peace), I still think holds up, as it has such an interesting concept behind it, with the alien war and the hi-tech weapons.

I like that, yeah.

I know you’ve said that you’re not a fan of sequels, but is revisiting it something you would ever contemplate?

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Yeah, that was a cool… that was a fun idea, you’re right. That film was well directed too by Craig Baxley, who was a stunt coordinator who did a great job. It was a fun film, because it had the humour and the hi-tech weapons and the chick. It was cool.

It had a great villain, that East German decathlon champion who did all his own stunts. Amazing, this guy was such a great athlete and you couldn’t fake stuff like that, in those days. There was no green screen. You had to do it for real. They gave him stunt guys and none of the stunt guys could do it, so he had to do it all himself. So, you know he was jumping from car to car and explosions going off behind him and stuff, incredible!

I must ask about Showdown In Little Tokyo… (Dolph rolls his eyes skywards and laughs)… I have a couple of questions.

You are one of few people, sadly, to have worked with Brandon Lee and I just wondered if you had a memory of working with him from back then?

Well, Brandon was such a natural star. He had that quality. He had the acting, the physicality, his dad was Bruce Lee. He had the whole make up to become a huge star and he would have been, I think, become a huge star had he not gotten killed. It was extremely sad what happened.

I never forget, his mother Linda Lee is Swedish originally. She marries Bruce and Bruce dies at 29, then her son becomes a big star and then he passes away at 30 and it is just incredibly sad, the whole thing. I loved working with him, it was a great experience… What can I say?

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There was one thing… (I contemplate chickening out, or worry I’ll have to recite the line)… I don’t know if you have been asked before. There is one line Brandon Lee says to you in that film, and I’ve always wondered how it got in there?

Oh you mean that line? I know, I know!

For 20 years I’ve wanted to know!

I know, I mean [innocently] how did that get in there? The director was such an interesting guy, Mark Lester. He did Commando with Arnold and I think he must have written it, because he was a bit… of an interesting guy, you know? I remember the producer told me a story about him.

The producer goes, “Look, Mark, aren’t you going to talk to the actors?” (about saying the line) and Mark goes, “About what?” [laughs] And he is the director of the movie! So, he just… I think that line, he just wrote it just ‘cause he thought it was funny, so just added it. I don’t know how he came up with it!

Even though it is true, of course, but…

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You mentioned Jean-Claude Van Damme, whom you recently worked with again, very briefly, on Universal Soldier: Regeneration. How was it being back together again, just for a few scenes?

It was bizarre. It was kind of like working with Stallone again, but this was even worse because I hadn’t done any sequels. So, this was the first sequel I do, you know, Universal Soldier 3. [Universal Soldier] 2, I guess pretty much nobody saw, and then I’m there with Jean-Claude in the same, more or less, the same costume, whatever it was 17, 18 years later. It was really bizarre… weird.

I mean, I haven’t done any sequels. It’s like if I were to walk in and just put on the Soviet Union shorts again and climb up in the ring, you would go like, “No, I don’t think so!  It doesn’t feel right.” But it was kinda fun to see him again and it was fun to work with John Hyams too, ‘cause he is a good director and did a great job. And, actually, they are working on another sequel, believe it or not. Universal Soldier 4. I have died three times already. Come on! Come on, guys. I can’t come back again!

After our last interview, you expressed an interest in doing a film in Sweden, with a historical aspect to it. One of our readers (gsfrancis) suggested that you consider an action film about Sweden in World War 2, about keeping out the Nazis. I think Lundgren vs. The Nazis would be a good selling point.

That’s interesting, yeah. There is a film, a script that I have been interested in for a while, about WW1 which is quite similar, because it was the same thing. The Germans try to take over the world, or at least Europe in those days.  Sweden is caught in between the axis and the entente, I guess it was in those days, in France. So, the Germans send an intelligence officer to Sweden on a mission to assassinate the King. The King was against Sweden going into the war on the German side and they want to kill him and blame the communists, then get Sweden to join the war on the German side, and there’s a script about it.

There is a Swedish girl who falls in love with the officer, so they have this love affair while he is planning the assassination and, obviously, at some point he has orders to kill her too, because he can’t leave any traces so… Now he is stuck there. He has to kill her and she finds out and they are on this small island, so it becomes kind of a horror movie. It is a kind of interesting story. It is pretty cool and very modern. It is written in a very modern way, but it’s about something that happened 100 years ago, so it would be cool to make that one.

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Dolph Lundgren, thank you for your time!

And, as promised, here’s our rundown of The Dolph’s finest moments…

Rocky 4 (1985) “If he dies, he dies.”

Stallone’s Rocky had already defeated several tough opponents at this point in the franchise, including Mr T as mean bastard ‘Clubber’ Lang, so finding a suitably threatening opponent must’ve proved a challenge. Enter a young Dolph Lundgren as Ivan Drago, who physically towers over Rocky and enters the fray by committing cold blooded murder. Lundgren, in his first starring role, gave credibility to the concept that he could punch you to death in seconds.

Masters Of The Universe (1987) “I have the power!”

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Easily dismissed, yet still a movie I’ll defend absolutely,  Masters Of The Universe is rammed full of incredible production design, from Skeletor’s minions, to spaceships, hover boards and spectacular sets. I re-watched it recently and pined for the days of model work and craftsmanship in movie making.

Frank Langella is unrecognisable behind his unsettling prosthetics, while Lundgren is an obvious physical fit in a surprisingly witty, dark adaptation of Mattel’s toy licence.

Also featuring a young Courteney Cox (alongside her future Friends mother, Christina Pickles), the incredible eyes of Meg Foster (They Live) and Chelsea Field (The Last Boy Scout, Dust Devil, Commando), Back To The Future‘s Mr Strickland, James Tolkan, and an awesome 80s-style MacGuffin that I still want to this day.

The Punisher (1989) “Here is justice, here is punishment. Here… in me.”

Without doubt one of the most violent action movies ever made. Dolph may not have adorned the skull t-shirt, but the brutality was still there. (And besides his stubble was seemingly cut to resemble a skull, so it wasn’t totally disrespectful.) The Punisher shares more in common with Ray Stevenson’s recent Punisher: War Zone, than the slightly limp Thomas Jane version, but that’s no bad thing if bloodshed and a good body count is what you’re after.

Dark Angel (aka I Come In Peace) (1990) “Fuck you, spaceman!”

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An intergalactic drug war breaks out on Earth between two aliens, in a film that involves tentacle injection, spikes through the head, killer CDs, hi-tech guns that decimate cars and Dolph Lundgren with dark hair. What’s not to love?

The whole film is a surprisingly well made blast, which (as I said above) I’m convinced is actually worthy of a sequel. There were too many interesting ideas to just leave one film behind and both Lundgren and co-star Brian Benben have aged incredibly well. After mentioning it in the interview, other fans raised it in the ‘evening with’ later the same day, so the message has well and truly got through. Here’s hoping the seed of an idea will grow into another film…

Showdown In Little Tokyo (1991) “Out of the frying pan and boned up the ass with a red-hot poker.”

A film whose infamous one-liner made our Greatest homoerotic action movie moments list earlier in the year, Showdown‘s sense of fun is present throughout and it could happily be studied as a paint by numbers approach to late-80s/early-90s action cinema.

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Two clashing cops come together through violence, form respect for one another, go to strip club, spout one-liners and kill a whole lot of bad guys.

In its favour are a revenge fuelled Lundgren and one of the few film appearances by the incredibly charismatic Brandon Lee, before his untimely and tragic death during the filming of The Crow. The two spark off each other nicely, as they encounter the beautiful Tia Carrere in peril and the eternally sinister Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, whose character deals a nice line in topless decapitation.

Universal Soldier (1992) “Can you hear me?”

After a multitude of heroic roles, it was Lundgren’s return to villainy which saw him really light up the screen as the somewhat mental Andrew Scott/GR13. The height difference between him and co-star Jean-Claude Van Damme, recalled Rocky 4 nicely, in a slickly put together film by a pre-Independence Day Roland Emmerich.

Words can’t describe how excited I was when Universal Soldier hit the cinema, with the heady mix of a Van Damme obsession at its height and finally being old enough to get into an 18 certificate film (legally or otherwise), to watch two of my heroes face off against one another. Sadly, there were a couple of unofficial DTV sequels knocked out, then Van Damme returned for Universal Solider: The Return, (which wasn’t much of one).

Last year Lundgren and Van Damme re-united for Universal Soldier: Regeneration, which, despite being quite well made, only contained JCVD for about twenty minutes and DL for about five.

I also remember Red Scorpion being great, violent fun, but I haven’t seen it in a long time, so I’ll see how well it holds up at the next available opportunity.

The Expendables is released on Blu-ray and DVD on the 13th December. It’s also worth noting that the three disc ‘Bullet Proof’ edition also features the full length ‘making of’ documentary Inferno, which Stallone made references to back at the press conference.

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