Dolph Lundgren and Brandon Lee are hiding in a house, surrounded by enemies, trying to think of a plan, in the 1991 film Showdown in Little Tokyo. “We’re in trouble here, champ,” says Lee. “There’re more bad guys here than we have bullets.”
Lundgren, shirtless in skintight shorts, hands Lee some ammunition. Lee watches Lundgren stride across the room, then cocks his gun. “Just in case we get killed,” says Lee, “I wanted to tell you…”
Lundgren looks up from stuffing weapons in his belt.
“You have the biggest dick I’ve ever seen on a man.”
Lundgren pauses, and smiles slightly. “Thanks. I don’t know what to say.”
Lee grasps his gun. “How ‘bout, ‘Don’t get killed’?”
Lundgren picks up two swords and holds them in both hands. We see him from a frontal view. His abs are deep; his pecs are round and hard. “Don’t get killed.”
Nineteen years later, I am shaking hands with the owner of said dick, at a roundtable interview where he is promoting Sylvester Stallone’s new action film The Expendables. Forbiddingly tall, with a huge chest and a face carved out of marble, Dolph Lundgren is one of the few action stars who looks even bigger in person. He is also one of the few members of the Expendables who doesn’t appear surgically mutilated. At 52 he suggests a pumped-up late period Robert Redford, but with a heavily-lined face and bleach-white hair recalling Klaus Kinski.
“Let me ask about keeping your musculature,” says a reporter. “How much do you work out on a daily basis?”
“Well, it depends. If I fly to Canada at 1 and get up at 5:30 to go and do a talk show, then I don’t get time to work out that much, but I do about four or five times a week. I try to do martial arts twice a week, and I try to do weights twice a week, that’s kind of my basic. And then I’ll add another day of martial arts or I’ll add a day of cardio or I’ll do some more weights…”
His partially unbuttoned shirt shows a smooth, tanned chest. His shirt clings to his torso as if about to burst. I can see his nipples.
“He’s starred in more action movies than almost anybody else, maybe except Clint Eastwood, so he knows a lot,” says Lundgren of his Expendables director, Sylvester Stallone. “It could be something simple like, for instance, ‘Dolph, just use your charm in this scene. You don’t have to act. Leave that to De Niro or whatever. Just be charming.’ He has very simple, effective things that he can do as an actor. Y’know, you don’t have to go into, well, ‘What’s your backstory? What’s your [character’s] childhood?’”
Lundgren earned immortality as Ivan Drago, the steroid-pumped Russian Communist in Rocky IV (1985), another Stallone-directed film. To create the perfect fighter, Drago’s Soviet handlers worked him day and night, draining him of all humanity. He was a walking vessel, a guinea pig for drugs and exercise, showing no remorse even when killing Apollo Creed in the ring. “If he dies… he dies.”
In the training montage, Drago reached his physical peak. While Rocky chopped wood and climbed snowy hills in isolated, backwoods Russia, Drago let his sinister Soviet handlers use punishing scientific experiments to enhance his perfect body. Drago in a little red jumper, his pecs cleaving as he strains to lift a weight… Drago’s ass cheeks, firm and stationary as his legs worked the exercise machines… Drago’s shoulder glistening as it takes a steroid shot… these were the images that made Lundgren a star.
When Rocky and Drago finally met in the ring, the light refracted from both their sweaty, creviced bodies, but it was the blonde, fair-skinned Drago who appeared to glow. Drago was a “super athlete,” said his handlers. They might have added, “And a super man.”
“Yeah, there is a bit of healthy competition,” says Lundgren of the Expendables cast – a tough-guy rogues gallery including Jason Statham, Jet Li, Mickey Rourke, Terry Crews, and, briefly, Arnold Schwarzenegger. “You’re next to other guys who have their own movies, or may be bigger than you, or better actors, or bigger, with bigger arms, or have more money, or they run the state, whatever it is. But, y’know, everybody has some shortcomings, and I think in that company everybody gets to be a bit of an underdog and feel some of their own inadequacies, and I think that’s a good thing. Everybody feels they’re part of a team.” But Lundgren is not homogenous with other men. Even among the Expendables he looks superhuman, towering over Stallone and Statham, and beating even Li in a martial arts battle. He is more than just a man.
Nowhere is the Man v. Lundgren dichotomy greater than Masters of the Universe (1987), Cannon Films’ Conan/Star Wars mashup, starring Lundgren as ‘He-Man,’ great warrior from the planet Eternia. Transported to 1987 Middle America, this titanic swordsman in shoulder pads and a leather speedo was surrounded by donut-eating cops and stringy-haired teens and young, rail-thin Courtney Coxes.
In Masters of the Universe, He-Man fights the villainous Skeletor (Frank Langella) for the Cosmic Key, which stands to make its possessor the all-powerful ruler of the universe. “KNEEL BEFORE YOUR MASTER!” says Skeletor to He-Man. “You are no longer my EQUAL! I am more than man! MORE THAN LIFE! I… AM… A… GOD!” But Skeletor receives his comeuppance, and by the end it is He-Man – the true Master of the Universe – who wields the key. Light emanates from his body, and his mighty voice can be heard across the galaxy. He has completed the transition from Man to God.
“I… HAVE… THE POWER!”
“Any actor will tell you that to play yourself is the hardest thing, because you never think you’re enough,” says Lundgren of the demands of playing both a complicated character and, well, ‘Dolph,’ the action icon. “In this case it’s difficult for me because Gunner is this crazy guy who has a lot of problems, he’s very flawed, he’s a bit nuts – more so that I am, I think. But at the same time you want a little bit of charm to come through so that he’s likable on some level, so it’s that kind of balancing act.”
In film after film, Lundgren faces the paradox of embodying both God and Man, and in The Punisher (1989) we see the most unvarnished glimpse at the dark side of his persona. He is Frank Castle, a cop turned vigilante after the mob killed his family, now responsible for the deaths of 125 gangsters. He kills everyone in his path; the police are helpless to stop his wrath. A god in exile, we join him in his hideout in the city sewers, where he meditates, his sweaty, naked body dripping mud and soot. His inner monologue is despairing.
“I still talk to God sometimes. I ask him if what I’m doing is right or wrong. I’m still waiting for an answer. And until I get one, I’ll be out here. And until I get one, I’ll be out here. Waiting. Watching. The guilty will be punished.”
In The Expendables, Lundgren plays the group’s most unstable member, a weak-willed addict, easily manipulated by the enemy into becoming just another faceless henchman. He is the latest in a long line of Lundgren gods who fall from grace.
“You’re often vanquished in films,” says a reporter. “I’m thinking it takes a big man to take that over and over.”
“Yes,” Lundgren smiles. “What I thought was cool about the character [in The Expendables] is the fact that there’s actually something happening to him. He doesn’t just walk around with a gun and shoot people, he actually has a bit of a dilemma, and he’s a flawed character, which obviously is much more interesting to play because you have something to do, something to think about when you’re sitting in your trailer.
“When I see that you and Stallone and all those action guys are in a movie together,” I say, “I come in with certain preconceived notions. Do you ever feel hindered or restricted by expectations? Do you look for ways to subvert them?”
“Yeah, well, it’s a great genre to be in, action movies will always exist, they’ll go on forever, and you have a huge audience, especially overseas where the audiences are, I think, more loyal… But obviously, yeah, you try to stretch and do things you haven’t done before. As an actor, this role, even though he is the guy who blows people away, I thought, ‘Yeah, look, I get to have some flaws, and play a guy who’s a bit pained,’ and I thought that was good. Y’know, it’s enough for people to maybe take notice and see something they haven’t seen before.”
In 2009’s Universal Soldier: Regeneration, Lundgren re-visited one of his most famous roles: Andrew Scott, A/K/A ‘DR13,’ deceased Vietnam vet turned re-animated killing machine. Dormant since 1992’s Universal Soldier, Andrew is reactivated to fight and destroy Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme), his part-man, part-machine enemy from the first film who had gone into hiding to rediscover his humanity. Andrew Scott feels no such compulsion.
Lundgren continues to work prolifically, particularly in the direct-to-DVD realm, but has never quite cracked the action A-list, perhaps because his characters lack the self-effacing humour of Sly or Arnie. We can imagine having a drink with Rocky Balboa, but Drago the fallen gods seem too mythic for such mortal trifles. In many ways, Andrew Scott is the ultimate Lundgren creation: Beefy as He-Man, tragic as Gunner, emptier than Drago, with more brute force than the Punisher, and with as big a dick as the Showdown in Little Tokyo guy (presumably), he is Lundgren in excelsis.
The Expendables opens in theatres on August 13.