There are more paparazzi than usual jostling for sidewalk space with a plethora of autograph hunters outside the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills on a recent Saturday morning. Inside the ballroom, about to launch the US leg of a global press tour (including a brief stop in Macau last week), are some of the biggest stars in the world - all of whose entry into the room have been individually announced, as if at a state dinner.
Leading the pack is Sylvester Stallone, the lead actor, creator, producer and writer of The Expendables franchise, on hand to talk about the third film in the series. Anticipation runs high for the appearance of co-star Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he is a no-show. Instead, Stallone is followed in by Mel Gibson, who has one of The Expendables 3's meatiest roles; Swedish actor Dolph Lundgren; the steely looking Jason Statham; and Wesley Snipes, best known for his part as Blade in that eponymous series of films.
The third instalment is as densely populated as it sounds: the promotional material shows 16 weapons-toting, buff and black-clad stars (only one of whom is a woman) lined up shoulder to shoulder. It is also, as expected, packed with brawn, and a rotating cast of characters whose back stories play out against a flurry of bullets, bombs and a ridiculously high body count.
For director Patrick Hughes, stepping into the action franchise was, inevitably, intimidating. This was his first big-budget studio film and there he was, tasked with directing Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Gibson, together with Harrison Ford and Antonio Banderas, as well as a host of other actors, adjusting to their schedules and making sure that they all had enough time in the limelight.
"I'd heard a lot of stories going into it and it seemed quite daunting," the Australian filmmaker says. "At the same time, I had a job to do. My favourite part of the directing process is working with actors. The role of a director is 90 per cent communication. That's why I jumped on board. Sly [Stallone] called me and asked me to do the movie and I said, 'damn, yes'. It's a proven franchise, with 13 movie stars. Who wouldn't want to do it?"
Also reprising their roles in this third instalment are actor and real-life mixed martial arts champion Randy Couture, former NFL star turned actor Terry Crews and Chinese superstar Jet Li Lianjie. On this go-round, they are joined by Kelsey Grammer as a cerebral informant/consultant working with the gang under Max Drummer, the gruff CIA chief played by Ford.
Schwarzenegger returns as Trench Mauser, with whom the Expendables have a love-hate relationship, while Gibson plays Conrad Stonebanks, this film's bad guy, with conviction.
The co-founder of this group of motley mercenaries and a one-time compadre of Stallone's Barney Ross character before he turned crooked and to arms dealing, Stonebanks was presumed dead for years, but resurfaces when a plot to sell a potentially world-threatening weapon comes to light.
Hughes says that stylistically, he wanted to create a film that's a throwback to the big action films of 20 or 30 years ago. "I wanted to play to the style of films they made back then - robust, big, brash and loud," the director says. There was very little special effects, and the actors did as many of their own stunts as he would allow. "The action genre has since shifted to action thrillers a lot more, using more intel, sophistication and street smarts. But these guys are the original action icons," he says.
And the decades of combined action experience among the stars proved a godsend to the director.
"I would tell Sly, 'let's use something from that scene in Rambo 3 and a little bit of that from Demolition Man, and he knew exactly what we were doing. Every action scene or set-up or set piece, these guys have done it. They've seen it all before. When I watched a 700-feet wall of fire go up, I was screaming like a kid in a candy store." In contrast, "Sly is standing there (smoking a cigarette), saying, 'are we done here?'"
Now a well-preserved 68, Stallone is no stranger to the dialogue about older action men - and how they can still be a major box office draw. (Liam Neeson, anyone?) As a result, Stallone is almost self-deprecating about his age. "By the fifth Expendables, we will start wearing [incontinence product] Depends," he says, before turning serious and suggesting that "age is a state of mind. If you get old enough, you forget how old you are, and you walk around in a fog and find yourself watching Teletubbies drunk one night," he says.
But he conceded that it was important to bring in some fresh faces. So in came the likes of Twilight's Kellan Lutz as new recruit John Smilee and Glen Powell as expert computer hacker Thorn.
Stallone also made a point to bring in people who fight for a living, with real-life fighting champion Ronda Rousey playing Luna and boxer Victor Ortiz as Mars. "These are people who have done well in their own worlds," says Stallone. "I thought to myself, 'when they get together, how would they do?'"
Although he's no spring chicken, 52-year-old Snipes is also a newcomer to The Expendables 3's set. Stallone had wanted his Demolition Man co-star in the picture since the very first Expendables - but a little tax evasion issue got in the way. (Snipes was released from prison last year after serving three years.)
This latest instalment has Snipes playing Doc, a former army medic who is a little unhinged after having spent years being imprisoned and tortured. Hired in part for his real-life knife skills and martial arts prowess, the Shotokan karate and Hapkido black belt tells of how Stallone trusted him to flesh out his character. "He said, 'go ahead and make it up. See what you come up with'," Snipes says. "I had the chance to do my research. I had two other movies that I could reference, and I could sense who that person was, and how he could mesh with the other characters."
For Hughes, there was a profound - if rather comical - serendipity to the proceedings. "I grew up watching these guys," he says. "They were the ones who inspired me to make movies. When I was young I saved up to buy a camera and my first short film was a stop frame with a Rambo action figure setting fire to a Han Solo action figure using fly spray and matches. Rambo melted Han Solo. Twenty years later I'm standing on set with the real guys. I had a real freak-out moment."
The Expendables 3 opens on September 4