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The Expendables: Why Jean-Claude Van Damme Initially Turned Down Sylvester Stallone

Sylvester Stallone is one of the most legendary action heroes in cinema history. With iconic characters such as Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, he changed the face of action heroes and underdogs forever. While those two characters created an environment where Stallone could enjoy a lifelong career in film, including nine movies in the "Rocky" franchise (if you count the three "Creed" spin-offs starring Michael B. Jordan) and five "Rambo" movies. After a long filmography of films, he created yet another franchise action hero in Barney Ross, leader of "The Expendables." While it became an established series, not everyone saw the brilliance in the idea.

In an interview with DuJour, Stallone tells a story of how he approached fellow '80s and '90s action star Jean-Claude Van Damme for a role in the first film. With stars like Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Jason Statham, and Jet Li, Van Damme seems like he would have fit perfectly in the cadre of legendary action heroes. However, the "Muscles from Brussels" didn't believe in the project, ultimately turning Stallone down. Not only did he not believe that the movie wasn't going to work, but he reportedly told the "Rocky" star that he was better than it, asking why he was making the movie in the first place.

Obviously, the martial arts legend changed his tune after the first film hit the screens as he ultimately signed on for a role in the second. Not just any part, though; Van Damme signed on to play the lead villain, Vilain. Maybe a symbolic casting for not believing in the project.

Stallone defended his choice

Whether you think Sylvester Stallone is a great actor, writer, director, or filmmaker is secondary to the fact that the man knows what works in the industry. The legendary story of his believing in his passion project of Rocky Balboa and then anchoring a second legacy character when he took on the Vietnam War veteran, Rambo, should be enough to sell his perspective on an upcoming action project. But the conversation with Jean-Claude Van Damme led to choice words from the "Rambo" lead.

In the interview, Stallone recalled the fellow action star's words, "Sly, I think you are above this. Why are you making this movie?" In an attempt to sell the project, he returned, "Well, I think it's financially sound, and it's what we do, Jean-Claude." What followed was a suggestion from Van Damme that led to name-calling from Stallone. "He goes, 'I believe you are at the point in your life where you should play a priest in East L.A. helping young people,'" Stallone says. "I go, 'A priest? Does he carry a gun?" What followed was Stallone calling Van Damme an idiot and moving on the project without him.

No word in the interview reveals what part Van Damme was supposed to play. He very well could have played any role on the team (existing or written out), or he could have been on the villainous side instead of Eric Roberts, Gary Daniels, or even "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. In retrospect, it worked out for the best because his starring in the second film allowed him to pair with his frequent co-star, Scott Adkins, who's starred with him in a handful of movies.

Interesting take by Van Damme

"The Expendables," at its core, is a bit of a parody of the star's previous hits in their career. As evidenced by the Chuck Norris joke about the snake, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis going back and forth with quips, "I'll be back" and "Yippy Kay Yay," the films love to poke fun at the stars and their previous successes (and failures when Stallone makes the poke at Schwarzenegger for wanting to be president or Wesley Snipes joking about tax evasion).

Jean-Claude Van Damme seemed to believe that Stallone was above this when they had this conversation before the first movie came out in 2010, but he clearly changed his mind after the franchise's success. Not only did he star in the sequel, which had arguably the most jokes about the cast's past, but he starred in his own parody of his career when Amazon released "Jean-Claude Van Johnson" in 2016.

The series followed Van Damme as a fictionalized version of himself who was a real-life secret agent who completed missions while using his action-hero persona as cover to travel around the world. The series was a refreshing take on the actor's filmography and poked fun at virtually every trope in his movies, including why villains would only attack one at a time instead of teaming up against him. Nearly a decade before, Van Damme was telling a fellow action hero that he was above that kind of project, but after "The Expendables" success, he seemed to realize his blunder and leaned into the idea harder than ever.