Why Jean-Claude Van Damme Rejected The Expendables (But Accepted The Sequel)

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Jean-Claude Van Damme famously passed on Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables; here’s why he rejected a major role but later signed on for the sequel.
Here’s why Jean-Claude Van Damme rejected The Expendables when offered a role by Sylvester Stallone, only to quickly sign on for The Expendables 2. Stallone hit a rough patch around the early 2000s, where he appeared in a string of box-office duds like 2000’s Get Carter remake. He was later able to revive his career by bringing back his two most beloved characters with 2006’s Rocky Balboa and 2008’s Rambo. After the success of those two entries, Stallone crafted a new franchise for himself with The Expendables, where his mercenary Barney leads a ragtag group of warriors.
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The big hook for The Expendables was that it cast fellow action legends alongside Stallone (who also directed) including Jet Li, Jason Statham and Dolph Lundgren. Expendables was also billed as a return to an earlier period of more practical, R-rated movies that defined the careers of its cast. The Sylvester Stallone movie was a hit, with sequels following in 2012 and 2014. None of the movies received particularly good reviews, with even action fans professing disappointment – especially with the PG-13 Expendables 3 – but they had their fun moments and a fourth entry is due for release in 2022.
Given that the brief of the series was to unite some of the world’s greatest action stars, it was a given Jean-Claude Van Damme would be invited to The Expendables. That eventually happened with The Expendables 2, which cast the action star as Jean Vilian, a terrorist leader who is still the only antagonist in the series to kill one of the titular mercenaries. Van Damme stole the movie, even with a lack of screen time when compared to other major characters. Jean-Claude Van Damme – who was famously fired from Predator in 1987 – rejected The Expendables back in 2009, however, when Stallone offered him a role in the project because the director was apparently unable to tell Van Damme what the story would be.
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Speaking with Total Film in 2009, Jean-Claude Van Damme rejected The Expendables despite personally being offered a part by Stallone, who was pitching action over story. Van Damme recalled that “He said, ‘You’re gonna make lots of money.’ I don’t want to hear that, I want to hear what was my character.” During this period, Van Damme has received praise for his performance in drama JVCD and was looking to take on more character-driven roles, and had also just finished directing an action drama of his own called Full Love. When Stallone called Van Damme with a seemingly half-formed pitch and no clear concept for his character, Van Damme passed.
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Had he accepted The Expendables, Jean-Claude Van Damme would have played the role of Gunnar Jensen; instead, his Universal Soldier co-star Dolph Lundgren (Castle Falls) would take that role. Stallone offered an alternative take on Jean-Claude Van Damme passing on The Expendables, telling the Sunday Times (via AceShowbiz) that “I wanted to set Jean-Claude against Jet Li, but he didn’t want to lose to Jet. He didn’t think that was cool.” Van Damme would later deny that claim during a 2019 interview with THR.
While Jean-Claude Van Damme rejected The Expendables, when the movie was a success, he was said to have regretted passing. That’s why he swiftly signed on as the villain for The Expendables 2, in addition to the chance to work alongside several, fellow action icons, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. His villain met a brutal death in The Expendables 2, but Van Damme has a ridiculous pitch for a future Expendables, where he would play Claude Vilain, the twin brother of Jean.

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