This weekend, I will be front-row-center at The Expendables. I’ll be the guy with the drool bib on. Now, let me be clear: It’s not because I’m dying to see the side of aged beef that is Sylvester Stallone or soak up the chrome-domed Cockney bad-assery of Jason Statham (who I like a lot). It’s not because of Jet Li, who I could take or leave. And since I never really got all that geeked up about mixed martial arts or professional wrestling, the presence of Randy Couture or “Stone Cold” Steve Austin doesn’t mean that much to me. No, the main reason I’ll be coughing up my 10 bucks is to see the granite-chiseled mug of Dolph Lundgren, who is finally returning (at least for one weekend) to the A-list where he’s always belonged. If you’re not a die-hard Dolph disciple, let me give you five reasons why I love the guy even though his career for the past decade has been confined to a string of low-budget straight-to-DVD action flicks:
1. Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. His Russkie villain in 1985’s Rocky IV, Ivan “I must break you!” Drago, is one of the greatest he-man action heavies of the past 30 years. Not just because he makes Stallone look like a shrimp when they touch gloves in the middle of the canvas (he actually put Stallone in the hospital for nine days during the shooting of their fight scenes), but because he managed to inject a little bit of character into what could have easily been a one-dimensional bad-guy role. Lundgren’s Drago was scientifically engineered to be a killing machine in the ring — his Soviet trainers (including the uber-hot Brigitte Nielsen) had all but programmed him to squash the Italian Stallion and, by extension, America like a pesky fly. But the expression on Lundgren’s face (and sometimes the lack thereof) hinted at how helpless he felt in this quest. He was a monster created by others — his mission was not his own, but Mother Russia’s. Let’s forget for a moment that he killed Apollo Creed with one of his haymakers. Behind his menacing, thousand-yard Terminator stare was a guy who was conflicted and human just trying to get out and maybe help melt the Cold War chill. Am I reading too much into a third-rate Rocky sequel? Perhaps. But that’s only because of the genius of Lundgren’s performance.
2. Seven years after Rocky IV turned him into a sort of freak Hollywood star (e.g. Masters of the Universe, Red Scorpion, I Come in Peace), Lundgren costarred with another lethal action-hero import, Jean-Claude Van Damme in 1992’s Universal Soldier. It’s not a great movie, but it sure is a fun one. I could go on all day about how this B-grade slice of sci-fi cheese is unholy because it’s responsible for unleashing hack director Roland Emmerich on the world. But I’ll spare you. Instead, let’s focus on Lundgren’s turn as Andrew Scott, an American soldier killed in Vietnam who’s then flash-frozen like a bag of Green Giant peas and shipped off to a hush-hush facility where he and The Muscles From Brussels are reanimated into unstoppable futuristic killing machines. Most of the movie follows Lundgren as he tries to track down Van Damme, who’s regained his memory. And I would have loved the movie more if the two stars switched roles and Lundgren got to be “the good guy”, but man do I dig this thing anyway.
3. After years of enjoying Lundgren’s Scandinavian mug in countless trash epics, someone told me that he was actually a genius. To which I responded, “I know, I saw Rocky IV and Universal Soldier.” My friend replied, “No, he’s actually a genius genius. Like he’s super smart in real life.” I looked it up and it’s true. Before he became an onscreen badass — the guy I began thinking of as The Swede Who’ll Make You Bleed — Lundgren was a brainiac. He attended the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. He received a master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Sydney. And he was awarded a Fulbright to study engineering at M.I.T. The guy’s got brawn and brains! I don’t know why, but I love the fact that he could totally school you in obscure academic stuff while beating the snot out of you.
4. Because unlike Wesley Snipes, Van Damme, and Steven Seagal, some of Lundgren’s recent straight-to-DVD movies are actually pleasurable guilty pleasures. It’s no secret that these days Lundgren is not exactly at the top of the big studios’ wishlists when they’re putting together their A-list projects. And as a result, he’s had to look elsewhere for film work. But Lundgren has fared better than most — and he has a huge mansion in Marbella, Spain to prove it. He’s made stacks of loot from his under-the-radar cheapies, sometimes even moonlighting as those films’ writer and director, too. That’s right: he’s an action goon, a brainiac, and an auteur! Beginning with 2004’s The Defender, Lundgren has helmed six flicks. But my favorite has to be 2009’s Command Performance, which is set at a Moscow charity concert where armed thugs take the American pop star headliner and the Russian president hostage and it’s up to Dolph’s ex-biker/heavy metal drummer to save the day. If it sounds ludicrous, well, that’s because it is. But it’s also an undeniable hoot.
5. Last but not least…there’s this story: Last May, a pair of burglars reportedly broke into Lundgren’s hacienda in Marbella to rob the joint. They also reportedly tied up his wife and forced her to hand over cash and jewelry. Then, as they continued to ransack the place, they noticed a framed photograph of the 6-foot-5-inch muscleman and his children in one of the bedrooms. Then it hit them: “Holy s***! We’re robbing Dolph Lundgren!” They basically wet themselves, stopped what they were doing, and hightailed it out of there.
Honestly, how can you not love the guy?