Image Credit: Karen BallardIf you’re a certain kind of red-meat action movie fan — you know you who are — then you’re already counting down the days to Sylvester Stallone’s orgy of macho mayhem, The Expendables, on August 13th. Sure, we understand that the former Italian Stallion’s output these days has been decidedly hit or miss. But The Expendables is destined to be a classic. Why? Because it features the once-in-a-lifetime summit of the Big Three action czars of the ’80s: Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“It took probably eight months to pull it off because of everyone’s schedules,” says Stallone, who also directed and co-wrote the $55 million throwback to man-on-a-mission classics like The Dirty Dozen. “With Arnold especially, we’d plan a date and then there’d be a fire or a budget crisis and he’d have to go back to Sacramento.”

Stallone says the big scene between the three icons serves as little more than a cameo for his A-list pals. But, he adds, “it really sets the hook for the movie.” Willis plays a shady mogul who hires Stallone’s band of mercenaries — which includes Jason Statham, Jet Li, mixed-martial-arts champ Randy Couture, and former NFL player Terry Crews — to overthrow a Latin American dictator. In a twist that smacks of Reagan-era box-office showdowns, Schwarzenegger plays Sly’s longtime rival, a fellow soldier of fortune. “Arnold and I talked about how it takes a while to start up the engines these days,” laughs the 63-year-old Stallone.

“It’s the three of us going nose-to-nose,” Stallone continues. “Bruce and Arnold just got it. It’s so funny because you get there and it’s like, We’ve all seen each other socially, but this is different. It’s like meeting a fellow athlete in the ring. Oh, okay, everyone knows how to work the camera and what angles work for them. It was just fantastic. They’re such pros. Because it’s probably never going to happen again.”

For Stallone’s younger costar, Statham, who grew up weaned on the films of these three stars, the prospect of watching these three in the same scene is like catnip. “I’ve actually seen the scene with the three of them and it’s the best scene in the film,” he says. “I was almost in tears with how funny it is. It’s worth every dollar.”

Stallone says also approached his onetime marquee mates Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme to join the cast, too. But it wasn’t to be. “Seagal had complications because he was busy with his TV show. But Van Damme just had complications about the…a lot of this has been blown out of proportion. Supposedly, he said ‘What is the character’s motivation?’ And I supposedly said, ‘Well, we’re making lots of money!’ Which I never said. I’ve never said that in my entire life! I said, ‘It’s about you and Jet Li. He defeats you.’ And he says, ‘That’s impossible!’ And I go, ‘It’s a movie.’ And he goes, ‘But it could never happen!’ And he said, ‘Why don’t you think of doing some other kind of movie? Maybe something that has to do with inner-city politics? And I go, ‘Well, that’s a little removed from where I’m at. So you hang in there and keep punching.’ A lot has been made out of it. He’s going in a whole different direction with his career and he just didn’t want to go there. I wish he had. There’s always a sequel, so who knows?”