Shove over, Russell Crowe. No action hero has suffered like Sylvester Stallone

<span>A walk in the part compared to The Expendables …Dolph Lundgren and Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV. </span><span>Photograph: United Artists/Allstar</span>
A walk in the part compared to The Expendables …Dolph Lundgren and Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV. Photograph: United Artists/Allstar

One repeated theme in director Edward Zwick’s very good new autobiography Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions is the importance of practical effects. For example, when he made The Siege, Zwick managed to shut down both Times Square and Brooklyn Bridge for a few hours to deliver a palpable sense of verisimilitude. If it had been made today, “it will all be CGI and something ineffable will have been lost,” he says.

Related: ‘All for art’: why Russell Crowe shot Robin Hood for a month with two broken legs

Zwick couldn’t have possibly predicted this, but by chance he happened to make his claim in the midst of a glut of actors admitting that they are so dedicated to preserving the ineffable that they managed to bugger up their bodies beyond all comprehension in the name of audience satisfaction.

Earlier this week we heard from Russell Crowe, a man who managed to break both of his legs while jumping off a portcullis while filming Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. Not to be outdone, Sylvester Stallone has used the launch of a new season of his reality show to reveal that during The Expendables he dislocated his shoulders and fractured his neck so badly that he required seven back surgeries, a metal plate in his neck and spinal fusions.

During the episode of The Family Stallone, which is a real thing that definitely exists, Stallone recounts an Expendables scene where he had to fight the wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin. “I was directing Expendables,” he said, “and, like an idiot, I’m doing take 10, take whatever, and I remember one slam and I could actually feel one bang. Steve knew. I never recovered. After that film, it was never physically the same. So I warn people, don’t do your own stunts.”

Which, by all accounts, sounds absolutely awful. The Expendables was released 14 years ago, and to think that Stallone has been suffering through this much pain ever since is genuinely sad. Then again, though, you’d think he’d learn. While making Rocky IV in the 1980s, as has been told many times before, Stallone was punched so hard in the chest by Dolph Lundgren that his heart slammed against his breastbone and began to swell so dangerously that he was forced into intensive care for over a week. If ever there was a time to stop doing your stunts, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that it would be immediately after Ivan Drago punched you into hospital.

Obviously Crowe and Stallone are far from the only actors who have hurt themselves on a movie set. Jeremy Renner broke both his arms making Tag. During Syriana, George Clooney hit his head so badly that his spinal fluid began to leak. Jim Caviezel was struck by lightning on the set of The Passion of the Christ. Jackie Chan has spent his entire career being beaten so senseless in the name of stuntwork that you can go online and read listicles that rank his top 10 injuries.

But there does seem to be something in the air, a spirit of one-upmanship that seems to be daring us to judge actors on the pasting they’re willing to take to give audiences a good time. And, until other actors decide to join in, we’re basically left to decide whether Crowe’s or Stallone’s injury is more impressive.

It’s a tricky choice. On one hand, Crowe claims that he walked off his broken legs without telling any producers or doctors about it. On the other, it’s much harder to walk off a fractured spine. Stallone’s injury has required years and years of treatment, but Crowe didn’t even realise that he broke his legs until an MRI scan a decade later. And then there’s the memorability of the stunts to consider. Crowe’s portcullis-jumping scene was so relatively minor that it didn’t even make the quick-cut action montage at the end of Robin Hood’s trailer. Meanwhile there is a very good chance that, one minute and 50 seconds into the Expendables trailer, you can see the exact moment where Sylvester Stallone ruins his neck.

So who’s the winner? Why, the moviegoing audience, of course. If it weren’t for heroes like Russell Crowe and Sylvester Stallone taking unsafe risks on their movie sets, we wouldn’t be here trying to remember what happened in two mediocre films that came out a decade and a half ago. Long may their reckless misadventure continue.