In 1985, it took four words—"I must break you"—to rocket Dolph Lundgren to international stardom. As Soviet killing machine Ivan Drago, the towering antagonist of Rocky IV, Lundgren made a serious impression; of course, in the years since, it’s been revealed that he only got into movies on a lark, as his Masters’ degree in chemical engineering probably would have opened up employment options for him in a different field. Fortunately, Hollywood has been pretty good to him, and if you’ve ever wondered whatever happened to Dolph, you may be surprised to know that he never really went away—and that, thanks to an old friend, his profile may soon be higher than ever.
He spent years in direct-to-video purgatory
After his Rocky IV success, Lundgren found himself with no shortage of offers. He starred in 1987’s notoriously ramshackle Masters of the Universe as He-Man, and was the first big-screen incarnation of Marvel’s Punisher in 1989; his performances in the underrated 1992 actioner Universal Soldier and 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic—playing against type as a lunatic street preacher—were widely praised. But after ’95, the big screen offers seemed to dry up, and Lundgren spent the next decade and a half working steadily in the types of films you only used to see on the bargain shelf at Blockbuster (when those existed).
Of course, no actor can be faulted for turning down steady work, and Lundgren’s direct-to-video output was certainly steady. Between 1995 and 2010, he starred in roughly two dozen such features (including Universal Soldier: Regeneration, an underrated and utterly bonkers sequel). In an interview with Grantland, Lundgren was typically philosophical about this period, saying, "there’s a certain fondness of all of those movies, because every film had something interesting about it. It’s my life. Even if people didn’t see the movies."
He became a writer and director
Lundgren’s period in direct-to-video purgatory was not without its professional rewards. "In 2002 or ’03, this director got sick before he was gonna direct me in something," he recalled. "Sidney Furie, who directed a lot of great movies. When they went to replace him, he suggested me, because I had worked on the script with him. I said ‘Really? You recommended me?’ But I ended up directing the movie (2004’s The Defender). That was a bit of a turning point, for me getting interested in film and movies again, and thinking maybe I can somehow make a difference."
Lundgren has gone on to write several more screenplays, and directed himself in five more features. He has multiple projects in the pipeline as a director, but don’t make the mistake of thinking he’s content only to dwell behind the camera—not only does he continue to accept practically any direct-to-video role he’s offered (including, notoriously, Uwe Boll’s astounding 2011 mess In the Name of the King: Two Worlds), but he’s been quietly making a comeback in mainstream Hollywood films as well.
He returned with the Expendables series
In 2010, Lundgren’s 15-year streak of non-theatrical releases came to a close with The Expendables, which brought together some of the greatest action stars of the ’80s—including Sylvester Stallone, Jet Li, and Bruce Willis—along with current stars Jason Statham and Terry Crews for an unapologetically throwback military actioner. Although the film received mixed critical reviews, its action sequences were widely praised, and it was embraced by action fans.
In an interview with Den of Geek around the time of the film’s release, Lundgren said he’d been wondering if he’d ever get to work with Stallone again, as the two had remained friends ever since Rocky IV. His character—unhinged assassin Gunnar Jensen—ended up being among his favorites to play, and he reprised the role in 2012’s Expendables 2 and 2014’s Expendables 3.
He’s also dabbled in television
Since returning to Hollywood, Lundgren has also taken on a number of one-shot and recurring roles in various television series, beginning with a small part in Chuck in 2010. In 2013, he was cast as a lead in the syndicated TV series SAF3 (pronounced "safe"), an international production focusing on the Sea, Air and Fire divisions of the Malibu, California Fire Department. While well-received, the Baywatch-style series only lasted 20 episodes.
More recently, Lundgren has appeared as himself in episodes of Workaholics and Sanjay and Craig, and has also picked up a recurring role as Russian government agent Konstantin Kovar on the CW’s hit superhero series Arrow. Of the similarities between Kovar and his most famous role, Lundgren told IGN, "Maybe Drago 30 years later survived the fall of the Soviet Union and got his hand on a bunch of money—a couple hundred million dollars—and became friends with the government. Yeah, that’s Kovar."
He got involved in Melodifestivalen
Although he seems to get typecast playing Russians, Lundgren is actually Swedish—and the Swedes have had a long, long love affair with the Eurovision Song Contest ever since ABBA took home the big prize for their hit "Waterloo" in 1974. In fact, the country takes its annual entry so seriously that they came up with a national competition—an American Idol-style, six week, televised gauntlet of pop music called Melodifestivalen—to determine who will have the honor of representing the country at the Eurovision contest. One producer called the event "the Swedish equivalent to the Super Bowl," and in 2010, Lundgren co-hosted the festivities along with pop singer Måns Zelmerlöw and comedienne Christine Meltzer, even assisting Zelmerlöw in a tongue-in-cheek performance of "Eye of the Tiger."
Lundgren was actually rumored to be returning to co-host the 2016 Eurovision event in Stockholm, Sweden, but this unfortunately failed to pan out. As a proud Swede, a fan of good pop music, and someone who obviously enjoys poking fun at himself and his image, it would surprise nobody if Lundgren returned to preside over such an event in the future.
He wrote a fitness book
Now past his 60th birthday, Lundgren is not only still in tremendous shape, but he could easily pass for a man in his 40s. This is due to a lifetime of dedication to fitness that began well before he became a movie star—he won two karate titles in the early ’80s on his way to achieving a third-degree black belt, helped along by an insane training regimen that saw him rising at 3:00 every morning for a five-mile run before hitting the dojo, followed by hours of weight lifting, then even more karate.
Decades later, his training routine is only slightly less intense. Heavy on sandbags, medicine balls and dumbbells, Lundgren prefers a resistance-based workout routine which keeps him in Drago-like shape at an age when most men are starting to think about retirement. He even outlined his complete approach to fitness in his 2014 book Train Like an Action Hero: Be Fit Forever, which details his "personal philosophy of fitness based on martial arts, yoga, strength training, biochemical research, professional sports, and over 40 starring roles in classic action films"—which are pretty decent qualifications.
He had a home invasion scare
The year before Lundgren’s triumphant return to the mainstream, he came very close to having his life completely derailed by tragedy. In 2009, a gang of home invaders broke into his Spanish villa where his then-wife Anette Qviberg was home alone. They tied Qviberg up, terrorizing her and forcing her to point out the locations of cash and jewelry; it almost seems like a scene from one of Lundgren’s movies, which is ironic, because the thieves had no idea whose house they’d broken into. That is, until they spotted a family photo—at which point they promptly departed the property, presumably leaving thug-shaped holes in the wall.
Speaking with Spanish media, a source said that things "might have turned out very differently if Dolph had been at home," pointing out that Qviberg was "Dolph’s angel and anyone who messes with her is messing with him." The three criminals were extremely lucky to avoid encountering the man whose body blows literally made Stallone’s heart blow up like a balloon, hospitalizing him for days while filming Rocky IV; unfortunately, Qviberg and Lundgren divorced in 2011.
He works to help bust human trafficking
The 2014 film Skin Trade, which Lundgren wrote and starred in, features him as an American police officer who goes to Thailand to take down a human trafficking ring. The film’s awesome supporting cast includes martial arts legend Tony Jaa, iconic character actor Ron Perlman, and Peter Weller (Robocop), and the film is worth taking in for a long, impressively choreographed fight sequence between Jaa and Lundgren—but its subject matter is no joke for Lundgren, who’s made it his mission to do everything he can to call attention to the issue of human trafficking.
Speaking with Under the Radar, Lundgren explained that an article about some teenage girls who had suffocated in the back of a van left unattended by traffickers was the impetus for his activism. He works regularly with a Los Angeles non-profit called CAST (Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking), saying that the organization "help(s) a lot of survivors, and … rescue(s) people from human trafficking and sex trafficking, and then they help them to work their way back into society here in America." Most action stars can be seen on the big screen rescuing helpless, exploited victims from the clutches of criminal gangs, but Lundgren may be the only one who’s taken up the pursuit in real life.
He became a music video star
Imagine Dragons are one of the more successful rock bands of this decade, and have become almost as well-known for their unique videos as their music—the clip for their breakthrough single, "It’s Time," was nominated for Best Rock Video by MTV the year of its release, and the band’s videos tend to dig in to the meanings behind the songs. This is especially true of their tune "Believer," the video for which features a very familiar face as the personification of the narrator’s inner demons. Apparently, if you want to overcome the obstacles life throws at you, you must start by getting the best of your inner Dolph Lundgren.
Said frontman Dan Reynolds in a statement, "’Believer’ is about finding a place of peace and self-confidence … the video depicts a man facing his inner self, the toughest critic of all, while paying homage to some of the classic movies we grew up with." Reynolds actually trades blows with Lundgren in the clip, apparently not having thought to ask Sylvester Stallone whether it was a good idea.
He’s on the way back to mainstream stardom
Lundgren’s perseverance, professionalism and outright likability has paid off. Even though he continues to appear in such future non-classics as Sharknado 5: Global Swarming, his return to the big screen was received warmly enough that the offers haven’t ended with the Expandables series. He joined the cast of James Wan’s DC Extended Universe entry Aquaman as King Nereus, an antagonist who covets the title character’s love interest—making a showdown with Jason Momoa’s Aquaman all but inevitable.
But even more exciting is the news surrounding the sequel to 2015’s Creed, which focused on Adonis Creed, the son of Apollo—the beloved mentor to Rocky Balboa whom Ivan Drago killed in the ring early in Rocky IV. Stallone and Lundgren both dropped all kinds of hints on social media teasing the eventual confirmation that Lundgren would be returning to the role that made him famous—which makes all kinds of sense, given that the storyline focuses on the fight between Adonis and Drago’s son, tying the burgeoning spinoff franchise back in with the saga that spawned it. Creed 2 is expected to be released on November 21, 2018.