‘Rambo is not gratuitous violence. It’s war’By Kim Francis
February 28, 2008
Sylvester Stallone reveals the pressures – and dangers – he faced as action hero Rambo comes out of retirement
Back in the 80s and early 90s there were three big action heroes – Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone. With Schwarzenegger diversifying into family films and commercial and critical flops before switching to politics and Van Damme continuing in the action genre, making little-seen flicks for action purists, Sylvester Stallone is really the only one to emerge with any credibility.
Despite numerous stinkers of sequels that he readily admits he would prefer fell off the radar, Stallone took a chance on a sixth film in the Rocky series, 30 years after the release of his self-penned original Oscar-winning film, and boosted his reputation.
The success of Rocky Balboa opened the door for Stallone to resurrect another of his well-loved action heroes – Rambo, the fourth instalment of the super-violent action series, which is currently on release in cinemas.
Thirty years old when his action career sky-rocketed with the release of Rocky, Sly Stallone is now 61 but still, incredibly, fighting fit with the muscles to match.
As he walks into the room, he tugs at the straining sleeves of his black T-shirt complaining, “My shirt’s too tight. I’m trying to stretch it!”
However fit this Hollywood movie star appears to be, it must have been tough making another Rambo film while being expected to perform like he did back when First Blood came out in 1982. Does being 61 make a difference to his physical prowess?
He says: “I’m telling you, you’re a lot tougher than you think. You know what the difference is? I’m lucky because I’m under the gun. I’m under pressure to perform.
“If I didn’t have this goal to do this, believe me I’d be more than happy to sit upstairs, throw 25 croissants down my throat and wash it down with a pint of beer. Trust me.”
He continues: “If you look at me when I was on my way to film Rambo, I was about 20 kilos heavier – I was huge, massive. I had to put that weight on but it’s all goal orientated. If you don’t have a goal, it’s very, very, very hard to just stay in shape.”
He recounts an intriguing encounter with an unnamed star to illustrate his point: “I was talking to one of my fellow superstar up-and-coming sex symbol actors who was losing his hair,” he says.
“All of a sudden I see him and he’s covered. I said, ‘What did you do?’ He said, ‘It’s a matter of economics’. So, it’s not vanity, it’s what he does for a living. Normally he would have said “I don’t care” but in my business…”
Stallone acknowledges that he is somewhat typecast and this is why he feels the need to maintain his muscular frame.
He says: “I’ve been identified with a certain kind of physicality so for me to expect to be Daniel Day Lewis or to go into Russell Crowe land would be futile.
“I don’t do what they do, they don’t do what I do and it took me many years to figure out that you can’t do everything.
You have specialties and then you have things that you look like a total fool doing.”
For Stallone, making another Rambo film was his chance to put right what was wrong with the previous sequels and to bookend the series – but with the film set in Burma amid the world’s longest-running civil war, shooting it was a trial to say the least.
Stallone says, “I didn’t want to go where we were going – Northern Thailand and Chiang Mai – because we were getting an abundant amount of death threats. Not just to me, but to the crew because the Burmese police are insidious.
“They work up and down the Salween River and they made their presence known.
“So I said to the producer, ‘Can’t we shoot this in Porta Viata or someplace like that? Acapulco? I’ll take whatever I can! Cut my salary, I don’t care. I don’t feel like dying doing this film!’
“And the more I thought about it, I thought we’re never going to find [anywhere else authentic enough].”
He continues, “I remember when we did Rambo III, we shot it in Mexico. It was supposed to be Vietnam and we had, like, 13 extras and they were all part-time waiters from Thailand. It was, like, ‘We can’t keep doing this’ so I said, ‘No, let’s do it authentically’. So we went back there [to Burma] and the King was nice enough to give us his border patrol.
“But it was a pretty tense situation. It was a very difficult film but I’m glad we did it there and I’m glad we got so many of the Burmese to agree to be in the film because they were terrified – terrified – to be in the film. I couldn’t have asked for a more harsh but more interesting experience.’
Though the Burmese extras were scared to appear in the film for fear of recriminations, all that did so appeared in the hope of publicising their plight and eliciting change in their country.
And Stallone has received much positive feedback, notably from students that had contacted the Free Burma Rangers (a multi-ethnic humanitarian service movement) in Thailand, who were delighted with the film.
Sly explains: “It’s a real ‘pleasure’ that they can finally have something out there that isn’t just your stale news; that they can actually have something visually exploitative that’ll be seen around the world.
“They’re using the term ‘Live for something, die for nothing’ that Rambo says in the movie. They hooked on to that phrase. One thing they did say is that as horrific and bloody as you think the film is – which I don’t because that’s what war is – it’s not gratuitous violence.
“Gratuitous violence is a guy dressed up in a fright wig with a meat cleaver chasing 10 teenagers around the woods for 10 hours. That’s gratuitous. This is war. And civil war is by far the most vicious of all wars.
“The exploits in the film are violent but they don’t compare to what these people have gone through.
“Like the immolation of thousands of monks in the last few months – they just didn’t disappear; they were torched, gone, off the planet. That’s the information I got and that’s the information I believe.”
Stallone asserts that with a budget of just $14 million, they couldn’t afford to use CGI which meant that all the stunts you see on film are real. There were a huge number of cast and crew members suffering injuries but not, as you might expect, because of the stunts. Instead, it was Burma’s tough jungle climate.
He says: “Many [of them] were on saline drips. It was very, very dangerous. Even the bushes are dangerous! I was going, ‘Is there anything around here that’s nice?’ The butterflies are deadly. Everything is bad … water, pollution, fire.
“We had so many fires. It’s called ‘The Burning Season’. They burned the country to the ground because they don’t want to cut trees. Why? Chainsaws are illegal. It’s OK to smash people’s skulls with machetes but you can’t own a chainsaw. Welcome.
“They had so much smoke there that even in Laos and Cambodia, as well as Thailand, people were dying of emphysema.
‘The biggest problem though was the snakes. There was one scene I thought I wanted to add rain to but it took 30 days to do. It became so saturated all the snakes came up. But what’s worse than the snakes is the centipedes!
“If you leave your chair for a cigarette and come back there’s something sitting on it with a thousand legs. I swear! So everyone’s getting bitten and sewn up.”
Sly himself ended up in hospital. He says, “I did a stupid stunt where I get blown off a hill. There’s this giant wave chasing me and I roll down the hill and I’m going, ‘Please’ and you’re getting down almost to the bottom and there’s a log there and I hit this thing – I looked: 10 fingers, 10 toes.
“I get up and go ‘Perfect!’ Then bang! Right into a bamboo tree. Then after all that I fall on to a cactus that punctures my arm.
“Next thing I know, I’m in a hospital with this haematoma so big that from here down [he indicates] I was a true blue blood – all blue!
“So all the accidents happened just walking into your motor home. You find something sleeping in your toilet that will eat you. It’s like everything is dangerous.
“I was like, ‘How do these people live, man?’ It’s amazing. Eleven people on a moped, no one gets killed. I sit [on one] at home, wear a seat belt, helmet – crash! Unbelievable.”
Stallone’s family life is very much at odds with his tough guy image. Living with his wife of 10 years Jennifer Flavin and their three daughters, he is surrounded by females; an image that is at odds with the testosterone-pumped machismo we are used to seeing. So what do his daughters make of their father's films?
Sylvester laughs about the influence they seem to have on them. He says: “Tell me if you think this is bad – my five-year-old went to school and this little boy took her chair and she said, “You do that again, I’ll cut your head off.” Is that bad?
“So, I think [what I do] is kind of having an influence on them!
“What happens is, they sneak in when I’m watching the ‘dailies’ [footage filmed that day] at home and they’re listening so they hear ‘argh!’, then ‘smash!’ and they think that’s normal behaviour.
“They become little Rambettes or Rambelinas and I’m in trouble so we’ve had to go back to watching Spongebob Squarepants. They used to really cry and now it's like, ‘Sigh; another death. I’ve got to go to bed, I'm a little tired’.
“I’ve had to detox them from Rambo!”
So, with Stallone’s career once again on the rise with two successful sequels, what’s next for the Hollywood action icon? Are there any other characters he would like to re-visit?
He says, “The biggest mistake ever made was the sloppy handling of Judge Dredd. I thought that could have been a fantastic, nihilistic, interesting vision of the future where there was judge jury and executioner. That really bothered me a great deal.
“I think Cobra could be kind of interesting on a certain level – only because I always thought he was Bruce Springsteen with a badge. And I wouldn’t have minded seeing if my character in Copland lived happily ever after.”
For news of Sylvester Stallone’s next sequel, watch this space.