By Joel Stein
Thursday, Jan. 24, 2008
Sylvester Stallone has memorized a lot of Procol Harum lyrics, and for the next two minutes I'm going to hear them. Because if you want to know what inspires a man to write a movie in which hundreds of people are blown up and which, by his own estimate, contains only three pages of dialogue between the two main characters, apparently you have to listen to the lyrics of a psychedelic 1968 song called In Held 'Twas in I: Glimpses of Nirvana. This is the song that made Stallone want to be a writer, which is surprising because while it contains one Zen koan and mentions the Dalai Lama three times, it does not allude to firing a rocket launcher through a helicopter window.
The 61-year-old actor is explaining why he made this Rambo, which seems like a dumb career move after 2006's Rocky Balboa. Stallone—pretty much hitless since the 1980s, when he was one of the biggest box-office draws in the world—wrote, directed and starred in the sixth installment of that dead franchise and emerged with a critical and commercial success. Rocky Balboa was a touching, honest, personal look at longing for past glory; Stallone held off from pandering so much that it didn't even have a training montage. But Rambo—the fourth one, and the first in 20 years—is a movie without apology for the foreign markets that still adore him: Rambo quickly gets talked into saving captured missionaries in Burma, and then Rambo kicks ass—age and the physics of ballistics be damned.
Sure, Stallone agreed to do the movie before Rocky Balboa was approved, but that doesn't mean he didn't find something to say. Like Procol Harum, Stallone is not afraid of metaphor, of being opaque, of answering some questions with questions and other questions with a hail of bullets. What he wanted to say in the new Rambo came down to one smart speech: "Old men start wars. Young men fight them. And everyone in the middle gets killed. War is natural. Peace is an accident. We're animals." Stallone eventually cut all that dialogue out because Rambo is a silent man, and blurting out your thesis is for college papers, not movies.
No one remembers this, but First Blood, the first Rambo movie, about a Vietnam vet with massive posttraumatic stress disorder who winds up shooting up a small American town, is an antiwar movie. The second Rambo—the glossy action movie loved by many, including President Reagan—is about a vet who goes back to Vietnam and wins, freeing a bunch of pows. The new Rambo is supposed to be back in the antiwar camp. "What I was trying to say is that nothing changes. The world will never come together and say we are one," Stallone says, smoking a cigar and wearing a tight Army-green shirt in his Beverly Hills office, which is decorated with some paintings of Rocky that he made. "Rambo thought he would have accomplished something with all he's given. I think about the lifelong police officer who retires after 50 years, and crime is up. He's gotten hurt, he's lost his wife, and what has he accomplished? Crime is up."
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, left, Julie Benz and Sylvester Stallone arrive at the Rambo premiere at Planet Hollywood Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2008.
(AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)
The guy who created Rocky is a cheery pessimist who believes that despite an ugly world, you can make incredible things happen with great effort. "Rocky represents the optimistic side of life, and Rambo represents purgatory," he says. The world, Rambo realizes, is perpetually chaotic and dangerous. "If you think people are inherently good, you get rid of the police for 24 hours—see what happens," Stallone says. "I could start a war in 30 seconds. But some countries spend 100 years trying to find peace. Just like good manners, peace has to be learned." So, after reading about the unrest in Burma in Soldier of Fortune magazine (You thought he subscribed to Better Homes and Gardens?), Stallone decided to set the film in Burma, shooting in Thailand and struggling to cast real Burmese, many of whom feared reprisals against family in their home country. Stallone says he regularly got threats from people associated with the Burmese government. "They were like my wake-up calls," he says. "They were very polite. 'This film will not be made, and if it is, people will be killed.'" He borrowed a Thai princess's armored vehicle to travel to the set, and at one point, people who worked with him on the movie say, he wanted to drop the project entirely.
Unlike the rest of Hollywood, Stallone was smart enough to make an antiwar movie that's not about the Middle East. And he wasn't about to make a pro-Iraq-war film; 2004 was the first year he didn't vote for a Republican presidential candidate, even though the man was born on the same day as he was and has pecs almost as big. Stallone's particularly galled by Bush's tough talk. "You see Bush, and you see the obstinacy and the arrogance. Go out there and ride in a humvee 10 times, and then I'll listen to you. Take the ride. Have your bowels go into a square knot. Then I'll respect you." Stallone is awesome at tough talk.
Of course, the futility of war isn't what you think about when you're watching an hour of bad-guy heads popping off in the latest Rambo, the most violent of the series. In fact, it's not even what Avi Lerner, one of the film's producers, saw in it. "This is the Rambo that makes America feel good about what he's doing," Lerner says. "This time it's a Rambo that's saving the world."
But the character, Stallone thinks, has always been misunderstood, even by Reagan. "I never saw Rambo as a Republican," Stallone says, though he liked the President too much to make an issue of it. "We watched Escape to Victory on folding chairs in the White House. It was really makeshift. You had a better sound system in your pickup truck." Rambo, he says, is underestimated emotionally and intellectually, just because he doesn't so much talk as use his voice like a car horn to warn or scare others. "In a film like Rambo, the more he speaks, the less interesting he is. It's much harder to play than Rocky," he says. Milo Ventimiglia, who played Rocky's son in the last movie, says he was impressed with how detail-oriented and self-assured Stallone was as both a director and an actor. "Maybe there were a little too many bullets in some of the movies or too much blood in other ones, but you saw a performer. And when I got to witness the process of a creative person knowing exactly what he wants to do, I was blown away. To me, he's an artist."
Sylvester Stallone makes an appearance at Planet Hollywood Times Square to promote his latest film 'Rambo', Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008 in New York.
(AP Photo/Evan Agostini)
Playing a guy who acts with only his eyes and his biceps is harder than playing a fast-talking, earnest boxer, especially on a 61-year-old body. Which was one of the reasons Stallone wanted to do it. He pumped up to a freakish 209 lbs. (95 kg); in Rambo II he weighed only 168 (76 kg). And, he insists, he did it without steroids, though with the help of a prescription testosterone. "HGH [human growth hormone] is nothing. Anyone who calls it a steroid is grossly misinformed," he says. "Testosterone to me is so important for a sense of well-being when you get older. Everyone over 40 years old would be wise to investigate it because it increases the quality of your life. Mark my words. In 10 years it will be over the counter." He was in such great shape, it freaked out his co-star, Julie Benz. "I'm a runner. I sprint. And I'm extremely competitive. And he blew past me every time. And he doesn't run at all. He's that focused," she says.
So the meaning of Rambo, really, comes just from the act of making it. "This was a physical tour de force," Stallone says. David Morrell, who wrote the novel that Rambo is based on, says Stallone has been thinking of the character this way for years. "Sly phoned me two years ago and said he thought [the postmovie] Rambo would be working with scrap metal from the Vietnam era, and the metaphor was that he's a salvager and was trying to salvage his life. Sly is very big on metaphors," he says.
Is the return to Rambo a sign of a last-quarter-life crisis? It's less of a sign than what's under Stallone's right sleeve. Yesterday, he says, he finished his tattoo, and it's not subtle. It's a huge, color-saturated portrait of his wife surrounded by three roses (the middle name of each of his three daughters is Rose) and looked over by a tiger (apparently, Rocky was fond of tiger eyes). "When people read about this, they'll go 'Tattoo?' But after a certain age it takes on a different meaning," he says. "You get your first tattoo at 61, you realize, what [event] are you saving it for?"