After the critical and commercial success of Rocky Balboa, which I adored, who can blame Sylvester Stallone for wanting to bring another of his iconic characters back to the big screen? Rocky Balboa surprised people with how heartfelt and genuinely moving it was. Rambo (and yes, it's just called Rambo now) will shock people with how serious and shockingly violent it is. Set against the very real, very disturbing situation in Burma, Rambo finds Stallone on a mission to rescue a group of missionaries from sadistic Burmese soldiers.
Do you ever imagine a world where you shot the original ending of the novel First Blood (John Rambo commits suicide), and you hadn't had Rambo with you all these years?
SYLVESTER STALLONE: Yeah, I think about that all the time. I had that debate with Quentin Tarantino, and he was vehement that I made a mistake. On an artistic level, he's probably right. But at the time, I had been spending a lot of time doing research with veterans, and it seemed like this terrible, nihilistic...they just reveled in complete despair. And at that time, we had had almost a quarter of a million Vietnam suicides. So I thought, do I want to end it on that note? Or make him more of a victim who has been created to do a job, does a job, comes home, and no longer fits in? It's like training a pit bull. You train a dog to become a killer and now what do you do? You gotta put him down. But what happens if that pit bull gets loose and you realize he's not as bad as you think, you can somehow redeem him. I thought that was more of an interesting story. As Kirk Douglas says, "Not artistic, but commercial!"
Did you have to go back and look at the previous Rambo movies to get back into character?
SS: The ponderousness that comes with aging, the sense of weight, knowledge, knowing too much, lack of naivete, which has happened in my life, sort of set the stage for me. I wanted Rambo to be heavier, bulkier -- that's why his first line of the movie is pretty negative, he's given up. The other Rambos had a bit too much energy, they were a little too spry. I'm not trying to run myself down, but there was much more vanity involved. It was all about body movement, rather than just the ferocity. This character, to me, is much more interesting. I like First Blood and I like this one. So it's like the first Rocky and the last -- Rocky Balboa. Everything in between is kind of trying to figure out what I should do.
Can you talk about the tone of the movie? A lot of people might go in expecting the gratification of seeing Rambo return and kill a lot of people, but the way you depict the violence is really unflinching and intense.
SS: I had to live up to a certain responsibility, because people are dying in Burma as we are making the film. Therefore, to just have me running through the film doing these extraordinary heroics would demean what they're going through. They had to have their moment, where you see their village is decimated. I don't know if that other Rambo stuff would fly today. I think the audience really wants something that's hard-hitting, but has a semblance of reality. We didn't want to go too far. In the 80's we got away with murder. You're jumping out of a plane? "I don't need a parachute!" Somehow you made it, you landed on a convertible roof or something. This time, I decided I'm really going to show it, and the violence has to be extremely brutal, because we see people beheaded on television. How much harder can you go? You can't water it down. And that was a big bone of contention. They asked me if I could do a film about a caper, like a movie about a corrupt CIA guy, and he was trying to sell plutonium rods, and I said no. The biggest and most interesting crisis in the world is the human crisis, and it never gets boring. It goes back to Shakespeare. You don't need a gimmick, it's just man against man, and their intolerance of each other.
The new Rambo has had a long journey to the screen, various studios involved, etc.
SS: And I don't know any of them! Lionsgate came to me 12 years ago and asked if I'd want to do a new Rambo. They said "We've got this great idea where Camp David is attacked," and I said "I'm out." There's something about nature as part of the character. There's something about the primitive man, he's like an Indian. Set in the city, I thought it would die. So it died for ten years. At one point Mark Burnett was talking about doing something, that didn't work. I called Harvey Weinstein and talked to him about these missionary groups that go into Afghanistan, thought that could be interesting, never got a call back on that. So Avi Lerner bought it. I wanted to do something about Mexico, the whole coyote thing, people disappearing in Juarez, that whole thing. We went that way for a bit, but I needed something more international. So I did some research and found out that Burma is one of the great hellholes on the planet, and no one knows about it. And it's exotic, and it's near Vietnam. The synergy was perfect.
Was it challenging making these iconic characters -- Rocky and Rambo -- relevant 15 years later?
SS: If I were trying to go after a youth audience, and trying to make it hip and using a certain kind of music or whatever, I think that would be pretty obvious and it would be rejected. There's some things that never change, universal truths, and as you get older they become more and more apparent. About how difficult life is, like the speech in Rocky Balboa about taking the punches life gives you. And the young people, who supported Rocky Balboa more than even people my age, really enjoy and embrace those kind of lessons, and I think the lesson presented in Rambo -- that war is hell and there is no winner, ever -- will translate. After a man or a woman takes that journey, there's always hope that he or she can go back home, that there's always some gateway back to peace. Peace of mind, where you can start to rebuild. That's the main thing I hope works in this one, and I think it does, because these are just universal truths that never change. Everybody wants freedom, everybody wants peace of mind, but it comes with a horrible price.
The violence here is incredibly graphic, was it hard to bring this in with an 'R' Rating?
SS: I couldn't believe it! Babies are being bayoneted, and I thought "this will never go." We presented it, and I had a caveat with the MPAA, saying "Guys, this is happening today. And if we're ever going to do something responsible, where art has the ability to influence peoples' awareness and perhaps influence the lives of these people, don't dilute it. Don't water it down. It's got to be uncomfortable, it is uncomfortable, it's miserable. It's distasteful, it's horrifying. But if you're not going to go there, don't do the movie. Don't do Violence Light. Don't cut away too soon. I want people to feel it." To their credit, they allowed this film to be as truthful as it could.
Any more Rocky movies on the way?
SS: No. They talk about making Son of Rocky and all that, but no. I got so lucky with the final image, with the rack focus and the fade -- that's it. I can't go any further with that. It's a miracle it even got made, I'm just so grateful it got financed. It's my finest moment, I'm so happy with it.
Rambo blasts into theaters on January 25th.