By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 24, 2008
Sylvester Stallone, in tight cashmere, his forearms as ripped as Popeye's, enters the hotel suite, which has been arranged for "a mini press conference." The chairs are filled with Rambo reporters, some wearing Rambo bandannas, Rambo T-shirts, Rambo fatigues. It will not be a tough crowd.
First question: "What happened to the shot where you punched the guy's head clear off?"
The reporter is referring to the so-called sizzle reel shown at the Cannes Film Festival last year to generate interest among overseas distributors for the fourth and perhaps final installment in the Rambo saga, a journey that Stallone compares favorably to the wanderings of the relative pantywaist Ulysses in the Odyssey. "Rambo," the film, written, directed, produced by and starring Stallone, opens nationwide on Friday and is perhaps the most graphically violent R-rated movie ever.
"I know," Stallone says, about the sizzle reel. His laugh is a low growl. "That's an optical confusion. What it was, was a knife, and it was such a bad print it looked like I punched his head off. I was reading the blogs. I was, 'Come on guys, look closely, nobody can punch someone's head off.' "
But if anyone could, surely . . .
"When you're pushed," says John J. Rambo, "killing's as easy as breathing." Oh, and his buttons are most definitely pushed in the new movie. It opens with Rambo, the former Green Beret, seemingly abandoned by both his country and his beloved father figure Col. Trautman. He's living as a monosyllabic misanthrope in a hooch at the Thai Snake Farm, where tourists pay to watch performers harass cobras collected in the jungle by Rambo, whose first line of dialogue is a percussive profanity.
It has been two decades since Rambo was last seen fighting alongside the mujaheddin in Afghanistan, which he visited to rescue his beloved puppet master Col. Trautman (played by Richard Crenna) from the Russkies in the poorly received "Rambo III." The years appear to have been kind to Stallone. He is 61. His face has softened, tenderized like a piece of flank steak, whacked by a meat mallet. He sports all his unnaturally jet black hair. His skin tone and resilience are excellent, perhaps benefiting from his model wife Jennifer Flavin-Stallone's line of beauty care products (he plugs her Olive Oil Moisture Cream).With a bandanna wrapped around his head in the movie, he resembles Sitting Bull. It is intentional.
"The ponderousness that comes with aging, the sense of weight, the sense of knowledge, of knowing too much, the lack of naivete, which has happened in my life, set the stage for me," he explains. "I wanted Rambo to be heavier, bulkier, that's why his first line in the movie is pretty negative. He's given up. He has nothing."
Stallone says, "The other Rambos had a bit too much energy, were a bit too spry. I'm not trying to run myself down but there was much more vanity involved." By which he means that shirtless Rambo of yore with pectorals hard as dinner plates, glistening with baby oil as he writhes in agony and ecstasy on a makeshift cross? Exactly.
"It was all about body movement rather than the ferocity and commitment of what he was doing," Stallone says of his previous Rambos. "This character to me is much more interesting."
Anyways, in this movie Rambo's bucolic semi-retirement in Thailand is interrupted by a group of Christian missionaries who hire the idling killing machine to take them upriver in his longboat to a village of Karen people, an ethnic minority living along the Burmese border. The Karen have been fighting for independence since 1949 and are brutally repressed by the Burmese government forces, represented in the film as sadistic baby-bayonetters, led by a monkey-faced chain-smoker, the vicious Maj. Tint.
Soon after Rambo dumps them off, the missionaries and the Karen people are brutally attacked by sinister Burmese government forces in a berserker scene straight out of Hieronymus Bosch (baby thrown into a flamethrower, etc.). And so Rambo and a team of international mercenaries go back and, you know, get them-- with bows and arrows (neck shots), knives (disembowelment) and a .50-caliber machine gun. Aided by the magic of computer-generated imagery, heads do fly, and in the final killing spree, actual doughnut holes -- holes that you can see through -- appear in human torsos.
Question: "It's one of the most violent movies . . "
Stallone interrupts, "Not one of the most. I worked very hard for this." Everyone at the presser has a laugh.
Stallone says he was surprised that the Motion Picture Association of America gave the film an R rating: "When babies are being bayonetted and people are being flamed, I thought this will never go." But he told the ratings board, "I said guys, this is happening today -- and if we're ever going to do something that responds, where art has the ability to influence people's awareness and impact the lives of these people, don't dilute it, don't water it down. . . . Don't cut away too soon. Let it sink it. I want people to feel it. To their credit, they allowed this film to be as truthful as it could."
Stallone is referring to the plight of the Karen people and the Burmese military junta that crushed the pro-democracy "Saffron Revolution" led by monks this fall -- after the film was wrapped, which manages to make Sylvester Stallone, as a kind of human rights activist, appear prescient.
"As you look at the opening credits," which contain actual news footage, Stallone says, "I had to live up to a certain responsibility, because people are dying as we're making the film. Therefore to just have me running through the film doing these extraordinary heroics I thought would demean what they are going through. So they had to have their moment, where you see a village decimated. In fact, it's even worse."
Meaning that he had to destroy the village in order to save it.
Stallone has been mulling a final (perhaps) Rambo movie for a very long time. Initially, the studios thought, hey, why not a caper film? "Like they wanted to have the corrupt CIA agent trying to sell plutonium rods. I said no. The biggest and most interesting crisis in the world is a human crisis. It never gets boring. It goes back to Shakespeare. It's man against man and their intolerance of each other," Stallone says.
Another producer came forward, Stallone says, proposing "this great idea where Camp David is attacked, and I said I'm out. It can't be. There's something about nature as part of the character, something about the primitive man, he's almost an Indian. Set in the city, I didn't think it would fly." Stallone thought he could place Rambo along the Mexican border, among the missing women of Ju¿rez, perhaps, and the human traffickers and wily coyotes. And then, "I did research and found that Burma is one of the great hellholes of the world. But no one knows about it. It's exotic and it's near Vietnam and the synergy was perfect."
What does it all mean?
"I don't know if it's coming across," Stallone says, but the message is "accept who you are, accept who you are, and finally Rambo does. He accepts it. I kill for myself. I don't kill for my country. Stop using this excuse that I'm a hero. I'm not. I got this penchant for violence inside of me that has to come out." During a dream sequence, which flashes on all the previous Rambos, this Rambo dreams that his beloved enabler Col. Trautman actually kills him, puts him out of his misery.
But no. "The warrior needs to war," he says. "Muscles are easy. Anybody can do muscles. You can do violence, violence, violence, action, action, action, but if you can find those little moments in between that connect with people, that aren't so physical, that's what takes the time, that's the challenge, that's what I love about it."