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A Sly Move

At 51, Sylvester Stallone Is Putting Rambo Behind Him

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Aug. 15, 1997

HOLLYWOOD News flash: Sylvester Stallone plays a guy with a gut who does not blow anyone away in his new movie, "Cop Land," until the very last scene. Just a few blam-blam-blams. Puny, ordinary weapons. A wee blood smear. And then the credits.

Nothing explodes. This is the wheels of the cultural Zeitgeist turning. This is high concept in Hollywood. A finely acted movie. Stallone worked for scale. He plays a chunker, a dim bulb, a bum-kisser, a tortured but real-life hero who finds himself by shooting someone!

More news: Stallone now thinks that hyper-violent, cartoonish action films are . . . dumb.

The revelation, of course, begs the question: How stupid have we been? This generally goes unreported.

Stallone, 51, takes his rolling gait into a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel here on a sunny Saturday. Shakes hands. It is a loose grip, as if his arthritis is acting up. He gives himself a once-over in the mirror. Requests mousse. Leaves for a moment and returns, ready for action.

His waistline is no longer a 39 but somewhere in the low 30s. He gained almost 40 pounds for "Cop Land" -- a feat accomplished with the help of a strict dietary regimen of pancakes and fries -- but has since lost the weight. Not to say that Stallone is actually "fat" in the movie, as widely stated. Rather he looks like a normal American male in his middle years whose main physical activity is eating doughnuts while driving.

But even with a belly approaching the second trimester, even with the stooped posture, the bad haircut, he never quite makes one completely believe he is the schlub he pretends to be in the film. But he almost does. Damn close. And that is acting, something Stallone has not done so well since his debut, 20 years ago, as Rocky Balboa. He says "Cop Land" is probably his second-favorite movie after that first installment in the "Rocky" series.

He takes a seat by the balcony, pours himself a cup of coffee. A studio serf presents him with a big Monte Cristo cigar, a glass ashtray and long wooden Dunhill matches, and quietly retreats into an antechamber.

Stallone talks for the next hour about superheroes, his own vanity, violence, Rambo guilt, the Third World, puppy dogs and his role as Freddy Heflin, a sheriff in a small New Jersey town who is basically a doormat, and treated like one by the New York City police who work in the metropolis but make their homes in Freddy's town. But the cops are bad cops and bad things happen and eventually Freddy has to make a decision: Does he make his stand or roll over like the lap dog he has become? Answer: blam, blam, blam. But well-acted.

Sometime in his later career, after five "Rockys" and three "Rambos," a "Cobra," "The Specialist," a "Cliffhanger" and "Assassins," he got the feeling -- he thinks around the filming of "Judge Dredd" in 1995 -- that the action genre he defined was becoming an arms race of excess. Each movie had bigger weaponry and bigger deltoids, less plot and less character, and then no plot and no character.

"Okay, I think what had happened was going back to Rocky, these were more or less flesh-and-blood or accessible heros," Stallone starts. "But with Rambo, almost by accident, came a fellow with truly superhuman abilities, and he became a mythic hero, and this hadn't been done in film, except in doing Hercules or Jason and the Argonauts or Sinbad.

"Now all of a sudden we were taking ordinary guys and turning them into mythic heroes and normally they were ex-something, ex-CIA, ex-Navy Seals, ex-this or ex-that. We had to give them a reason to be a mythic hero with extraordinary powers. And all that was good and well, and provided for some interesting entertainment, but what happened was that like the mythic heroes, they had to rely totally upon extraordinary situations to perform.

"Their deeds couldn't be little deeds anymore. Not one man, but 500 men, whole armies, and eventually it got to saving the world, holding the Earth together as it's having volcanoes."

As the films became more extreme, Stallone says, "I thought, my God, we now have become in a sense part of the technology of the movie. We could, seriously, be replaced by any number of gifted athletic actors.

"It got to the point where I wasn't performing anything other than some super-physical stunt show," Stallone says. "Kind of like `American Gladiators.' "

Did he ever feel any sense of remorse, guilt or shame about his creation, John Rambo?

"No," Stallone says, "I swear I don't." What he regrets is that he "could have made them a lot more poignant."

He describes Rambo as "a prince of darkness." But he was surprised at the reaction -- the adoration and revulsion, as well as the geopolitical and cultural adoption of Rambo as a symbol, an avenging automaton run amok.

"For anyone who was somewhat liberal and who really understood the price of war, when they saw this glorification and this jingoist saber-rattling, and seeing it get such acceptance by the right wing, it flipped them out," Stallone says.

He recalls going to Harvard University to receive a Hasty Pudding award. "Protesters threw blood on me, pig's blood," he remembers, "and called me an enemy of the Third World.

"I don't know if that ever goes away," he continues. "In certain foreign countries, in the Third World countries, I am Rambo, this symbol. It's a problem. For them to understand Freddy Heflin, I don't think it's possible."

When Saddam Hussein famously predicted that the Persian Gulf War would not be a Rambo movie, Stallone's reaction, he says, was "Yikes!"

"It was pure fantasy," he says of the movie. "There is no way a man runs through a jungle with snakes, bare-chested -- he'd get all kinds of diseases. And the headband!" Stallone is almost giggling. "He'd get exposure. You realize he never stops for a drink? It was a real military fantasy."

And if he could do it all over again?

"Rambo should have been less muscular," he suspects. "This living in the trees, eating green leaves, it really put the muscles on him."

But Stallone says that while he accepts responsibility for his films, the audiences, too, came to expect in his sequels "a relentless adrenaline rush" and "sensory bombardment" of action and violence. He recalls how "Rocky IV" was an almost continuous montage of fetishistic muscle porn and slow-mo fighting. But during the one brief scene where Rocky explains to Adrian that he must go to the Soviet Union to avenge Apollo Creed, telling her, "If I die, I die," that one bit of character development was too much. "People were screaming, `Fast-forward this damn thing,' " he says.

A few years ago, when Stallone began to suggest that he was growing increasingly frustrated with action movies -- he says he begged the director to be allowed to die by drowning in last year's "Daylight" -- the scripts stopped coming.

"I made a statement: I don't want to do action films anymore," Stallone says. What he meant to say was, "I didn't want to do ultra-violent, metronomic, mathematical films. . . . I wanted to do something that moves you."

He remembers, "I was falling through the cracks. . . . All of a sudden it became real quiet. And during this silence, I was presented with `Cop Land.' "

When the script arrived, "it terrified me," Stallone says. "Fifteen years ago, I would have immediately said, `Yeah, let's do it.' Now I'd built a career out of not playing people like that, not understanding people like that, not forgiving people like that. . . . I said, `I can't do this. I don't know who this person is.' "

He was told by some the movie would damage a career already shaken by a string of mediocre films. But Stallone said he had just turned 50, was engaged, had a baby daughter -- and that it was the 20th anniversary of "Rocky."

"I was looking for a good excuse," he says.

An aging body was not the reason for the transformation. He is now a year older, but "actually I'm not that different than at 40 or 35."

What he liked most about "Cop Land," he says, was working with actors like Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel and Ray Liotta. During the filming, De Niro and Keitel would warn him, he says, "That's a Rocky thing. That's a Ramboism. Don't use it."

Stallone says he was saved by the direction and editing of 33-year-old filmmaker James Mangold, who cut away manipulative, overdramatic and "precious" acting and worked to find the essence of his character. "They kept telling me, `Don't try to be puppy-eyed.' "

Killing his inner puppy was one thing, but Stallone says it was hard to get used to his altered body. Mangold said he wanted Stallone to keep eating, he wanted to see the junk food diet in his face, in his sag and paunch. Stallone says the added weight made him move differently.

As he began filming, Stallone says, he kept telling everyone he met: This is not the real me. "To surrender one's vanity -- you don't realize you possess so much until you have to give it up. Finally giving up the security blanket."

But it is important to remember that this is Hollywood, the land of make-believe. Stallone is again buff. And he might still have another heroic role in him. A poignant, well-acted action movie, he says, would be worth his consideration.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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