Rocky vs. Rambo

The year 1977 was a good one for old Sylvester Stallone. Rocky had blown up the box office after its release the previous year, offering a saccharine-sweet response to the dark, often nihilistic movies of the time.

For Sly's hand in it, he was nominated for two Academy Awards, Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay — only the third time in history an actor-screenwriter had pulled off such a feat (he stands alongside Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles).

Though Stallone didn't take home an Oscar that year, Rocky walked with three of the 10 it was nominated for, including Best Picture. His underdog pugilist from Philly had become a national hero and spawned sequels (II in 1979 and III in 1982), both of which Stallone starred in, wrote and directed. Rocky Balboa was Stallone's claim to fame. The New York City-born filmmaker had typecast himself by accident, but all that was about to change. In the same year Rocky III hit the big screens, First Blood, the thoughtful story of a Nam vet with issues, transformed Stallone into an international superstar. He'd stay that way for more than a decade.

As it always does, the success came with downsides. Stallone, who considered himself a serious actor and a filmmaker first — hence the dramatic (and surprising) percentage of the material he's written, produced or directed — had become a full-on action star, a trashy, doll-ready war-hero icon. The Rocky sequels diminished its lead character greatly, and soon John Rambo, the hero of First Blood, suffered similarly with atrocious kill-beast sequels, Rambo: First Blood II (1985) and Rambo III (1988). The "serious" actor had become self-parody. Attempts in the next decade to escape the corner he'd backed himself into met with derision from critics and fans. If you'd sat through Oscar (1991) or Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992), you'd expect a ticket refund. No, comedy wasn't Stallone's thing. And his action movies mostly underwhelmed throughout the '90s too. Only Cliffhanger (1994) resonated with fans. James Mangold (Walk the Line) helped breathe life into Stallone's career when he cast him as a small-town sheriff in the wonderful Cop Land (1997), but subsequent duds quickly overshadowed that brilliant, understated performance.

By 2006, it was official. Sylvester Stallone, once one of the highest-paid actors in Tinsletown, was a punch line. His name couldn't even guarantee a theatrical opening. Was it any wonder that old fans groaned when a sixth Rocky flick was announced last year? The franchise's self-respect had been snuffed out by Rocky V back in 1990, so why the resurrection? The critics' chirps were loud and easy: Rocky Balboa was a last gasp of an actor-director desperate to reclaim his former glory. Well, the film silenced the cynical and actually delivered on the promise of the original.

Soon another First Blood sequel was announced; John Rambo, now in his early 60s, would return to the big screen and lay waste to bad guys. Cynics roared again. But after early screenings, it's hard to argue with Stallone's decisions these days. Rambo ain't a masterpiece and, like Rocky Balboa, it's a justifiable swan song for an iconic Hollywood character as ubiquitous as Burger King.

A little more than 25 years after John Rambo first graced screens, Stallone talks of his original decision to not kill the character in the first movie, as had been Rambo's fate in the 1972 David Morrell book upon which the film was based. "I think about that all the time," the 62-year-old actor admits in a Beverly Hills hotel suite. "I've had this debate with Quentin Tarantino, who's vehement that I made a mistake. On an artistic level, he's probably right."

What's most surprising about sitting down with Stallone — well, besides how whip-smart and articulate the guy is, contrary to the meathead mythology that's built up around him — is his self-awareness, his understanding that, as a filmmaker who started out with such grand ambitions, he's managed to cough up lots of shit.

"I like First Blood and I like this one," he says, smiling as if he knows just how PR-ready the comment sounds. "The other two Rambos had a bit too much energy, he was 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 ferocity and the commitment to what he's doing. We went too far in the old days. We got away with murder. 'Jump out of a plane? I don't need a parachute ... I'll just land on a convertible roof and be good.'"

This self-awareness is partly why Rocky Balboa managed to win critics, and why Rambo doesn't feel as silly as it could. Don't get us wrong — since First Blood, John Rambo has gotten comic-book silly, what with the elevating body count and a knack for taking down Russian attack helicopters with explosive arrowheads. But Stallone has gone a long way to redeem John Rambo this time, as he first set out to do so long ago.

"The ponderousness [of Rambo] comes with aging, a sense of weight, a sense of knowledge, of knowing too much," Stallone says. "This happened in my own life, and that set the stage for me. I wanted Rambo to be heavier, bulkier. He's given up."

Which explains why his first line in the movie is, "Fuck you."

More interesting than the filmmaker's need to inject a bit of personal wear and tear into Rambo is his insistence that the character, headband and all, return with more of the social consciousness that audiences first responded to in him. Rather than set the story in some predictable locale like Afghanistan (see Rambo III) or Iraq, or an unpredictable place like Camp David (as executive producer Harvey Weinstein suggested), Stallone wanted Rambo to bring some attention to a conflict that's largely ignored — the film's backdrop is the Burmese Civil War, which has been going on for 60 years, and is one of the world's greatest humanitarian crises. He wants to say something. And, oh, yeah, if you buy a ticket to Rambo, expect to witness some of the most brutal depictions of damage to human bodies ever put on film.

"If you watch the opening credits, I had a certain responsibility," Stallone says of the footage he used of the atrocities committed by the Burmese government. "These people were dying as we were making the film. Therefore, to just have me running through the film, doing these heroics, would demean what they're going through. When you see a village destroyed, that's what happens. As a matter of fact, it's worse."

Stallone has now done what few thought possible with Rocky Balboa and now Rambo. He's resurrected his career, and proved that a rich, aging action star, along with characters he made famous, can still be relevant. They're movies you can see with your dad. "If I were trying to go after a youth audience, trying to find something hip, using certain music, whatever, I think that would be pretty obvious and rejected," Stallone says. "There are some things that never change, that are universal truths, and, as you get older, they make more and more apparent about how difficult life is. Like the speech in Rocky Balboa, about taking the punches life gives you. Or that war's hell and there is no winner — ever. I think people who embrace Rocky [and Rambo] embrace these lessons."

Thankfully, Stallone has no intention of returning to Tango and Cash or Demolition Man anytime soon.

Rambo hits theaters on Friday, Jan. 25.

Cole Haddon is a freelance writer. Send comments to him at [email protected]