Sylvester Stallone has come a long way – from his film debut in 1970, the rather dodgy thriller ‘The Party at Kitty and Stud’s’. In the years that followed, the emergence and preservation of a cult hero in movie warfare through his ‘blood brothers’, Rocky and Rambo, has not only defined the man himself, but reflects the constant battles many of us fight in life, as he reveals to RSNG…
While Rocky stands up for itself, greatly inspired by heavyweight boxing’s Chuck Wepner and his fight against Muhammad Ali, and winner of the Oscar for Best Picture in 1976, as well as 10 Academy nominations, it also laid the path for the Rambo franchise, which returns this year with Rambo 5: Last Blood.
John Rambo is once again the reluctant hero, although this time his task is more Liam Neeson-esque – not only is the person to be protected his niece, but with our hero travelling across the border to Mexico, he finds himself swapping the wilds of south-east Asia for urban landscapes and threats.
Rambo quickly finds himself mixing it with one of Mexico’s most brutal cartels, and it becomes a deadly game of vengeance on both sides as he marks what he promises is the final episode in the series.
Where Stallone succeeds in the Rambo and Rocky franchises is his dedication to an image that now goes before him. There are very few who can pull off the sheer terrifying brawn he still possesses, even at the age of 73, and no amount of cosmetic surgery will detract from the fact this he a genuine action hero.
Where Rambo is concerned, once you suspend belief in the principles of a lone ranger circumnavigating the globe in pursuit of justice, the character is just as credible today as he was in First Blood, back in 1982.
From Vietnam to Afghanistan, through to Mexican cartels, all of Rambo is wrapped in echoes of PTSD and an inability to reacclimatise back into everyday life. In many senses, the movies were before their time, addressing elements that wider society was yet to confront.
That we even have a set of sequels is impressive, since the original ending to the first Rambo had our hero being killed off. First Blood was based on the novel by David Morrell, and exists as a much softer, emotive piece of film-making – it was only in the later movies that the aggressive might of the character was allowed to develop.
Indeed, the body count of one in First Blood was set to double when, in the first scripted ending Rambo asks Colonel Trautman to put him out of his mental misery. ‘You trained me, you made me, you’ll kill me. You owe me that,’ he says. Trautman subsequently takes the M1911 pistol and pulls the trigger.
It was Stallone himself who suggested changing the ending to give his character the ultimate gift of life. The fact that each subsequent movie appears to begin with John Rambo having found peace is largely a trick of the light. Ultimately, this is a character always at war, even if the enemy has evolved from jungle soldiers to city-dwelling drug lords. The forces of evil may change over the years, but forces they remain.
RSNG Does it feel like the right time to bring Rambo to a conclusion? SYLVESTER STALLONE, ACTION HERO ‘I guess so. The last movie we made, over 10 years ago, was left open. I was 60 then. Now, I am older than 60! You have to look at some things and accept there is a perfect conclusion, and I’ve done that this year with both Rambo and Rocky.’
‘It feels like a very special year for me because I am granting these troubled characters the ultimate gift of being able to fly away and be free from all this conflict. They’ve earned that right. I’m sure they’ll take it, haha!’
RSNG In troubled political times, the connection has been made that Rambo’s battles are particularly relevant right now? SS ‘This stuff has always been there. There will always be wars, we will always be living in some kind of threat. There are forces working underground in every major city that you don’t want to get on the wrong side of. This is life, this is survival.’
‘I think people can see how Rambo’s journey isn’t actually too different from what we’ve all been witnessing on our television screens over the past four decades, and I’m glad of that because it reinforces what he has been through.’
‘Ultimately these are my kinds of movies – we’re not travelling to other planets or journeying to the centre of the Earth. This stuff is real.’
RSNG Has it been a battle to manage the characters? SS ‘It’s a constant battle and that’s what I try when I am successful – and I am not successful all of the time, I do fail. But when it works, with Rambo and Rocky and I do really like those characters. I love Rambo because his character has a lot in common with those people who unfortunately, deal with isolation every day.’
‘In contrast to Rambo, Rocky is different with his optimistic view of the world and of his own life. He quickly realises that he is not special, and that life owes him nothing, but he tries as much as he can, to make his life better and to be special.’
‘Also, it's a common misconception that Rocky is a boxing movie, it's not. It’s more a movie that has boxing in it and Rocky exists in isolation, and is reborn once he meets a woman. Boxing is just his job; he could have been anything in life. But the boxing element is a metaphor because life is a fight against the odds and a race against time. It will always be that.’
He starts to unload, and he hits me just on the arms and I said: “Someone has released a Buick into the ring!
RSNG You were so convincing as Rocky at the height of your training. Do you think that you could have made it as a professional boxer? SS ‘Haha! Probably not, no. The reason being that I actually had a few reality checks when I was training for Rocky 3 and I was much better then. Because in the first Rocky movie, I was so awkward. So, for the third film, I thought to myself: “You know what… let me use a real fighter.”
‘So, I brought in Joe Frazier in and he was in the ring for maybe 11 seconds… and I had four stitches above my left eye. He just thought it was no challenge, it’s an actor. Then, I brought in Earnie Shavers and he didn’t hit me in the jaw, he just started to bob and weave and I thought: “Oh, I will be able to run him no problem.”’
‘Some people told me that Earnie was slow. Slow? First of all, he’s a former All-State half-back – total speed. The bell rings for the first round and the next thing, I am in the corner and I can’t get out. He starts to unload, and he hits me just on the arms and I said: “Someone has released a Buick into the ring!”’
‘It literally felt like I was bouncing against chrome and I started to squeal, this new kind of sound, I got in touch with my feminine side very quickly; very, very quickly.’
‘Then, I did a session with Roberto Duran and I’m thinking: “I’ll beat him.” Yeah, right! I don’t know if you’ve ever saw a man go from young Italian to Roquefort cheese. You know the colour of Roquefort? Blue cheese. Blue, yellow, tapioca-coloured. He was extraordinary and he literally could do it standing on a handkerchief.’
‘But there are certain earmarks they give away. When he was starting to work the speed bag with his head, you know that you shouldn’t be in a ring with him. With his head, as fast as I can move my hands!’
RSNG You were teased as a kid because you were a little bit different. Why was that? SS ‘Well, I had a speech impediment which I probably still carry to this day and it was one of those things which I just had. I was born in Hell’s Kitchen, so I had my accent to overcome and I was very, very thin.’
‘So, it wasn’t until I saw a film called Hercules Unchained and I thought: “Hey, here’s a guy who can single-handedly defeat the Roman army with the jawbone of an axe.” I was obsessed with trying to emulate him and wondered what he was eating to get like that.
‘Ever since then, I have followed Steve Reeves (the actor who played Hercules in the film) and I was very impressed with that.’
RSNG When did that begin then? SS ‘I actually had a very late start in athletics, and I didn’t have a lot of interaction with sports early on. In fact, I remember that when I was in third grade in school, we were playing baseball and I was catcher. Someone hit what we call a ‘pop-up’ (which is basically an easy catch) and I put my hands up to cover my head instead of trying to catch the ball!
‘This is a traumatic experience for me and to this day, that haunts me.’
In school, we were playing baseball and I was catcher. Someone hit a ‘pop-up’, an easy catch, and I put my hands up to cover my head instead of trying to catch the ball!
RSNG You had undiagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder didn’t you and you played in an American Football team, which was specialised with everyone else who had that? SS ‘Yeah and because no of us listen to each other, the huddle before each play became a group therapy session haha! It became like intervention and you had to pull the quarterback away, everyone having meltdown. People asking: ”Where’s my medication?”
‘It was horrifying and we lost all of the 10 games that we played, we went zero and 10. So, I know what the kids of today are going through when they feel frustrated and everyone labels them as a ‘bad kid’. It’s just about being focused on an activity or a job which keeps them busy and then they will learn about life properly.’
RSNG There is similar theme of resilience with a lot of your characters over the years. Are you a resilient person yourself? SS ‘There is something about the nature of man and woman, just the creatures themselves and we’ve been through so much upheaval over thousands of years. We’ve seen civilisations being destroyed, only to come back and I am very much into that theme of fighting back and not accepting defeat easily.
‘If we do get defeated, then we mostly rebuild ourselves and come back. I do think that it’s a very interesting cycle, which is also timeless.’
RSNG Is life something that is reflected in your writing? SS ‘I like to inject a lot of that into my characters and I don’t separate myself from anyone else. I think all of us have a thread which goes through us, we are familiar with fear and what it is, the same with loneliness and isolation, what victory and failure are. I think that if you can tell that story then the audience can relate to it.
‘But if you are someone who feels that they are above pain or above fear, then who cares? You cannot be human if you don’t identify with those emotions. Being human means that you are able to balance all of your weaknesses and trying to make them a strength. Because that’s what life is – life is juggling things every day. It could be beautiful one day. Then, you can get one phone call and your whole life is changed.’
RSNG Do you prefer writing? SS ‘Well, my daughter wanted to be a writer and I told her: “No you don’t!” Writing is a horror, it is so difficult, and whereas it is so rewarding, it is also so painful at times because you are constantly challenging yourself to put words onto a piece of paper. Writing is very mathematical, and we are not talking about typing, we are talking about writing.
‘It’s an extremely difficult, precise endeavour and it requires so many rewrites until you read something, and you shout: “I got it!” Then, the next time you read it, it makes you wonder who wrote it because it’s that bad. I always say to those people who want to write: “If it’s not your passion, don’t do it!”’
WHAT NEXT? Hitting the gym at 72 – check out Sylvester Stallone’s workout routine.