LOS ANGELES—Sylvester Stallone was in a hurry. He was moving quickly but gracefully down the hall at the Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles like a young John Rambo - not like an older Rocky Balboa.
Just as he got to his destination, he was intercepted by two young men in dark suits. They had a question you don’t hear every day in Hollywood.
Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Paul Schulze, Matthew Marsden, Graham McTavish, Rey Gallegos, Tim Kang, Jake LaBotz, Maung Maung Khin, Ken Howard
(Lionsgate; US theatrical: 25 Jan 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 22 Feb 2008 (General release); 2008)
“Do you have time to take a call from the Dalai Lama?”
Stallone declined, saying he was late for an interview to promote his new movie “Rambo,” which opens Friday. He ducked into the room, closed the door behind him and left the Tibetan spiritual leader’s emissaries in the hall.
“I hope you appreciate what I just did for you,” the actor said with a smile.
This is show business, after all, and Stallone knows his business.
He was about to open a movie that he wrote, directed and stars in that features a controversial character who has been absent from the big screen for 19 years. Stallone understands that he needs to get out and sell this movie to a skeptical and often-unforgiving public, and the Dalai Lama will just have to wait.
“Rambo,” the fourth in the series that began in 1982, takes place in present-day, war-torn Burma (which is called Myanmar by its current government), where the reclusive Vietnam vet has agreed reluctantly to guide a group of humanitarian aid workers to an area beset by violence.
John Rambo has been living a quiet life as a snake hunter in neighboring Thailand. Despite his warnings to the aid workers, they insist on getting involved in the ongoing civil war in Burma. Later, he must lead a rescue mission to get them out of the country.
Stallone filmed the action film in Thailand with a crew of 500 (in contrast, his “Rocky Balboa” crew numbered about 60) that had to use elephants to move all the equipment through the jungle to where the movie was shot.
“There was nothing glamorous about it,” the filmmaker said. “It was the hottest season in 94 years, they were burning down half the country to clear lands and there were poisonous snakes and centipedes the size of your foot. It was very rough, and there was at least one moment when I wondered if perhaps it would have been a better idea to film this movie in Puerto Vallarta.”
Of more concern to Stallone was whether the public is ready for another Rambo adventure. The first three films came out in the 1980s, when the world was a different place. Now, in a post-9/11 reality, some critics are questioning whether the tortured, gung-ho killing machine will resonate with today’s movie audiences.
The 61-year-old actor said he never imagined ever doing another Rambo film, even though his return last year to another of his iconic characters - Rocky - was an unexpected success. He said he was first approached 12 years ago by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who suggested a Rambo adventure that involved a terrorist assault on Camp David. Stallone said he nixed the idea of putting Rambo in an urban setting because he felt that nature is as much a part of the character as his weaponry.
When another producer picked up the ball and started to run with it, other ideas were discussed, including a story based in Mexico, but Stallone rejected them as well. When he read about the civil war in Burma, Stallone said the locale struck a nerve.
“Burma is one giant hell-hole, and yet nobody knows about it. It is near Vietnam, and that would make sense for the character. The synergy was perfect.
“As for the timing, I think the climate has changed dramatically. There is a certain energy in the air. I believe that there is a reservoir of anger and angst building up in this country, and maybe the time is right for Rambo. Art has always been useful in allowing society to let off steam and relieve some of that built-up tension.
“But I also feel that the audience will identify with the themes in the movie. There are certain universal truths that appeal to all movie audiences. The universal truth that we’re dealing with here is that war is hell, and there are no winners in any war.”
Acknowledging that he was inspired by the film “300,” which came out while Stallone was filming his movie, “Rambo” is a very violent movie. Although it is rated “R,” the ratings board apparently debated whether to place a more restrictive “NC-17” tag on it.
“In letters and other forms of communications, I appealed to the board not to water down my movie. I wanted the violence to be uncomfortable. I wanted it to be miserable. I wanted it to be horrifying. I didn’t want violence-lite. I want people to feel the violence because that is what’s really happening in Burma. Believe me, it’s even worse than what we depict.
“I felt that I had to live up to the responsibility of showing the world what is happening in Burma,” he added. “People were dying there while we were making our movie.”
Stallone said he didn’t have to look at old Rambo movies to capture the essence of his character. Just getting older in real life was research enough.
“There is a certain ponderousness and sense of weight that comes with age,” he explained. “I wanted to show Rambo as being heavier and bulkier. I think the early Rambo had too much energy. I’m not trying to run myself down, but I think there was too much vanity involved in those earlier films. I don’t think that kind of energy would fly in these times. Besides, having me run through the jungle doing extraordinary heroics would demean what is happening to the people of Burma.”
Stallone, who is expected to visit Charles Bronson territory in a new “Death Wish” movie, said he made a serious misjudgment in his career after the success of “Rocky.”
He was nominated in both the acting and writing categories (he lost to actor Peter Finch and writer Paddy Chayefsky of “Network”), but his film won as best picture, and Stallone became an international star. He was barely 30 years old.
Reflecting on the years following his “Rocky” success, Stallone said he made mistakes, and chief among them was his failure to recognize his place in the movie industry.
“I should have been writing and directing my own movies, like Clint Eastwood, but I took a different route. I tried to be a more diversified actor, and I didn’t realize that you are pretty much defined by your initial impact on this industry. After “Rocky,” that’s who I was. That’s the role that the industry coveted, but I tried to fight it.
“I was being challenged by the media not to be a one-note actor, and then they vilified me when I tried to do comedies and other films that were outside my strengths. I don’t know why the media does that to actors. They don’t do it to athletes. You never hear anybody telling Tom Brady that he’s a great quarterback, but then questioning how good a defensive end he is? No one expects him to play a different position. He does what he does well.
“I should have stayed where I belonged, in the action genre. Everybody has a niche. I shouldn’t have been so damn artistically greedy. I thought I could run the table on all those different roles, which was self-destructive. I should have been happy to just being the action guy.”
Stallone is quick to add that he is only reflecting on what might have been. He said he doesn’t harbor any real regrets at this point in his life, and that he truly is in a good place.
He is wealthy. He works out every day and is in great shape. And he is happily married to his third wife, former model Jennifer Flavin. The couple has three young daughters.
“My children make me feel young. I feel great. If it wasn’t for the media reminding me how old I am all the time, I wouldn’t feel 61.”