TOKYO - Sylvester Stallone fans planning to sit back with a cola and some popcorn to enjoy an hour and a half of escapist fun when Stallone’s new “Rambo” movie opens in Japan this week could be in for a nasty shock.
And that’s exactly what Stallone wants.
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)
In an interview at a Tokyo hotel, Stallone, 61, explained why “Rambo” (Japanese title: “Rambo: Saigo no Senjo”), the fourth film in the series, is the most violent, horrific and cynical yet.
“I think Hollywood in the past few years has decided to step further away from reality, and make war cinematic ... and not as brutal and horrible and insidious as it really is. Especially civil war, which is even worse than wars between nations,” Stallone said.
The movie, which Stallone wrote, directed and stars in, is set mainly in Myanmar, also known as Burma. It shows the country’s military rulers violently suppressing people, especially the Karen ethnic minority.
“I just wanted to take the actual footage - which I have - and depict it or re-enact it exactly the way it is. So, it’s supposed to be disturbing. I want people to be upset and understand that unarmed people are living this every day. While you’re having your meal or going to an amusement park, there are other people in the world that are being torn to shreds and no one knows about it,” he said.
Describing Myanmar’s rulers as “Satan’s disciples,” Stallone expressed particular anger about their refusal to accept international aid in the wake of the recent cyclone that killed at least 34,000 people - with many more missing - and left up to 2 million survivors in desperate straits in devastated areas.
The movie’s emotionally jarring prologue is a montage of real footage of violence - including a fleeting glimpse of Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai being gunned down as he tried to cover the suppression of a street demonstration in Yangon last year.
What effect does Stallone anticipate this image will have on Japanese viewers?
“You know, it’s a two-edged sword,” he said. “I was hoping that they understand that this is not a Sylvester Stallone self-indulgent action film. That actual, real people that are contributing to hopefully the betterment (of the situation) and reporting the truth, pay with their life. So, I’m just trying to take that harsh brutality and segue into a film, and it’s a very delicate line.
“But the most important thing was to establish that Burma exists. People don’t know about it in our country (the United States). They think it’s like: `Burma? Sounds kinda quaint, kinda cute.“And I wanted to show that, `No. Here’s actual footage, these are people dying ...” And you should have seen what I left out. It was even worse. Much worse. And I know that people couldn’t take it.
“Here’s the problem with doing a film,” he continued. “You want the truth. You want cinema to reflect and dissect reality, but a lot of us aren’t equipped to accept it. We live in a society where we’ve been sheltered a little bit ... That was a hard thing to push.
“I knew as soon as I played the showing of the Japanese fellow killed and all the atrocities, right away the audience was going to go into a: `Hmm. This is not just a romp. This is not just gonna be an adventure. This is gonna be a little hard, a little heavy.’”
The film appears to have a bleak message. An early scene shows Rambo (Stallone) repeatedly growling, “Go home,” to a well-meaning Christian missionary named Sarah (Julie Benz) who wants him to ferry her group of doctors and teachers up a river from Thailand into Myanmar. When they set out on the journey, gruesome violence inevitably ensues. As the film ends, Sarah’s and Rambo’s eyes meet across a battlefield strewn with fresh corpses. She looks traumatized, and he looks angry. Her efforts to help have been worse than futile.
So, would it be fair to say that “Go home” is the moral of the story?
“Well, it’s close. There’s another ending that I shot where he looks down and he waves to her knowing that his life and her life will never intersect because he’s just experienced too much ... and I’m going to add-end it when I do the director’s cut. (The idea is) that when a fire starts in one place, you put it out in another; old men start wars, young men fight them; nobody wins, everybody in the middle dies and God’s never gonna make it go away,” Stallone said.
“And that’s his philosophy. It’s like, `Yes, I told you that just praying for peace is not gonna make it go away, but then again the murder doesn’t (either).’ It’s just an ongoing horrible situation that he warned her about. And this is just a fact of life, that unfortunately war is natural and peace is an accident, (a condition) that you have to work at, really work at,” he said.
Describing Rambo’s mind-set by the end of the film, Stallone said: “He looks around and he goes: `What have I accomplished in my life? Nothing.” So he goes home and realizes his whole life has been for nothing. I mean, really for nothing. He’s just circled the world and he’s fought and he’s tried to change nations and save people, and what has happened? We’re still fighting.”
“First Blood” (1982), the original Rambo movie, also had a note of hopelessness, as the main character was an American veteran of the Vietnam War who was misunderstood and abused on his return home.
But then the character became a larger-than-life hero, rescuing forgotten prisoners of war in “Rambo: First Blood Part II” (1985) and helping Afghan mujahideen rise up against Soviet invaders in “Rambo III” (1988). The Rambo of the first two sequels seemed less cynical than the one we see in the latest “Rambo.”
“There’s a cynicism, no question,” Stallone said. “As you get older you get more cynical. `Cause with wisdom comes cynicism.”
But Stallone said the character of Sarah contrasts with that. “When we find them, he’s basically become part of the jungle. He’s a beast ... And then he sees a hope: faith, in the girl. More than like a love affair, she represents naivete and innocence, even though it goes against reality. Without that, what is life? Without that ray? Perhaps there is a golden light at the end of the rainbow - even though he knows it’s not true. But without people like that, how horrible the world would be.”
Having completed his graphically violent but fictitious film, Stallone is now part of a group of celebrities trying to shine a light on real-life human rights abuses in Myanmar.
This month, a group called the U.S. Campaign for Burma is posting one very brief video every day on YouTube and at www.burmaitcantwait.com, each featuring one or more celebrities trying to raise awareness of the dire situation people in the country face.
Many of the videos call for the release of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for most of the past 20 years. Her National League for Democracy party won the nationwide, multiparty, free elections that were held in the troubled country - and quickly nullified by the military - in 1990.
Shot in various styles (some more effective than others), these are viral videos, meaning that their makers hope that many people will pass them to friends online. Besides Stallone, celebrities featured so far include Jennifer Aniston, Jackson Browne, Will Ferrell, Woody Harrelson, Eddie Izzard, Sarah Silverman and Stallone’s “Rambo” costar Julie Benz.
Stallone suggested that the junta does not want cyclone aid because they do not want attention. “I thought: `You know what? If they have nothing to hide, invite me over. Invite me over rather than put people in jail for 10 years (for watching) a Rambo video.’ It’s incredible that this thing is happening in such an opulent part of the world. We’re not doing anything about it,” he said.
“So, this is my cause.”
“Rambo” opens May 24 in Japan and will be released on DVD in the United States on May 27..