May 2, 2010

R.I.P. John Rambo

Sylvester Stallone's renaissance continues with his new film The Expendables, a project he's writing, directing and starring in with a bevy of 80's and 90's action heroes.  The film tells the story of a group of mercenaries that are assembled to overthrow a South American dictator.  It wasn't long ago that the idea of an $80 million project written, directed and starring Sly Stallone was absurd.  Stallone was arguably the biggest movie star in the world in the 1980's, but his career fizzled out in the mid-90's and by the millennium he was having difficulty getting his films released theatrically as he totally flat-lined.   Stallone turned to two old friends to mount his improbably comeback, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo.  There was a lot of snickering when it was announced that the sixty year old Stallone would be stepping back into the ring, and into the role, of Rocky Balboa.  Improbably, Stallone wrote, directed and starred in a new Rocky film that succeeded not in spite of his advanced years, but  because of them.  After the clunker that was Rocky V, Stallone was able to give his signature character a fitting conclusion with a movie that is really a love note to fans of the series.    However, the goodwill he earned looked to be short lived because his next project was going to to be a fourth Rambo movie, which just seemed kind of desperate.  The uneven Rambo series wasn't very good even when it was thriving at the box-office but to revisit a character that was so thoroughly a product of the 1980's - and as a 62-year old man - seemed forced and sad.  Because of the political climate, many expected a movie that would feature Stallone hunting down terrorists (which would have been quite ironic because he teamed with the Taliban in the awful Rambo III) but instead we got a dark, violent and gritty movie.  The story finds Rambo living a simple life in Thailand before he gets drawn into a suicide mission in Burma.  Before the credits roll, he's laid waste to many, many bad men.   The biggest eye opener with Rambo was the excellent job Stallone does as an action director, but once again, what by all accounts should have been an embarrassment instead was a triumph.  The film, with little marketing muscle, earned over $100 million.

The surprising success of both of these movies suddenly gave Stallone something he hadn't had in over a decade:  the ability to get a project greenlit.  That project would be The Expendables (which almost sounds like it might have risen out of the ashes of a rejected Rambo sequel screenplay) but it was his next project that was raising some eyebrows: Rambo V.  Back in September, I posted about my concerns that this project was really pushing his luck.  A fourth Rambo was unnecessary - though ultimately fun - but a fifth entry seemed to represent the kind of bad decision making that saw Stallone banished to movie star jail in the first place.  It got worse when details filtered out about the plot - which would see Rambo hunting down a genetically altered beast; not man nor animal, but rather the results of a military experiment gone wrong - and the whole thing just seemed cringe-worthy. Stallone would ultimately scrap the sci-fi tinged plot and replace it with a generic man on a mission story (take that human traffickers or drug lords or whatever) before ultimately having a change of heart. Rambo, it would appear, is finally being sent out to pasture to live out his remaining years roofing monasteries in Tibet.  While doing press for The Expendables, Stallone told Empire that the project was dead.  "I think Rambo's pretty well done.  I don't think there'll be any more.  I'm about 99.9% sure. For Rambo to go on another adventure might be, I think, misinterpreted as a mercenary gesture and not necessary.  I don't want that to happen." Stallone has literally made millions and millions of dollars by milking ideas dry: He's appeared in nine sequels and has also directed six of them (including the horrible Saturday Night Fever follow-up Staying Alive.)  For him to say "I think this film is unnecessary" borders on a break through.

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