Rambo: Sly Stallone’s Retro Actioner

In October 1982, audiences around the country cheered as they watched a Vietnam vet named John Rambo single-handedly take down a posse of blood-hungry policemen and National Guardsmen in the Oregon wilderness.

A rousing populist fable that reflected the public’s growing discontent with the political establishment, RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD became a box-office hit, spawning two sequels and transforming Sylvester Stallone, fresh off the success of ROCKY, into one of the biggest stars of his generation. Most notable, however, was John Rambo’s ascension to the ranks of global icon, a position which, two-and-a-half decades later, is undiminished. One can still find Rambo mudflaps and shopping bags in the Far East, Rambo T-shirts in Africa and Rambo action figures in Central America.

His presence continues in our political discourse as well, whether it’s former soldier Jessica Lynch disavowing the “little girl Rambo” scenario of her Iraqi capture, or the recent 2007 Pentagon report on the military’s mental health programs that was dubbed, “The Rambo Problem.”

Now, twenty-five years after RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD’s premiere, Sylvester Stallone contributes his talents as co-writer, director and star to RAMBO, the next chapter in the saga.

Mythic One Man

Despite 19 years having transpired since the last Rambo installment, Stallone and producers Avi Lerner, Kevin King-Templeton and John Thompson were confident that audiences would still connect with Rambo’s personal fortitude. “Rambo harkens back to that mythic one man who has been chosen to do a job that he really doesn’t want to do, but he’s been born to do it,” Stallone explains. “He imparts a sense of virtue that’s immediate. Bad and evil should be punished and the weak should be protected. It harkens back to the stories we all grew up with, the mythology of good and evil.”

“Rambo embodies the individual triumphing over enormous odds,” says producer Kevin King-Templeton. “He’s become an internationally recognized character because only one man has played him and only one man can play him. That’s Sylvester Stallone and he brings a consistent ferocity to the character that is undeniable.”

Powerful Primitivism

Unlike comic book heroes who are often endowed with fantastical powers, Rambo represents a powerful primitivism that transcends cultural boundaries. He forges his own weapons, overpowers armed men with only a bow and arrow, and uses his combat wits to outsmart his opponents. Most importantly, his intentions are unwaveringly noble. Despite being betrayed by his own countrymen, he never fails to be guided by a higher, moral purpose.

“Rambo is a man who has dropped out of a very complex, civilized modern world to live in a simple, instinctual way,” says Avi Lerner. “He speaks to a sense of disenfranchisement and to a very basic sense of rugged individualism.”

Classic Warrior

“He’s that classical warrior archetype that translates into any language,” adds co-star Graham McTavish, who portrays the mercenary leader, Lewis. “He’s in the tradition of Beowulf, Achilles–people who are bigger than the men around them, who live outside normal society. The great thing about him is that he doesn’t reflect. He acts. He moves forward while other people are standing still and wondering what to do.”

Film About Something

Having purchased the rights to the Rambo sequels from the Weinstein brothers at Miramax, NuImage producer Lerner approached Stallone about continuing the Rambo story. Stallone volunteered to write the script; however, he was adamant they should go forward only if they found a compelling story for the next installment. “I thought, ‘If I do another Rambo film, I want it to be about something,’ explains the actor. ‘I didn’t want it to be a caper or about drugs or a jewel heist. I wanted it to be about the human condition.”

Why Burma

Several ideas and scripts for a sequel had already been circulating Lerner’s office, all of them set against well-known conflicts such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Colombia, even Darfur. But Stallone wanted to find a less obvious backdrop, set in one of the word’s lesser-known areas of conflict. “I started researching and asking around,” he explains. “I called Soldier of Fortune magazine and I called the United Nations. I asked them ‘What is the most under-reported, most graphic and devastating abuse of human rights on the planet,’ And they said, ‘Burma.’ This story is based on fact, on a war that has been going on for sixty years.”

RAMBO focuses on a particular conflict within Burma between the Karen ethnic tribe, a minority group, and Burma’s ruling military junta, which assumed control of the country after the collapse of British colonialism at the end of WWII. For sixty years, the Karen have been fighting to establish an autonomous state while suffering a brutal and systematic genocide at the hands of the Burmese government.

Raising Consciousness

“I thought the Burmese setting would be ideal because it’s a story that’s not just about Rambo. It’s actually happening,” says Stallone. “From the time I heard about it and began researching it, I thought, “If I could just combine the two–raising awareness of the Karen-Burmese civil war and giving the audience a good adventure story–that would be perfect.”

Suppression of the Karen genocide story has succeeded because Burma has cut off its diplomatic and media ties to the west. “The Burmese government is extremely, extremely secretive about this conflict,” says King. “Hopefully, there is an awareness that will come out with the film and this is inspiring to everyone who’s worked on it. We hope it will provoke thought and make a difference.”

While each of the previous Rambo films addressed the political issues of its day, RAMBO has managed to prefigure recent headlines. Less than five months after production ended, in late September 2007, Stallone, the filmmakers, and the rest of the world watched dramatic, rare images of massive pro-democracy protests in Burma/Myanmar led by thousands of Buddhist monks in deep red robes. The military junta quelled the demonstrations by beating, arresting and killing protestors, blocking the Internet and controlling telephone communications. Official death tolls are difficult to know, given the secrecy and lack of information available.

Rambo as a Dropout

Picking up Rambo’s story some 20 years later, Stallone imagined him still psychologically unable to return home, living a solitary, monastic lifestyle in Southeast Asia. “Rambo is like a dropout,” says Stallone. “He’s lost his faith in humanity and is basically living out his life in solitude.”

When a group of Christian missionaries ask Rambo to transport them up the Salween River to a remote Karen village, he refuses. But an idealistic young missionary named Sarah appeals to his long-dormant sense of duty and changes his mind. Weeks after the journey, Rambo learns that the same missionaries are being held captive by the Burmese military, outside diplomatic reach. Accompanied by a group of Church-hired mercenaries, he agrees to go up the river again, feeling a responsibility to rescue the captives.

Stallone researched the story for months, wanting to return to the spirit of Rambo in FIRST BLOOD–a damaged but dedicated man nearly destroyed by the violence he’s seen.

“This is not the body-oiled Rambo of twenty years ago,” says co-star Julie Benz, who portrays Sarah. “This is Rambo decades later, worn down by life, much more sympathetic. You see how everything he has gone through and experienced in Rambo I, II and III has affected his life.” “If you look at FIRST BLOOD, there was a reason behind the violence, and Rambo really had a soul,” says actor Tim Kang, who plays the mercenary En Joo. “I think with this film that kind of depth has come back full force.”

Rey Gallegos, who plays the mercenary Diaz, agrees. “In a nutshell, the film is about John Rambo finding himself. The incidents in this movie bring him back again to the man he was. He finds his way home again.”