Rambo IV: Reviving an Old Movie Franchise

The new “Rambo” is the fourth chapter in the actioner franchise that began 25 years ago with “First Blood.” Sylvetser Stallone is the director, writer, and star of the new film.

Creative Control

Stallone says he never intended to write and direct RAMBO, but after his positive experience writing and directing ROCKY BALBOA, he realized he enjoyed the creative control. “When someone else does it, you have regrets and it doesn’t have your personality,” he admits. “This way it’s a direct through-line and very pure. If something does go wrong, I will have no regrets. I’ll say, ‘Well, I did the best I can. It’s no one else’s fault but mine.'”

Casting Julie Benz

Stallone’s first challenge as a director was finding the appropriate cast, and he found a particularly effective co-star in Julie Benz (PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, Showtime’s “Dexter”), who brings a convincing depth and tenacity to the character of Sarah. “Sarah is a Christian missionary and it’s her first time on this mission with her fianc, Michael,” says Benz of her character. “She’s a person who is led by her faith.”

“I think Sarah stirs something in Rambo, his innate sense of good versus evil,” explains Stallone. “He sees this beautiful young woman, and her doctor boyfriend, who are willing to risk their safe and comfortable lives to help people they don’t even know who live on the other side of the world. That awakens something in him. By saving Sarah, and trying to save the missionaries, he’s also saving part of himself.”

Benz, who had never worked on an action film before, hired a trainer as soon as she got the role. “I started training twice a day, six days a week because I knew as the only woman in the film I was going to have to hold my own against all these very, very tough men, including Sylvester Stallone,” she says.

Stallone also researched the mercenary industry in detail and created authentic roles for the group of hired soldiers that accompanies Rambo upriver. British-born actor Graham McTavish portrays the group’s leader, Lewis, a violent, money-driven man who experiences an unexpected redemption in the course of battle. Jake La Botzs Reese is a former soldier who’s unfazed by the violence he witnesses; Diaz, played by Rey Gallegos, is a lapsed idealist who has become a mercenary to support his family; and School Boy, played by British actor Matthew Marsden, is the youngest and least jaded, a young man who still believes in the moral worth of the mission. “He’s the most naive mercenary of the group,” explains Marsden. “He still has this noble ideal of what he’s doing, whereas the rest of them are in it for the money.”

Apart from the Western roles, Stallone’s script called for a vast array of Thai/Burmese actors. Stallone urged Thai casting director Pasiri ‘Noiy’ Pana to avoid professional actors and cast native Karen/Burmese who were from the region and knew about the conflict. While locating real Karen refugees, amputees, land mine victims and former Burmese soldiers, Pana was amazed by how many people knew of John Rambo. “I asked them, ‘Do you know Rambo’ and the answer was always, ‘Yes. Yes,’ she says. ‘They said that in their villages and homes many of them had watched the films in secret.”

The production even cast a former resistance fighter for the Karen rebels in one of the lead roles. Muang Muang Khin, who plays the vicious Burmese Major Tint, joined the Karen rebels after the September 1988 uprising in Rangoon and fought on the front lines against the Burmese for years. While he had no acting experience, he impressed Stallone with his real-life experience and passion for the subject. Khin took the role despite the threat of Burmese reprisals for appearing in the film. “After this film is released, I shall keep a low-profile because Burmese intelligence is everywhere, even in Thailand, and there could be some retaliation,” explains Khin. “But I had to take the part. I want the world to know what is actually going on here.”

Thai Actors

The producers and Stallone worked closely with Pana to ensure the anonymity of many of the Thai and Burmese actors and extras working in the film. “We were concerned and explained the situation to them,” Pana says. “But they all knew Rambo and wanted to be part of it. And Sly assured them that someone was going to tell their story.”

Determined to be as authentic as possible, Stallone based the production in the northern Thai capital of Chiang Mai, an ancient city that was the closest possible base to the war-torn Thailand-Burma border. Logistically, RAMBO was a huge, complex production, with nearly 500 crewmembers communicating in five different languages. “We had a crew comprised of thirteen different nationalities,” reports Thompson. “We had actors from seven different countries. Every day, we had more than sixty stuntmen and hundreds of extras. We even constructed a village and a small city.”

Replicating Burmese Navy Patrol

In addition to creating a mobile production consisting of over 200 vehicles, the filmmakers also built six vessels, including replicas of a Burmese navy patrol boat, the Burmese pirate boat and Rambo’s longboat. For the film’s Burmese army compound, production designer Franco-Giacomo Carbone led his production team to clear more than four acres of jungle and construct over 50 buildings. The nearby Karen village set required leveling hillsides, creating irrigation and rice paddy terraces, building 34 bamboo structures, and bringing in plants, livestock and other animals.

Stallone shot daily with as many as five cameras at once, working with director of photography Glen MacPherson, CSC, ASC and camera operator Vern Nobles to find innovative ways to capture all of the action at once. The goal of using the camera to accentuate the terrifying and confusing moments of conflict meant running Steadicam and racing ATV-shots through the jungle and rigging cameras to leap off cliffs or fly above the wide-spread action.

Without any indoor or stage locations, the filmmakers worked for three months in rain, hail, thunder, lightning, flooding and high altitudes and spent weeks shooting at night in the jungle under rain machines. Daytime temperatures in the mountain jungles soared into the 100s every day. The mid-February start date also fell in the middle of Thailand’s “burning season,” the period of drought and field clearing from January to April. At some locations, fistfuls of ash and palm-size cinders rained down and covered the scorched jungle floor. The hours spent in the jungle also exposed the cast and crew to a wide variety of native insects, including spiders, scorpions, ants, mosquitoes, fleas and numerous poisonous snakes: cobras, green snakes, tree snakes, and vipers.

“There were ants that you could put saddles on and ride home,” says McTavish. “And snakes were everywhere. I saw four in one day on second unit, one of which was crawling up one of the actor’s legs.”

“It was a gloriously brutal experience,” says Stallone. “The cast and crew worked under unbelievable hardship. In this day and age, when the film world has become mechanized and computerized, this was truly the last of old-school filmmaking. It’s harder than anything I’ve ever done before, but also more rewarding.” “I thought I was prepared, but I was tested beyond what I thought I would experience,” confesses Marsden.

While most of the cast echoes this sentiment, they were uniformly inspired by Stallone’s unflagging energy and commitment to the production. “Sly works from the moment he gets up until the moment he goes to bed,” reports McTavish. “When you have a director with that kind of focus and intensity at the top, it filters down, and everyone else follows it.”

Remembers Benz, “You would watch Sly on the set and he’d be in there, literally shoveling pig shit, chopping down trees and then turning around and delivering this amazing, fully intense performance, then going back to figure out the camera work for the next shot, He inspired everyone around him. He’s very smart, really funny and has amazing charisma. He was tough as a director, brutally sometimes, but he pushed us all to go the extra mile and do things we didn’t think we could do.”

Adds La Botz, “Sly has true artistic vision. He would come on set and wasn’t afraid to make people crazy by changing things. The result was a collaborative process– and a film that’s raw and alive.”

Thompson, who has been producing films for more than 30 years, found Stallone to be a consummate director. “Sly’s one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with–and I’ve worked with lots of them–he avows. “The powerful and economic way in which he creates the visual narrative is especially impressive to me.”

King, who has known Stallone for years, sees the making of RAMBO as yet another formidable challenge in a career defined by them. “Sly is a risk-taker and he always has been,” says King. “The first ROCKY was a risk for him. So was the first Rambo film. And now, to revive a character after twenty years, to be on screen at age 60 as an action hero, to get into that physical condition, to direct and handle this huge production, to deal with the dangerous and horrific issues in Burma, they’re all risks. His career is full of taking risks and that’s what makes him such an icon. He’s not afraid.”

Stallone simply hopes he can continue making films, especially now that he has the advantage of age and experience. “I feel like I have more experience, more knowledge, and more to offer,” says the actor, writer, director and producer. “I have a lot left to say.”