With a $100 Million Gross(out), Sly Stallone Fends Off Rambo's Army of Adversaries

updated 07/08/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/08/1985 01:00AM

The jungle. Central America or Southeast Asia, they all look alike to me. I am suspended, like Christ or a giant Tetley teabag, in a pool of mud and offal, leeches clinging to my pecs and delts. Above me stands (I was going to say looms, but I am the only one in this picture who is allowed to loom) the maniacal Russian, Podovsky. His Russian accent is German, as usual. I calmly look ahead as though I hung in pools of offal every day.

"Stallone, "says Podovsky with sadistic civility, "Do not make it hard on yourself. Tell me, vat is it about zis movie zat has made it so big?"

"How many times in our lives," I reply, as I have in many interviews, "have we strived to go back to a certain situation and strived to rectify all the wrongs, to go back to a war that was lost and perhaps win a little peace of mind by doing it our way this time?"

"But surely at least your fans over 20 know zat history is not so easy to edit as a movie? Zat Vietnam may have been unwinnable, zat in real wars, people, unlike you, come out vounded, paraplegic or dead!"

"I stand for ordinary Americans, losers, a lot of them. They don't understand big, international politics. I could make a film that is hard-edged, insightful. But I would rather do something that is meaningful to the masses."

"But Stallone, it is precisely the masses you are misleading! Do you know zat teenagers are valking into your private he-man cartoon of var and sinking it is the real thing?"

"I don't work these things out intellectually. I'm not political. I'm not well versed in politics. But I love my family. I love my country."

Podovsky sinks to his knees. He gives a cry, "Kakaja erunda!" ("What nonsense!") and dies of frustration on the spot. Once more they have underestimated me. I am the perfect killing machine.

Buddatah-buddatah. Bang. Bang. Bang.

It's not so much that Sylvester Stallone is beating the bejeezus out of the entire Vietnamese army; that's only logical—after all, it's his movie. No, what bothers you is that the hapless enemy can't even wound him. They go after our hero with everything from pistols to napalm bombs, using up enough ammunition to supply the contras for a year, and there's not even a scratch on Sly's gleaming torso to show for it. What school marksmanship did these guys go to? Sure, he's the perfect killing machine, but logic dictates that if enough people take aim at something, they've at least got to wing it, right?

Wrong. Take, for example, Rambo: First Blood Part II. The critics first got it in their sights in late May and opened up with the rhetorical equivalent of a carpet bombing. PEOPLE blasted its "ill-timed moralizing." The New Yorker called it a piece of "narcissistic jingoism." The Wall Street Journal said it was "hare-brained" and the Washington Post commented, "Sly's body looks fine. Now can't you come up with a workout for his soul?"

Bang. Bang. But not a nick on Rambo. In its first week, the movie earned the third-highest opening gross ever. By June's end, the $30 million had taken in a cool $100 million, making it the first movie to hit that magic figure this year. Although the script is barely literate, even its novelization has 800,000 copies in print, landing it on the New York Times best-seller list. Rambo's 1982 prequel, First Blood, is back, on top-selling videocassette charts, and last week the sequel received a privilege accorded few cultural phenomena, an hour on Donahue. Perhaps tellingly, Rambo is the top-grossing movie of all time in Beirut. Stallone seems to have created the perfect make-a-killing machine.

Rambo had its beginnings when producers Andrew Vajna and Mario Kassar realized that First Blood, Stallone's movie about a war-stressed vet who ends up waging a guerrilla campaign against a small Northwest town, had struck a responsive chord. "Rambo triggered long-suppressed emotions," says Stallone. "Suddenly apple pie was an important thing on the menu." First Blood's American fans paid some $57 million for a taste. Stallone and screenwriter James (The Terminator) Cameron were drafted to write Rambo. Says Cameron, "I knew going in that Sly would put his stamp on whatever we did. He had a vision of the character." And how. When Rambo co-star Richard Crenna first saw the script, he called Stallone and told him that "he'd be nuts to put himself through what he'd written."

No matter, cast and crew ended up in the jungles of Mexico, where, in addition to predictable difficulties (a shortage of the necessary Vietnamese extras), a special effects man perished in a jungle waterfall and a hurricane wiped out half the sets. "It was a taxing film," says director George Cosmatos, but he claims that through it all Stallone maintained his daily workout and also wrote dialogue for his next opus, Rocky IV. "He was like a Roman warrior," says Cosmatos. "A Viking, a gladiator, a hero of the past."

But if Stallone worked hard, then the effort by the marketing department at Tri-Star, the film's distributor, was truly Rockyesque. On weekends, planes and helicopters have been buzzing popular beaches on both coasts with the message, "You can relax down there—Rambo's up here." There are Rambo bows and knives on sale, as well as Rambo semiautomatic squirtguns, vitamins and bubble gum for Stallone's younger fans. Newspaper ads proclaim "Rambo—symbol of the American spirit." More patriotic slogans(one discussed option: "Rambo wants you") are planned, and a Tri-Star publicist even told a reporter that the Army was pasting up Rambo posters at recruiting centers. That tactic was firmly disavowed by Lt. Col. John F. Cullen, spokesman at the U.S. Army Recruiting Command. Says Cullen, "The guy's an ex-convict—in the first movie he killed everybody who angered him. This is not the kind of guy we want for our poster boy of the '80s."

And that, of course, is the cry of the worried minority who believe the movie is popular because it repeats popular lies. Nebraska Gov. Bob Kerrey, a Medal of Honor recipient in Vietnam, comments, "The Vietnamese have not done enough to give a full accounting of our men, but I do not think they are in prisons there." He believes the movie "didn't tell about the war as I knew it. It made it look fun." Adds Mike Leaveck, communications director for Vietnam Veterans of America, "America has already started to accept the Vietnam veteran. Hollywood's just proving that you can make money out of it." Although other vets have defended Rambo, co-screenwriter Cameron admits, "This film has no conscience whatever."

But tell that to Stallone, who believes in the film's "underlying dignity." And tell it to millions of kids too young to remember the nightly news clips of the war we lost, kids who are screaming and hooting at each new death in Rambo. Riding into theaters on the coattails of Rambo are trailers for Stallone's November release, Rocky IV. In it, Balboa, Rambo's relatively cuddly alter ego, takes on a Soviet heavyweight. The trailer's narrator describes it thusly: "Get ready for the next world war!" To which youthful audiences have responded, "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" Buddatah-buddatah. Boom.

Assistant editor Jim Calio, a Naval officer aboard an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin during Vietnam, offers his view on Rambo and its ramifications.

I think it's a dangerous movie. Rambo has touched a raw nerve in America, a feeling that we should, in the words of Ronald Reagan, stand tall again. Ten years ago, after the collapse of Saigon and the anguish of the Watergate scandal, Rambo would have been laughed out of the movie theaters. The mood then was virulently antiwar, but today that's all changed.

In a sense, Rambo is a modern-day Western, a paean to a time when the good guys wore white and the bad guys black. It is a John Wayne fantasy. How many American soldiers returning from Vietnam said, sadly, that they thought war would be "just like a John Wayne movie," only to find out that it wasn't? People bled and people died. It didn't have the niceness, the neatness of cinema. For the kids who make up much of the movie going audience and who one day may have to fight in a real war, I have a friendly warning: Remember, Rambo is only a movie.

In some New York theaters where Rambo is playing, audience members receive an official Rambo: First Blood Part II Trivia Contest. The true-false quiz contains such stumpers as "Rambo's code name is Lone Wolf," and the grand prize is a chance to meet Sylvester Stallone. We took the opportunity to fashion our own quiz about the film. Of course, some of these questions cannot be answered, no matter how many times you've seen Rambo. Winners will not meet Stallone.

1. In the movie, how long is it before Rambo takes off his shirt?

2. When you saw the first extreme closeup of Stallone's arm, what object did you think it was?

3. If Rambo speaks Vietnamese fluently when he initially meets his beautiful guide, Co Bao, why must she translate for the rest of the film?

4. Where in the jungle does Co Bao find the alluring dress and motor scooter that allow her to sneak into the prison camp in the guise of a prostitute?

5. After Rambo throws his knife through someone's neck for the first time, when does he retrieve it?

6. Which is bigger—Co Bao's turquoise good-luck charm or Sly Stallone's Adam's apple?

7. How did Rambo get behind that wall of mud?

8. in the scene on the rocks, how many times does the Vietnamese soldier miss Rambo with his pistol and submachine gun before Rambo aims, releases and blows him up with an explosive-tipped arrow?

9. How many international treaties does Rambo break during the movie?

Sometimes it's tough to keep track o? the action in Rambo without a box score. We herewith present some salient statistics—not counting the anonymous hordes killed in the movie's 70-plus explosions. If we missed a few, forgive: Even generals can have troubles with body counts.

Cause and number of deaths

Knife—5
Strangulation—2 (plus a snake)
Bow and arrow—14
Firearms—15
Explosion—3
Burning—3
Helicopter assault—2

Total—44, or an average of 1 murder every 2.1 minutes in the 93-minute film.

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