“And then Dolph Lundgren walked in, and I hated him immediately.”
That’s how Sylvester Stallone recalled meeting his Rocky IV co-star for the first time, back when he was preparing to film the 1985 sequel. Interestingly, that was also why Lundgren got the part of boxer Rocky Balboa’s towering, stone-faced Soviet nemesis Ivan Drago, Stallone told a rapt Cannes audience during a lengthy discussion of his career on Friday: “I had to find a superhuman being as an opponent, someone who would be overwhelming.” Wondering why he found himself thinking such negative thoughts about the actor, Stallone said that he realized, “Oh, that’s right, he’s perfect … This is what I would imagine they would create as an athlete — someone who is literally perfect. Indestructible. Shoulders, calves, forearms, giant butt, neck, back, everything.”
The actor also recounted the time that Lundgren nearly killed him during the filming of their big fight scene in the film. “He hit me so hard he almost stopped my heart,” he said. “I told him, ‘Why don’t we just do it? Just try to knock me out. Really cut loose as hard as you can.’ That was a really stupid thing to say. Next thing I know, I’m on a low-altitude plane to the emergency room, and I’m in intensive care for four days. And there are all these nuns around.”
Stallone was in Cannes to participate in a career overview and also present some footage from his upcoming sequel Rambo V: Last Blood ahead of a black-tie red carpet gala screening of a restored print of the 1982 hit First Blood, the movie that first introduced the John Rambo character to moviegoers. And while the idea of a festival known for its high-minded ideas about cinematic art and its left-wing politics honoring the guy who made his name with rah-rah pseudo-Reaganite entertainment might seem off-message, the screaming throngs that greeted Stallone and the insane lines waiting to get into his talk at the 1,068-seat Salle Debussy would suggest otherwise.
As something of a Stallone skeptic, I enjoyed the actor’s garrulousness and humility. He admitted that he recognized his limitations early in life: He had a slurred way of speaking thanks to a forceps accident at birth as well as a physical type that didn’t portend a future in showbiz. He recalled that watching the utterly wooden Steve Reeves in Hercules Unchained — “one of the worst actors in the world, even though he had a great body” — convinced him that he too could pursue this line of work. “The top of my head exploded,” Stallone recalled. “There it is. That’s my future. I was about 12 and a half years old … I started to work on my body.”
Despite starring in and writing a Best Picture winner (and garnering two Oscar nominations) early in his career and becoming one of America’s biggest stars by the 1980s, Stallone has always given off the sense of someone animated by an ongoing desire to be taken seriously. He noted that his occasional attempts at career reinvention haven’t always gone well: “I try not to go outside my box too much. Every time I venture away from it, I wind up doing Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.” Still, he has understandably fond memories of James Mangold’s 1996 film Cop Land, in which he played a partially deaf, melancholy cop, a role he said he took on to demonstrate his versatility and break free of action roles.
The actor himself suggested that the politics surrounding the character of John Rambo were more a figment of others’ imaginations than his own. Describing himself as a “political atheist,” he said he was taken by surprise when then-President Ronald Reagan evoked the character of the traumatized, brutal Vietnam veteran as a kindred spirit. “I hadn’t even voted before,” Stallone said. “I’m not a political animal, I never have been.” However, researching the plight of veterans, and learning about their high rate of suicide, prompted Stallone to revise the character of Rambo, who was initially written as a deranged killing machine (and who dies at the end of David Morrell’s original 1972 novel First Blood), into someone viewers could look up to.
It might be interesting, however, to see Stallone turn the politics of his aging heroes on their heads. He suggested that one way to keep the character of Rocky Balboa going might be to give the story an immigration-related twist. “I have a great idea for Rocky. He finds this fellow here who’s in the country illegally and everything. It becomes a whole thing … When you literally throw him out of the country, and he’s in another world, it could work. I ain’t gonna do it, but it could work.” He also said that the new Rambo movie will see the character with something of a surrogate Mexican-American family, so expect some hot takes when that actually opens later this year.
I think my favorite Stallone anecdote from his talk came when he revealed that his inspiration for The Expendables franchise — in which he starred alongside the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and, yes, Dolph Lundgren — was a terrible rock revival he and his wife went to at the Hollywood Bowl. “We see the Righteous Brothers, but one’s dead, so it’s just one brother. And it’s the Young Rascals and they’re really old rascals. And there’s a group called Three Dog Night, and it’s, like, one dog. And these guys are horrible. My wife says, ‘This is crap.’ I go, ‘You’re right, it is crap. But why is it sold out?’”
That’s when it hit him: “You wouldn’t pay five cents to see one of them. But if I said to you, ‘I’m gonna show you all your favorites from your childhood,’ you’ll go, ‘Oh shit, I’ll see that. That’s got to be weird.’” So, Stallone decided to assemble various ass-kicking stars from the 1980s and ‘90s and put them all together, as a creaky nostalgia tour variation on the disposable action flick. “It’s a curiosity thing,” he observed. “And that’s how it came about. From watching a horrible music concert.” It was almost — almost — enough to make me want to watch an Expendables movie again.