On July 6, 2011 Sylvester Stallone will turn 65 years old. At an age when most Americans are considering their Social Security benefits, Stallone’s career is the healthiest it’s been in decades. He recently revived his long dormant franchises, “Rocky” and “Rambo,” with new entries that were received to modest critical acclaim and less modest financial success. His latest film, “The Expendables,” was the first he’s headlined to gross over $100 million in the U.S. since “Rocky IV” back in 1985. Ten years ago, Stallone’s career was dead and he was a joke. Now he’s the world’s leading manufacturer of viagra cinema, movies designed to showcase the aging male frame as it performs unnatural but remarkable physical feats.
What Stallone’s done is basically without precedent. All of his former rivals for action film supremacy have faded away or moved on; all of his predecessors turned to moodier and more reflective work by the time they were his age. This is a situation that suits Stallone, since endurance was always the most important value of the “Rocky” movies. Rocky Balboa’s greatest strength as a boxer wasn’t his footwork or his punching power; on those fronts, he was mediocre fighter. What made Rocky extraordinary was his ability to take a punch and never go down. Though he has occasionally tried to distance himself from the character in his career (typically when he’s working on something other than blue-collar action films) it’s clear that Balboa is an extremely autobiographical character for Stallone. Rocky’s story is Stallone’s story: the dreams of an opportunity to prove your greatness, the struggle to remain hungry amidst the trappings of success and fame, the realization that you’ve lost your spark, the desire for one last chance.
At the beginning of 2006’s “Rocky Balboa,” Rocky runs a restaurant named after his late wife Adrian (I guess “Planet Hollywood” would have been too on the nose) and spends his days there telling stories about his career. His old friend and brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young, not so much anymore) is still around and they get together to commiserate about the state of world. Assessing the crumbling facade of the gym where Rocky used to train, Rocky remarks “Signs falling apart, Paulie.” “The whole world’s falling apart,” Paulie replies.
That in a nutshell is the world of Stallone’s viagra cinema: a place of physical and moral decay, the Philadelphia of “Rocky Balboa,” the Burma of “Rambo,” or the corrupt fictional island of Vilena in “The Expendables.” The heroes Stallone plays in these films refuse to concede to the decay around them or bend to the physical limitations of their age. The world may decay; Sylvester Stallone does not.
In “Rocky Balboa,” characters constantly harp on Balboa’s age. “Don’t you think you’re too, y’know, old?” his son asks him when he mentions that might want to start boxing again. He replies, “Yeah but you think you ought to stop trying things just because you had a few too many birthdays?” And so Rocky is offered an exhibition match against the current heavyweight champion, Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver). While everyone expects Balboa to embarrass himself — just as everyone expected Stallone to embarrass himself making another “Rocky” — he prevails. He loses the fight but he endures, proving his manhood and regaining his dignity. As Rocky refuses to go down, HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant chuckles, “Welcome to Rockyland!”
“Rocky Balboa”‘s allusions to mortality — Adrian’s death from cancer, Rocky’s battle against public perception that believes him to be washed up — are the closest Stallone’s viagra cinema has gotten to acknowledging its creator’s age. The two films he’s made since revel in their defiance of their creator’s age. Nobody tells John Rambo he’s too old to kill Burmese militants. And he proves pretty definitively that he isn’t, by killing dozens upon dozens of them with ease.
Though he’s twenty years older than the last time we saw him, and he’s spent who knows how much of that time working in Thailand as a snake wrangler and river boat captain, by the start of “Rambo” Vietnam veteran John Rambo has inexplicably packed on twenty or more pounds of muscle since the last time we saw him in 1988’s “Rambo III.” In “Rocky Balboa,” Rocky’s trainer talks about his bad knees, the arthritis in his neck, the calcium deposits on his joints. But at 60, John Rambo appears to be in peak physical shape. He’s strong enough to rip a man’s throat out with his bare hands and spry enough to sneak around a military camp, leaving no trace except the flutter of an Asian flute on the soundtrack. Maybe snake wrangling will become the next big fitness craze.
Rambo was a combat shocked basket case in “First Blood,” but he grew steadily in stature through the older “Rambo” sequels until his killing skills took on near-mythic qualities. In “Rambo,” Stallone elevates the character again up to the level of a small deity. In the film’s action climax, the Burmese militants are about to execute Christian aids workers by the banks of a river when Rambo saves the day by firing hundreds of rounds from a jeep-mounted machine gun at the top of a hill. The blocking of the scene — Rambo at the top of the hill, the villainous Burmese below — gives it the feel of divine retribution, as if God himself is raining down hellfire to punish the wicked. And it’s Stallone who gets to do the punishing.
Somehow, Stallone’s physical feats grew even greater in “The Expendables.” There he plays Barney Ross, an expert marksman and the leader of the titular group of mercenaries. His closest buddy is Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), an expert in edge weapons. During their missions, the two hold friendly competitions to see who is quicker on the draw. “You’re not that fast anymore,” Christmas warns. “The only thing faster is light,” Ross responds.
Given Stallone’s age, and the fact that he surrounded himself in “The Expendables” with fresh action stars like Statham and Terry Crews, it seemed reasonable to assume that he was making the film as a symbolic passing of the torch; that it would be about what it’s like to realize you’re not faster than light anymore. Nope. Ross is correct about his skills. He fires his handguns so fast that they sound like an automatic rifle. Stallone edits the action so that the camera is constantly struggling to keep up with him. We’ll see him pull his gun and fire, and by the time we cut to his victim, the poor schmo’s already on the ground, as if Ross really is faster than the light being projected onto the screen. Characters repeatedly refer to the fact that Ross never sleeps, and it seems to be true: we never see him sleep. Or eat. Or do anything other than get tattoos and murder people. “The Expendables” isn’t about making way for a new generation. It’s about putting that new generation in their place and showing them how it’s done. Casting Stallone’s old contemporaries like Dolph Lundgren and Mickey Rourke was good for some chuckles; it was also good for showing how good Stallone looks in comparison to them.
And he does look good. But in viagra cinema there is a disconnect between the onscreen ease with which Stallone carries out his manly activities and the offscreen difficulties he encountered achieving them. In “Rocky Balboa,” it appears that a simple regimen of jogging and keg lifting gets Balboa into phenomenal shape. There’s no mention of the human growth hormone and steroids Stallone really needed to take to achieve that transformation. To see more of what I mean, take a look at “Inferno: The Making of ‘The Expendables'”, a behind-the-scenes documentary that is now available on Netflix Instant. In “The Expendables,” Stallone leaps from a dock to a moving sea plane, dives out of the way of exploding helicopters, gets tackled into a brick wall, and never stops moving. In “Inferno,” we see the grueling physical toll all those activities took: broken bones, torn tendons, and so on. He got more MRIs making “The Expendables” than most people will get in a lifetime. Doctors advised him to put the film on hold and get surgery to treat his injuries; Stallone refused. It’s as if he’s willing to kill himself to look invincible onscreen.
Look closely, though, and you’ll see the signs of strain. His total lack of grace in the boxing ring in “Rocky Balboa.” The uncomfortable way he lumbers around in “Rambo.” The fact that he never takes his shirt off in “Rambo” after spending 98.3% of the previous two “Rambo”s stripped to the waist and covered in baby oil. Cutting frames from shots in “The Expendables” to make his movements appear faster than they really are. Even that finale to “Rambo,” which sees Stallone basking in near omnipotence, suggests his physical limitations. Though he kills plenty of men, Rambo stands perfectly still for the entire climax. He just shoots people with his jeep-mounted machine gun. Meanwhile a bunch of much younger actors playing mercenaries provide the obligatory quota of heroic leaping, running, and punching. That tension, between the invulnerable image Stallone is projecting and the vulnerability we see bubbling below the superficial superheroics, is fascinating to watch. Rocky, Rambo, and Ross are sort of like really old Twinkies; they should have gone stale years ago but artificial preservatives have kept them fresh well past their sell-by date.
Regardless, these men refuse to acknowledge their limitations. Stallone began dealing with the hard truths of aging way back in the early 1990s. In “Demolition Man” he cast himself as an old-school cop and metaphorical neanderthal who’s outlived his usefulness to a society that has moved on. In “Rocky V,” when Rocky was forced into retirement (a first time), his constant refrain was “I didn’t hear no bell!” signifying that his life is not over and that he continues to endure. Twenty years later, Stallone is still fighting, still refusing to hear the bell. The longer he refuses, the deeper he gets into Rockyland, the more strangely compelling his viagra cinema gets.
[Additional Photos: “Rocky Balboa,” MGM, 2006; “The Expendables,” Lionsgate, 2010.]