Sylvester Stallone punched his way to success when he wrote and starred in the original Rocky, a film that delivered a knockout blow to All The President's Men when it landed the Oscar for Best Film. He went on to play the boxer a further four times. In between, he scored another box office hit as Vietnam veteran John Rambo in First Blood, and its two sequels, and established himself as one of the leading cinema attractions of the late 80s and early 90s, with films including Tango & Cash, Cliffhanger and, urm, Daylight. There were some blows, such as the comedy Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, as well as an excellent reminder of his acting ability in Cop Land, before he gradually faded from the scene after kids movie Sky Kids 3D: Game Over. Against the odds, however, he's back for another round of boxing in the self-penned, self-directed Rocky Balboa. Here he talks about some of the challenges involved and the rumours surrounding his retirement from the acting ring.
Would you ever have imagined that 30 years after creating this character you'd still be talking about him after five sequels?
[Laughs] No. It's kind of like a cinematic freak of nature, it really is. I knew it was a foolish idea to even think about it a few years ago, so the fact that it's actually happened is just crazy. But sometimes crazy ideas are worth following.
With Rocky Balboa you're kind of rounding things out. Does that suggest you might have some regrets about some of the sequels in between?
I do with some of them. When I look back, I felt as though some of them were a bit too focused on the fight and were maybe a little manipulative with some of the montages. The music was also going away from the original Bill Conti music because we tried to find something trendy. They still had some emotional content but it wasn't like the first one, which was really simplistic. I would say that maybe 90 per cent of the original was non-action. It was interaction with the audience and non-action with boxing.
You encountered some resistance from studios when making the first Rocky film. Did you experience the same sort of thing when coming back with this?
The irony is that it was much tougher coming back to it even though I was known because the character was considered passé, I was considered passé, and time had moved on. The studio was very upfront about that; they didn't pull any punches. With the original, I was unknown but because it was possible to do at such an inexpensive price, the studio took a chance. Those days are gone. Studios don't take chances. The people that greenlight films today are the marketing department and it comes down to whether they can they sell a film. So they'd ask: "Can we sell a 59-year-old has-been boxer?" It doesn't exactly inspire confidence.
But I told them: "Eventually everyone feels like a has-been when they're not. That's the whole point - that's the premise of the story. We all still have this thing burning inside of us and if we just nurture it, we can revitalise ourselves." But they still said they weren't really interested and they turned it down for over seven years. But then the studio head was replaced and the new studio head happened to walk into this small Mexican restaurant at about 15 minutes to midnight, in Mexico, while I was sitting at a table feeling sorry for myself. He asked me what was up, I told him that I'd written Rocky Balboa and he asked to see it. So he took it home, his wife read it, she cried and the movie was greenlit. So, don't ever underestimate women in boxing!
How did you enjoy shooting the fight scenes in Rocky Balboa at the Mandalay Bay?
I've shot four cinematic fights but I thought I'd like to do a real fight with a real audience and use their rules. There's a certain way that HBO Showtime shoot fights. So I found one of these big fights - a mega fight - which was Bernard Hopkins' middleweight title fight at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas and there were 12,000 people there. I asked whether I could use their crowd and said: "Right before your fighters come in, can we come in?" The audience didn't know that, so they'd come to see Bernard Hopkins and here's Rocky Balboa 17 years later coming in and they were like: "Excuse me? Cheque please!" Then of course their fight went on and afterwards we asked the audience if they wanted to stick around and see the Rocky fight. Thousands of them did. We also used their weigh-in and their press conferences. Everything in the film is real; the only thing fake in it is me. And that's what sets it apart from other Rocky films I think.
What was the training like for you this time around?
The training was pretty gruelling because I'm not exactly a spring chicken. Everything you touch breaks a part of your body, so it was rough. I wanted to try to emphasise that what you see in the film we did for real. That's training heavy and developing a certain kind of body, which is more a beast of burden rather than a slick animal. But the injuries between myself and Antonio [Carver] were extraordinary. Every day we had bulging discs and tendon problems. I broke two toes and my metatarsal, he broke his knuckle. It was unbelievable but it paid off in the end.
There's been rumours that you're going to retire from acting following this. Can you confirm or deny that? And what's the state of play with Rambo?
Well, I signed up to do Rambo almost a year and a half before this film, otherwise I never would have done Rambo and Rocky together. The idea of Rambo is kind of intriguing as a closing chapter. When you shoot a film as a sequel to do another sequel it's a whole other tone. But when you know it's the final chapter you try and put in there as much emotion, understanding and closure as you can. So, whereas Rocky is a lighter character and optimistic, Rambo is much darker. He's been up to his waist in blood for 30 years and guess what? Nothing is solved, the world's still rough, the world's still broken, so what does it all mean? It's that kind of anger. And now he lives in the Far East. So that's going to be some kind of Joseph Campbell journey back to home.
I'm going to do that and then I really have very little aspirations about acting, because I think that probably the best things have come and gone. I would like to focus on writing and directing. I wouldn't turn down a good Mafioso part, let's put it that way, but I love writing and directing, even though writing can be incredibly painful and lonely. I get great satisfaction from doing it.
Rocky Balboa opens in UK cinemas on 19th January 2007.