Phil's Quick Capsule Review

Rambo: The Retrospective (2008): The Combat Magazine Series

Back in 2006-11 Phil’s Quick Review editor in chief Phil Hobden was the Film & TV editor and chief writer for the legendary martial arts focused Combat Magazine.  The Combat Magazine Series takes look back at some of the best interviews, conversations and articles that Phil wrote or edited during that time.

Next up: We look back at the Rambo film seriesIntroduction by Phil Hobden. Interviews by Ross Boyask & Rich Badly. 

Introduction by Phil Hobden

John Rambo – Vietnam veteran & decorated war hero.  You know the guy – returned from fighting in Vietnam only to find that back in the U.S. many American civilians had turned on the returning soldiers… subjecting him to humiliation and embarrassment.  It was in the first movie, First Blood that Rambo would flip. 

Returning years later, in First Blood Part 2, he would send him back to ‘Nam to look for POW’s.  In Rambo 3 he was back to rescue an old colleague, and in the process took down the invading Russian armies.  Most recently Rambo just wanted a quiet life, but ends up cutting a bloody path through Burma to rescue some do-gooders instead.   

Four films.  One hell of a legacy.  The Rambo movies have become films of legend.  A classic character, taking on impossible odds doing what he believes is right and just.  The name Rambo is no longer just a character – it’s a by word for tactics of military aggression or a person who shows great heroism through the use of violence or military/defensive skills.   

The legacy of these movies goes even further – Rambo computer games (four no less) and the animated TV series Rambo: The Force Of Freedom (minus blood and throat ripping of course).  Stallone created something that is nothing less than a cultural icon.

With this recent DVD release of the new RAMBO movie, and the re-release of the original three movies on DVD & Blu-Ray, COMBAT thought it was an apt time to catch up with a couple of the key players from the recent movie – Stanimir Stamatov stunt man and Stallone’s stunt double for the movie and the films special effects veteran Alex Gunn.  In addition we will cast our eyes lovingly back over each of the previous three films… 

So get your survival knife ready, put on your camouflage paint and bed down under a pile of leaves as we celebrate the film phenomenon that is the Rambo Quadrilogy.

——

DOUBLING UP: An Interview with Stanimir Stamatov by Ross Boyask

Standing 1.82 meters tall, hailing from Bulgaria Stanimir Stamatov is one of the industry’s best unknown faces.  With almost 100 film and TV show credits to his name chances are, if you’re a fan of the genre, you have seen him on screen more than a few times.  But like most of those heroes of movies, Stanimir’s job is remain invisible.  After all you WANT to believe it was Jean-Claude Van Damme performing that stunt don’t you? But chances are it wasn’t, chances are it was our man Stanimir.  

Since 1997 Stanimir Stamatov has quickly established himself as a leading stunt performer and double for some of the industry’s best known names and that trend continued when most recently he doubled for Stallone on Rambo.    COMBAT caught up with Stanimir as he prepare for his new movie to talk Rambo and have a look back over what is already an impressive career. 

Ross Boyask: Stanimir, how did you first get into the stunt industry, and what kind of training did you have to go through?Stanimir Stamatov: I was 18 years old when I started study in the National Sport Academy – Sofia and joined the stunt team there. I could only dream that one day I’ll be a stuntman in the movies. And luckily the dream came truth! It was great time! I was learning so many different things: gymnastic, acrobatic, martial arts, climbing and rappelling, scuba diving, falls…  Same time I was practicing the all different kind of sports in the Academy. I new anything I do would be useful in the stunts. And all this paid back. 

RB: So who were your influences growing up?

Stanimir Stamatov: I grew up in a sport family. I love sport and movies since very young. Action movies of course! So my idols were world best sportsmen and the biggest Action stars. And I’m happy to say that I got to know most of them!

RB: What was your first action job?  Were you nervous?

Stanimir Stamatov:My very first stunt job was for a live show. We made a massive fight… The crowd went crazy! After it we all drank beer to swallow the pain. 🙂     
The stunt can always make you nervous, because it asks questions. “What can go wrong?”,” How to react?”, “Am I going to make it look good?”, “Does it going to hurt?” and maybe hundreds more like those… When you find the answers, everything comes to a place it should be. You minimize the risk. And you’re focused – not nervous. Accumulating experience makes the questions becoming more, and the answers you don’t know – less.

That day I wasn’t nervous. We’ve been rehearsing the fight 1000 times… I was very excited and proud.

RB:You worked with Combat Film fav Gary Daniels on City Of Fear. What do you remember about that?
Stanimir Stamatov: That was almost 10 years a go… I remember I was impressed by his personality! Very good actor and martial artist, and such a nice man! I’m happy I had the chance to double and work with him. I can say we’re friends! I met him again in “Submerged” with Steven Seagal and Vinnie Jones.

RB: You have worked on a lot of Jean Claude Van Damme films. As a stunt performer what are the different demands on you between performing action as a henchman being beaten up, shot or blown up, and working as a double for the star of the film.
SS: In both cases I’m approaching the stunts same way. Always very serious and trying not to miss any critical moment. As a double I look after the safety of the actor and help him to make his performance easier and better.

RB:Moving on to Rambo, you doubled for Sylvester Stallone in the film. How much of the action did he do himself, and where did you double for him?
Stanimir Stamatov: Basically the whole action was done by Mr. Stallone himself. You can see me in the movie jumping off the cliff after the big explosion. I did few more stunts, but they’re not in the final cut of the movie. I was also rehearsing and doing the first takes for Mr. Stallone, so he can have better control over the process while directing and save some energy in those hard conditions. And of course I looked after his safety any moment of his performance, because the jungle is dangerous place, believe me!

RB: Stallone still looks to be in tremendous shape. What factors did you both discuss when deciding who would perform a particular action moment?
Stanimir Stamatov: Yes, it’s true! He is in great shape! Here is the point to thank Chad Stahelski – our stunt coordinator, for made me part of his team. He and Mr. Stallone were taking the important decisions. I was there to do the best I can when they needed it.

RB: Rambo looked like a stunt performer’s dream, with so much of the action being back to basics practical, but how easy was it to perform in the environment you were filming in? Rough terrain and the harsh elements can’t have made it easy.
Stanimir Stamatov:: As I said the jungle is dangerous place. Not only cause the great number of mosquitoes, spiders, scorpions, centipedes or King cobras. Even the plants can be danger with their hidden spikes specially if you want to move fast. If you don’t pay attention you’ll get hurt! I didn’t know that even the well known bamboo tree can be dangerous. Add to this the dry uneven terrain, extremely high temperature and humidity… Wasn’t easy, but if was – somebody else would do it. Hahaha! I’ll never forget working there!

 I would do it again with great pleasure!

RB:What was your greatest challenge filming Rambo?
Stanimir Stamatov: I think this was working so close to Sylvester Stallone – top level movie star, and the stunt coordinators Chad Stahelski and Noon Orsatti – some of the best in the world! Being in this team was pushing me every day to give the best I can or even more. Something I want to do every single day! And this is a Challenge!

RB:What can you tell us about War Inc, the John Cusack film you worked on?
Stanimir Stamatov: Another small part for me in this one. I had to fight John Cusack twice. He is pretty good fighter! And there’s no other way, because he is training with the legend Benny Urquidez! For me was great experience to work with them. I can’t wait to see the movie!

RB:What are your further ambitions in the industry? Are you aiming to co-ordinate action, or direct films yourself?
Stanimir Stamatov: Yes. I think coordinating and 2nd unit directing is natural continuation of stuntman’s work. I do coordinate every time I have the chance. Two years a go I action directed an Indian movie. It was mi first directing job and I loved it. Look forward for next opportunity like this! 

RB:What is coming up next for you?
Stanimir Stamatov: Right now I’m prepping a Bulgarian action movie directing by Valeri Milev – a very talented man who loves action. I hope we’ll have great time doing it!

A side of this I’m training as usual and waiting the summer season when here in Bulgaria gets very busy

RB: Thanks for your time Stanimir. 

——

 

SHOCK & GORE: An Interview with Rambo’s Special Effects Veteran Alex Gunn by Rich Badley

With the action genre dominated by cartoon rubber suites and CGI fuzz, it was about time someone gave Hollywood a hard reality check.  It’s been 20 years since Rambo III but with his recent installment, simply titled Rambo, Sylvester Stallone’s certainly blasted away a few of the pretenders to show everyone why  the headband still rules.  But this isn’t the 80s anymore and in these dark times Rambo’s latest mission isn’t a nostalgia trip, showing war as unrelenting hell on Earth.  To achieve it, Stallone made sure he had top effects supervisor Alex Gunn wading through the carnage beside him…

Even when you’ve worked on everything from London’s Burning to Troy, any man must feel a rush of adrenaline when asked to work on a Rambo movie.  “Absolutely thrilled to bits,” remembers Gunn about getting the job, “You don’t just get these things on a whim and I knew I was up against other special effects guys around the world.  I had this bizarre experience where Sly called me at home to talk about the old days and the script.  I just made a couple of comments about what he wanted to do – that I’d make it so horrible you’re actually going to look away, you’re not even going to see half of it.  He liked that.”  

And if Alex Gunn says it’s going to look horrible you’d better believe him. The no-nonsense Brit wanted to be in the effects game since growing up with Doctor Who and, after training in Bournemouth, went on to run crews for the likes of Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton.  He first encountered Stallone on the set of sci-fi actioner Judge Dredd back in 1995 but it was clear Rambo was going to be far from comic book and Gunn is the first to praise Stallone’s dedication to returning the franchise to its darker, more adult roots, “Sly is a wonderful director because he knows exactly what he wants.  I mean the guy is a filmmaker.  A lot of people have got a misguided image of him being a meathead action hero and there’s a lot more to him that meets the eye I can assure you.  The man knows filmmaking as a craft and he’s involved in every aspect of the film – be it characterisation or the action.”

The script had already gone through several incarnations over the years and was always going to be a small affair by Hollywood standards, right up until production began, “To start off with I had a very small budget, but then it wasn’t going to be an action film on quite that scale.  Then, as the story grew, my crew expanded from 14 to 65.  We had 250 soldiers on set at any one time – I had my own private army.”  Shooting in Thailand during the hottest part of the year was never going to be a busman’s holiday yet it was the part of the job Gunn clearly relished, “I love the challenge, to pit my wits against the forces of nature.  It was bloody knackering sometimes.  You’re doing a twelve hour day in a 100 degree heat.  An hour’s drive to get to the location, then you’ve got to get set-up for the day, blow the crap out of everything, then put everything away and count all the heads to make sure you’ve got the right number.  You’re doing that six days a week, it’s a killer.  I run my unit with almost military zeal.  I expect everybody to work extremely hard but no harder than me.”

While it was a physical endurance test for cast and crew, it was also an opportunity to test the latest equipment away from the safety of the studio.  “We were really pushing the boundaries of chemical technology,” explains Gunn, “Chemicals that go off under controlled conditions don’t react best when it’s 100% humid in 100 degree heat, so yeah, I had to put the air conditioner in the workshop on.  We’re not talking about 21st century technology here, we’re talking about a tent, and then we just bought up every air conditioning unit we could find, switched them on and hoped for the best.  But that’s half the fun of it; you’ve got these problems to overcome.”  As well as the expected fiery explosions the film was also a chance to push prosthetics to their limits and increase the realism of the sickening effects of weapons, “I was being somewhat indulged in my desire to do things that perhaps had not been feasible.  Like blowing heads or arms off, these had never been blown off with force before.  For me, my favourite moment is the shooting in the jeep, especially the guy in the cab getting blown to pieces.  I don’t think anything has been portrayed quite so real without the speed before.”

With so much planning and logistics to think about it might be easy to forget that across the border in Burma, where the film is set, people were living in constant fear from an oppressive regime.  “I wouldn’t say it was scary, but it was certainly intense,” Gunn says about the feeling onset, “Working with people who had lost their limbs from atrocities, it was a salient reminder of what was going on.  A lot of what you see is based on personal accounts of people that got out of Burma, like the burning of the village.”  Sadly, the inhumane treatment of the country’s people by the military junta was exposed once again in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.  Though Rambo is an action film it does raise significant awareness about a real world humanitarian issue and does so without the usual gung-ho theatrics, going instead for downright brutality.  That was the job Gunn had to remain focused on, “There were plenty of other risks out there, obviously things in the jungle that could jump out and eat you.  The sort of materials I was working with was far more of a concern for me than anything else.”

Although the Rambo franchise evokes images of relentless death and destruction both Stallone and Gunn were in agreement that they weren’t taking the easy route and doing brainless, non-stop action.  “I think that you run the risk of bludgeoning your audience into submission and they just don’t notice it anymore,” explains Gunn, “That’s the last thing you want, you want people to be shocked and horrified by it.  There’s a great Australian war film called The Odd Angry Shot [1979] which is one of the films I drew inspiration from.  It revolves around the life of soldiers and the boredom that they have to face, but every now and again they engage with the Vietnamese, which is brutal to the extreme but also fantastically brief.  My aim was really to make the battle scenes as decent as possible without it looking graphic for the sake of it being graphic.”  Gunn’s time on the sets of Band of Brothers certainly helped keep the action grounded in physical reality and the film’s battle scenes are distinctly un-glorified and some of the most harrowing around.

The film is careful to set-up its characters: the naïve missionaries trying to do some good, the world-weary mercenaries and even the Burmese soldiers – kidnapped from their villages and dehumanized.  But to satisfy fans it was always going to have to end with something spectacular.  “The end of the film was all going to take place in the compound rather than the beach,” begins Gunn, “But Sly came up with a big fuck-off shoot-out.  I’d already secretly decided that if we did an ending like that it would exceed the body count of the previous film.  Actually, what we shot was a lot more than what was onscreen and took four weeks of solid filming.  Normally, the battle scene that you see would take months of preparation.”  In fact they thrash any previous death toll but it never seems like it, perhaps because, like Gunn said, you aren’t able to look at half of it as bodies are blown apart and limbs burst, “It’s almost real-time.  What we were going for was to try and make it as real as possible and get it across to an audience that this is what happens.”  Like The Wild Bunch it’s pure, visceral destruction but without the voyeurism of slow motion, “For what we were doing everything had to be short, sharp and brutal.”

For many the big question is whether Stallone can still cut it with a bow and arrow now he’s into his 60s.  “Twenty years older than me, he leaves me gasping for breath,” says Gunn and this is a star clearly still in the thick of it when it comes to action, “He used to make his producers pretty nervous. There was one thing filmed where we insisted it was Sly’s stand-in that did the stunt, and it was a scene that doesn’t make it into the film; when Rambo was blasting away with the 50 cal a Burmese manages to get up the hill with an RPG and fires the shell at the jeep, which explodes, and Rambo leaps off.  I know him; he’d leave it right until the last minute to jump!”

Luckily for us Gunn won’t be going down in history as the man who ended Stallone’s long and glorious career.  Instead, the pair have reduxed an action icon critics thought no longer had a place in the world, throwing him back into the chaos of the battlefield as if he never left and make it look as shell-shocking as it should be.  As Stallone said at the BAFTA’s – British crews are the best in the world, summing up Gunn and his team’s complete dedication and resolve in making Rambo one of the most exciting, and toughest, action movies of 2008.

——

RAMBO –THE MOVIES: A Look At The First Three Rambo Films by Ross Boyask

First Blood (1982)

Repeated viewings of the first film in the Rambo series make you wonder how they ever thought they were going to keep the central character going as part of a successful franchise. Whilst an unlikely contender at the time, director Ted Kotcheff delivers an excellent thriller; part taut manhunt thriller, part man against the elements survival film. Stallone excels as the tortured Vietnam vet. Critics seem to think that just because he does not initially say very much at all, and then towards the end becomes virtually incomprehensible when he breaks down that he is a poor actor, when nothing could be further from the truth. Just look in his eyes and it’s all there. The action is wonderfully gritty, and cleverly played out. 

Action highlights include Rambo breaking out of the police station and escaping on a motorcycle, and the many ambushes he plans in the surrounding forest. The supporting cast are tremendous and include star turns from David Caruso and Bill McKinney, but Brian Dennehy stands out as Sheriff Teasle, who just does not know when to quit. The more pressure he applies, the more ferociously Rambo fights back. Teasle never seems to understand that if he had just left well enough alone, the ensuing violence would have been averted, and when Richard Crenna’s Colonel Trautman arrives to bring Rambo in, the stakes only increase in intensity. The music from Jerry Goldsmith is instantly recognisable and adds suitable gravitas to the proceedings. Overall this is a splendid action thriller that has stood the test of time. Well worth a watch.

8 out of 10 stars

 If you like this watch – The Fugitive, Night Hawks

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)

The second entry in the Rambo franchise is a total transformation in terms of genre, the character, and the rules of the first film. Whereas First Blood was a comparatively realistic thriller, this chapter transforms Rambo into one of the most iconic action heroes of the 1980s. The films stands up as being one of a handful of the best Hollywood action films ever made, alongside the all-time classic Commando. The story may be utterly simplistic but director George P. Cosmatos gave us a nearly perfect 95 minutes of action entertainment with tremendous action sequences and stunts. Steven Berkoff is suitably snarling as the evil Russian lieutenant and Richard Crenna, Charles Napier and Martin Kove are present and correct.

 Goldsmith’s score is as bombastic as the action and really gets you cheering for our hero. Action highlights? 

ALL OF IT. Is it jingoistic? Yes. Does it even remotely matter? No. It’s endlessly rewatchable entertainment. In fact if you’re not watching it right now, you should expect an explosive arrowhead to come flying into your near vicinity in a matter of seconds.

10 out of 10 stars

If you like this watch – Commando, Missing In Action 2, No Retreat, No Surrender 2

Rambo III (1988)

Unfairly lambasted at the time of release due to the end of the cold war meaning the soviet villains were now our allies, Rambo III is much better than you remember. Despite some directorial mishaps (Russell Mulcahy being replaced by 2nd Unit Peter MacDonald), and some now slightly dodgy politics (tacit support of the Taliban and similar factions) this film is still an excellent slice of 80s action hokum. From the endlessly parodied stick fight at the start of the film to the final, insane shootout the action is as intense and overcooked as Stallone’s ripped physique at the time. He looked like an oiled God with a machine gun, the very apex of an 80s action hero. 

The setpieces look even better today than at the time, simply because all the stunts and effects are practical, and are far more satisfying than a lot of today’s action scenes. The rousing score won Jerry Goldsmith a BMI award. By this point Trautman did seem a bit redundant, but Crenna went on to send himself up brilliantly in the Hot Shots! sequel. This film does exactly what you would expect it to and deserves reappraisal as a pure and simple action film. And what is wrong with that?

8 out of 10 stars

If you like this watch – Hot Shots! Part Deux! Die Hard, Red Heat

For more on RAMBO check out www.rambofilm.com


 

CombatMagazine

Combat Magazine ran until 2012. For over 30 years it was the leading UK magazine for martial artists. From 2008-2012 Phil Hobden was the film and TV editor and chief media writer for the magazine.

The Combat series brings back some of the best and most interesting interviews, articles and content from those marvellous years from a host of great writers!