This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
BUDAPEST HUNGARY - There must be something buried inside Sylvester Stallone that makes him want to prove himself not only as a movie star but as a man. He needs to take the risks himself, and in the four years since "Rocky" he has deliberately put himself into dangerous situations that were not necessarily required by his scripts:
* During the filming of last summer's "Rocky II," he insisted on doing all the fight scenes himself and doing them for real, even though doubles could have been used and punches could have been pulled. He suffered internal injuries, and now, on location in Hungary, he pulls up his shirt to show the scar left by an operation to mend his torn pectoral muscle: "The operation lasted four hours and took 120 stitches," he explains.
* During the filming of "Nighthawks," a thriller scheduled for release later this year, Stallone dangled 247 feet in the air above New York's East River, hanging from a helicopter by a 1/8 inch steel cable as he prepared to board a cable car in mid-transit.
*For another scene in the same movie, he jumped onto a moving subway train and kicked out a window. He had been told the glass was wire-reinforced and would take a good kick. He insisted on using the real glass all the same. But when he braced and kicked the glass, it fell out at a touch, throwing him off balance and almost off the train.
Why does Stallone take those chances? Other actors think nothing of using stunt men as doubles: That's what they're for. Some actors who have done stunts themselves now question the sanity of their decisions. Clint Eastwood, for example, hung from a nylon cord thousands of feet in the air for "The Eiger Sanction," but found during sneak previews of the movie that audiences generally just weren't impressed, assuming that Eastwood had used a double, or that (most frustrating of all) it was just "trick photography." It wasn't. And it won't be trick photography next summer when "Escape to Victory," the movie Stallone is currently filming in Hungary, is released. The John Huston film has Stallone playing soccer - and that will be Sly himself as the goalie, taking a 110-m.p.h. soccer ball in the pit of the stomach.
"The way they usually do it," Stallone was saying, "is they show you the double taking the hit, and then they cut in for a close-up of the actor's face. It's so phony you can smell it with the cable car sequence in 'Nighthawks' for example, it's so phony to show some stuntman hanging from a cable and then cut to the inside of the car and it's me coming in the window. You have to do it on one unfaked take so the audience can see the actor is really doing it." But does the audience really believe it's the actor? Even when it is? And is taking a chance like that worth getting killed over?
Stallone shrugged. We were squatting in the dust of a windy field 25 miles outside of Budapest, watching a soccer game being rehearsed. The players were all dressed as prisoners of war; Stallone, wearing baggy old wool Army pants and a sleeveless T-shirt, looked muscular but appropriately scrawny after a diet to got down to POW weight.
"I take those chances for myself," he said. "I've never been so scared in my life, as when I was dangling from that helicopter. I have a fear of heights that borders on mania. I had to do something like this once in my life. So there I was, hanging 250 feet up over the East River, with the wind blowing me back and forth and the constant danger that if the steel cable hit something it could shear in two. The day before, see, a guy had jumped off the bridge we were working next to. We all saw it happen. He hit the water and exploded. His body broke into several pieces, and the current was so fast that this was the 59th St. Bridge and they pulled the remains out of the water seven minutes later at the 20th St. Pier.
"I saw that, and had to go up the next day. There was a fireboat down below with two divers in it. I made the mistake of calling them 'lifeguards.' It was explained to me that they were not lifeguards. They were there to retrieve my body, if necessary. If you see the movie and look closely, you'll see that I'm holding a knife in the scene. My theory was that if I fell, the cable would make me sink unless I could cut the harness loose. After I saw that guy hit the water like it was cement, I changed my plan. The knife was to plunge into my heart a second before I hit."
Stallone loves to make statements like that, filled with drama, violence and desperation. Somehow, they sound plausible. His conversation is laced with casual references to danger and the measures he'll take to cope with it. He loves extremes. One of the reasons he inhabits the character of Rocky Balboa so easily is that Rocky's a creature of extremes: In both "Rocky" and "Rocky II," Rocky not only traveled the extremes of rags to riches, but was also an extremist in courtship, love, training, revenge, prayer, loyalty and, above all, in his image of himself. You somehow don't imagine Rocky making compromises or not being able to make up his mind.
And some of the same character traits will come into play with "Escape to Victory," which has Stallone playing an American commando captain - a solid-gold smartass who gets locked up in a German POW camp in Hungary. Also in the camp is Michael Caine, as a former Welsh soccer star. The story's about how the prisoners form their own soccer team, and then are challenged to play a German team in Paris as a publicity stunt glorifying the Third Reich's supremacy in all things, including soccer.
The prisoners refuse at first to go alone, with the game. But then they come up with a plan to stage an escape during the halftime period. The early parts of the film deal with the planning of an escape route into the sewers of Paris, and then the climax is the big game. If this sounds vaguely familiar, people connected with the movie are calling it "Rocky Meets the Great Escape." The closing scenes will require the heroes to make a Rocky-like choice between victory and escape; the Allies are trailing at halftime, and if they escape they'll hand the Nazis propaganda coup. Stallone, Caine and director John Huston had only been working together a week when I visited the movie's outdoor set, a $3 million replica of a prison camp, constructed realistically and somewhat frighteningly in a large field outside Budapest. "Escape to Victory" is the 34th feature film for the legendary Huston, whose career was honored at a gala at New York's Lincoln Center a few days before he flew to Hungary to begin shooting. The film's story is made to measure for his talent; Huston has often specialized in male adventure stories, and his credits include "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," "The African Queen" and "The Man Who Would Be King."
Stallone says he signed for "Escape to Victory" because John Huston would be directing it: "There are some directors you just almost automatically jump at the chance to work with." He also signed, rumor on the set has it, because of an incredible $1.8 million salary. To get in shape for the role, he had to get out of shape: From Rocky's muscular build, Stallone has slimmed down to 160 pounds, more appropriate for a POW "My waist is down from 33 to 29 inches, I run every morning, I'm trying to look a little gaunt. I thought 'Rocky' was tough, but I've never trained so hard. I thought soccer was a sissy sport until they kicked the ball into my stomach and I crossed the border into Austria with hematomas on both hips."
Stallone got a reputation on the original "Rocky" as an actor who likes to direct himself. He had widely-publicized script differences with Norman Jewison, the director of "FIST," which he made right after "Rocky." And then he made his official directing debut with "Paradise Alley," a movie based on his own novel about New York's Hell's Kitchen, and he also directed the enormously successful "Rocky II."
"Now, working with John Huston, I'm biting my lip to keep from giving suggestions," he says. "There's a misconception that I can't work with other directors. With Huston, he's so into it, he sits back, you don't even think he's working, he's so smooth, but all the time the incubation process is taking place. And he lets you come to him with input if he doesn't like your suggestion, you get a single 'no' and that's it." Stallone admits that he has a reputation for having a large ego and a low threshold of interest (shall we say) in other people's opinions about what decisions he should make. The night after our conversation on the soccer field, we talked about that - about his combative, egocentric personality - during dinner at Budapest's Hotel Intercontinental, where he's staying. (Our meal began on a note that made me thankful the chef wasn't listening: "When I'm on a location I pick a restaurant that's close and private and eat all my meals there," Stallone said. "This table we're sitting at is directly above my room. That's all the farther I want to go." Pause. "When I was a kid, my mother used to feed me mashed-potato sandwiches, brussels sprout sandwiches, my brain cells were starving from lack of food. I'll eat anything. I'll eat dirt."
"I got into a lot of trouble with the first interviews I started giving after 'Rocky' came out," he said. "I kept some tapes of some of them and I was listening to them the other day. I come over with a pretty big opinion of myself, and I said a lot of things that were supposed to be funny but weren't. I got the critics down on me and they retaliated by attacking 'Paradise Alley.' Call it insatiable retribution.
"These days, I'm not one-half as aggressive as I was. I've been working on it. People have seemed to notice it. My energy level is just as high, but I can be more impersonal about myself. I'm learning to take life at face value. Instead of my greed, my demands, I'm turning things over to fate. I was always so serious about everything! Who was I trying to impress? I brought a lot of trouble down on myself. If you're too envious, too hostile, it all comes pouring down on you. There's a natural law of karma that vindictive people, who go out of their way to hurt others, will end up broke and alone." He ordered dinner (deciding on pheasant on wild rice, after all, instead of dirt), sat back in his chair, and said it was all really very simple: "We all really only want one thing. To be happy, and to achieve total fulfillment on all conscious levels."
That's a fairly large order, I said.
"But simple. All basic laws are very simple. Working on 'Nighthawks,' for example, I spent 15 weeks in almost, total seclusion in my hotel room, between scenes. Those were the most stressful moments of my life. There had to be another answer. Not drugs: They're a psychological elevator. They move you up, they move you down, but they don't move you ahead. I finally just realized I was taking everything so damned seriously that I was wrecking my own peace of mind. I had to learn to let go.
"Part of the problem is being identified so completely with a character. People are nuts about Rocky. The first movie just opened here in Hungary recently. You should have seen the posters: I'm in the ring with my hat on, I look like some kind of clown. And yet, the other day we went to the Hungarian-Austrian soccer game, and coming out of the stadium I thought our car would be mobbed. If I'd have gotten out of that car, I would have been goulash.
"There's a price you pay. Working in this business, I've met some of the champions, and tried to figure out how they do it. Training for 'Rocky,' I boxed with Muhammad Ali. Learning how to play soccer...tomorrow morning, I'm gonna get lessons from Pele. What's next? I need a little quiet. Maybe chess with Bobby Fischer."
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