Sylvester Stallone, Neve Campbell, and Undead Franchises

The past couple of days have seen two actors who’ve played iconic characters in genre films, characters who’ve spawned beloved franchises, say that they’re done playing the parts that have meant so much to them and their fans. First, Sylvester Stallone spoke to an audience at the Toronto Film Festival – where he was promoting his upcoming documentary Sly (could it have been named anything else?), which will close out the fest – and said he’s likely done with John Rambo, the hero of First Blood and its sequels. You can see his remarks in the video below, courtesy of Joblo:

First off, he’s right about Cobra; I know people love that movie, but I think it was a cool concept and had a lot of the right ingredients (especially the cast), but it could have been better. But insofar as Rambo, he sounds like he’s done, not knowing where he can take the character at this point. And again, Sly is right. The proper ending for Rambo was in the fourth film, Rambo (the title scheme of this series gives the Fast and Furious franchise a run for its money in the convoluted department), which mirrored the opening scene of First Blood; Rambo had finally come home, but this time, he knew where he was going and what he was doing. And it’s not a cheap, empty callback; it was earned through all three sequels, each one pushing Rambo to find himself just a little bit more until he was ready to return to the country that turned its back on him after he’d served it with honor. (The fifth one was a direct-to-video-quality mistake that nobody involved could have possibly cared about; it also doesn’t exist, so I don’t even know what I’m talking about.)

Next was Neve Campbell, who played Sidney Prescott, the best final girl of all time, in the first four Scream movies. Scream 6 was the only one in which she didn’t appear, and it was because she wasn’t going to be paid what she felt she was worth. Campbell was also at the Toronto Film Festival, where a ballet documentary she executive-produced called Swan Song is premiering, and a reporter from KiSS 92.5 asked her about returning as Sidney:

What a little creep this guy is. He posed that question to her like she’s being greedy and hurting the fans by not accepting whatever pittance they’re throwing her. On the larger issue, I’m not sure if I believe it’s a sexist thing and she’d be offered more if she were a man. But I definitely believe they’re lowballing her, especially because the franchise now exists without her in the lead and is still making a lot of money. They don’t think they need her anymore, so they’re not going to pay her what she wants. And I don’t blame her for not taking it; why should she settle for less than she’s worth for what will amount to a token cameo in a series that was centered around her but has been given to a bunch of lousy characters played by lousy actors (Jenna Ortega excepted)? She has no responsibility to anyone to do that, and she was a lot more gracious with that reporter than she had to be.

But these two incidents at the Toronto Film Festival lead me to a bigger point about franchises: they aren’t allowed to die anymore, and the studios behind them are so soulless they’ll keep them going in any form they can hammer them into, regardless of the result, as long as there’s money to be had. From a storytelling standpoint, Scream is entirely dependent on Sidney Prescott. She is the protagonist, the perennial target of Ghostface (whoever he – or they – may be), the reason for the original killer(s) and all subsequent copycats. And each film functioned as a new leg of her character arc, from innocent teen caught up in a murder spree to damaged young adult who can’t escape the horror or its impact on her life to recluse drawn back into the killings to somewhat-adjusted adult who tries to take charge of her past but faces a new generation trying to resurrect it.

Then, Scream 5 came along and actually transferred the Ghostface “curse” to someone else, removing Sidney from her own story. If it sounds stupid, that’s because it is; it’s a cheap way of keeping Scream going, and I mean cheap in more ways than one because I doubt Melissa Barrera commands a salary approaching Neve Campbell’s. But aside from that, Campbell is going to be 50 in a couple of weeks, and they want a new generation of Scream fans, so they’re happy to push her out for some young’uns. They even called the fifth film Scream instead of Scream 5, like they were saying that it was the original’s replacement. This is Scream in name only now, just another disposable slasher franchise with a familiar name.

The same may be happening with Rambo. Last year, Stallone did an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in which he said what the plans are for more Rambo films:

“I think it’s going to happen. I wanted to do it like a Ken Burns documentary on Vietnam, where you drop young Rambo in there and he’s this outgoing guy, football captain, and then you see why he becomes Rambo. But what they want to do is a modern-day story where I pass the torch. That’s getting close.”

Both of those ideas are terrible because they involve someone else playing John Rambo. We don’t need a Rambo prequel; if we did, First Blood wouldn’t have worked. We know everything we need to know about his past, and a prequel would just be a novelty. Moreover, Rambo has become a character so tied with Sylvester Stallone that nobody else can play him. I know it was a book first (and the book is outstanding, very different from the film, and absolutely worth a read), but it’s been too long, and there have been too many sequels over too big a time frame. This is Sly’s character, and that means no remake, no recasting, no “Young Rambo” played by Alden Ehrenreich (or whoever follows in his footsteps and accepts the fool’s errand of stepping into an iconic pair of boots not meant for anyone but their true owner).

But the “passing the torch” idea is just as dumb. There is no torch to pass; John Rambo is a singular character, not some title or code name. (Neither is James Bond, while we’re on the subject.) You can’t have someone else carry on a franchise named after him. I’m sure they’ll think of something stupid, like saying he has a long-lost son (oh, who am I kidding; it’ll be a long-lost daughter) who all of a sudden takes on the name Rambo and has his/her father’s exact skill set. Moreover, I’m sure we’ll have to watch Rambo die, apologizing for ever existing and being toxically masculine the whole time. Does that sound like something anyone wants to watch?

But that’s the rub: people do watch this stuff sometimes. Scream 5 and Scream 6 made a lot of money (though not as much as the first two, even without adjusting for inflation), so the studio has no incentive to either stop making Scream movies or center them on Sidney Prescott. I don’t think the same would be true of Rambo movies without Rambo or Stallone, but you never know. I won’t be surprised if Hollywood keeps moving franchises past their heroes, at least until they’re told unequivocally that it won’t be profitable. So there’ll probably be a new John Rambo at some point, and Neve Campbell likely won’t be paid enough money to return as Sidney Prescott. “Let the past die” is now Tinseltown’s mantra – although they’re perfectly happy to squeeze what they can from the corpse.

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