Rambo is currently screening with a trailer for a movie called Son of Rambow [sic], a Sundance-featured comedy about two English lads in the 1980s whose admiration for the Sylvester Stallone character inspires them to make their own movie.
The young actors could be Stallone’s grandsons. It’s been 26 years since the release of First Blood, the debut of his traumatized, taciturn, trigger-happy Vietnam vet, and quite a lot has changed. Disgruntled and dysfunctional in the first film, John Rambo became an icon, thanks to Rambo: First Blood Part II, in which he went back to Nam and did his best to win that damned war after all. In Rambo III (1988), he broadened his anti-Commie efforts to Afghanistan, where he helped out some friendly freedom fighters known as the Mujahideen.
Yes, quite a lot has changed. But don’t tell that to Rambo, who’s now pushing retirement age. Languishing in the jungles of Thailand, where he makes a living capturing lethal cobras for snake charmers, Rambo doesn’t like it when people ask him to re-evaluate his life. “Nothing ever changes,” he grumbles at a pretty blonde missionary (Julie Benz), who’s employed his services as a boatman so she can bring medical supplies to Burmese villagers oppressed by their nation’s brutal military regime. When one of her companions suggests that his defeatist attitude will never change the world, Stallone growls, “Fuck the world.”
Clearly, the guy needs to rediscover his purpose in life — and he does, when the do-gooders go missing. Having taken a shine to Benz and her feisty ways, Rambo heads into the genocide zone, along with a multinational band of salty-tongued mercenaries. Meanwhile, the good American churchmen and woman are being held in a prison camp where soldiers “give you to the pigs” if you look at them wrong.
After Rambo stands up and fires his first arrow, plot developments are negligible. It’s all about the action, which comes fast and furious enough to satisfy any fan of the series. This being 2008, “action” means shaky-cam and vast quantities of computer-generated shrapnel. Under the sure hand of director and co-writer Stallone, people get eviscerated before our eyes, and blood spurts everywhere, video-game-style.
But, gory cartoon though it may be, the movie also features fleeting glimpses of realistic atrocities. Its morality is simple, but surprisingly sensible. As he forges his own weapons, like a Wagner hero, Rambo regrets his past excesses: “I killed, but not for my country. For myself,” he laments in perhaps his most verbose moment. In the end, of course, Rambo (re-)learns that killing is A-OK as long as you do it to save somebody good, and the missionaries, who preach non-violence, learn that a hard rock or a bunch of explosives comes in handy from time to time.
Question is: What is Rambo doing in Burma, with its authentic but low-profile human-rights crisis? Why isn’t he hunting down Osama bin Laden, or helping George Bush make good on “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq? Here we are embroiled in a conflict that draws comparisons to Vietnam, and even Rambo has no interest in wading through the quagmire. Maybe the difficulty of sorting out bad-guy from good-guy factions in the Middle East, of parsing the competing interests of Shia and Sunni and Kurds, has something to do with it.
Or maybe he’s just old — meaning Rambo and Stallone, who may have no interest in courting fresh controversy. Back in 1985, the other Rambo drew a firestorm of criticism from viewers who objected to its message that we could have won in Vietnam if we’d only had the balls. Taking a slightly different tack, Pauline Kael derided the flick for its over-the-topness: “Rambo is to the action film what Flashdance was to the musical,” she wrote, noting that “audiences are laughing at it.”
And they’re still laughing, if the showing I attended is any indication — but also gasping with excitement and anticipation of the next mammoth explosion. Campy and Son of Rambow-worthy as he may be, Stallone’s scary soldier has passed into the realm of myth.