dir: Sylvester Stallone
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Some things are just unbelievable, even when you see them with your own eyes. I had heard the level of violence in this film described to me by a friend, but even then I had no idea just how incredibly violent it would be.
This is one of the first times I’ve watched a flick with war footage where I seriously think actual war footage wouldn’t be as graphic and violent. Just think of that irony: an actual war would be less violent than hopefully the last flick in this holy franchise.
Oh sure, all the Rambo films have been violent, but that violence, viewed now, of a mannequin of a camp commandant being blown apart by an exploding arrow, or the torture of numerous poor shmucks at the hands of America’s enemies, seems positively quaint in comparison. Ah, the wonders of modern technology.
I’m not sure how this works, but we went from First Blood, to Rambo II: Electric Boogaloo, to Rambo III to this latest flick, titled Rambo. No, we haven’t gone back in time. No, you don’t have to go through the misery of high school and your first humiliating sexual encounters again.
For many of us, Rambo is an aspect of our past best kept there, much like the other legacies of the 80s such as bad hairstyles, stupid fingerless gloves and acid wash jeans. The image is of an incredibly muscled, red bandana wearing crazy person clutching a very big gun. He stood for a lot of things, including the lost pioneer spirit of rugged individualism, the loss of innocence through the Vietnam War, and what taking too many steroids can do to a man. Mostly, from the first film to the third, he went from being a dark part of America’s psyche to being a beacon of American exceptionalism.
He starts off a wounded, traumatised product of not just the Vietnam war, but of the shabby treatment meted out by the American government and public upon the Nam veteran’s return. By the second film, he’s undoing America’s shame at losing the Vietnam war by getting revenge on the scum keeping John McCain and other POWs hostage. In the third he was effectively supporting the State Department’s foreign policy objectives by helping out Omar Sharrif and the other mujahadeen freedom fighters in Afghanistan trying to repel the Soviet invaders.
The delicious irony of it. I must have missed the touching deleted scene where John Rambo hugs a certain Bin Laden and tells his to stay in touch via being pen pals later on. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the second and third instalments are pretty crappy films. Not crappy by the standards of mindless action blockbusters, but bad compared to, say, other actual films.
This fourth one is something of an enigma. It is one of the most gratuitously violent films ever committed to celluloid, but it just seems unlikely that Stallone did it just for the sake of doing it. He’s not hard up for money, and seems to have no problem purchasing all the Human Growth Hormone and embryonic stem cells he desires. And his most recent film, Rocky Balboa, was also a moderate critical and financial success, against all logic and sense of human decency.
It can’t be a coincidence that he’s decided to cap off his two most well known characters in such a way. A sixth Rocky film, which no-one in the world wanted, is called Rocky Balboa depicting him again as the eternal underdog. A fourth film about Rambo is just called Rambo. Is it a reversion to the basics, a return to form, a pared-down, purified restating of who and what these characters stand for?
Who knows what demonic forces battle it out within Stallone’s skull. On the one hand he seemed to want to leave the world with a positive, uplifting message of contemporary relevance from his most ‘loveable’ character. And now he seems to want to leave the world with the impression that his days and nights, his dreams and nightmares, are soaked in the blood of the innocent and the viscera of the guilty.
Rambo clearly is still damaged from, um, stuff. In the twenty or so years since he last saw action, he seems to have been perfectly content operating a boat and catching cobras on the Thai-Burma border. He looks and acts even more like a parody of Frankenstein’s monster than ever before. Every line of dialogue is grunted out like someone is twisting a knife in his belly every time he speaks. For him there are no light moment, no rainbows, no pleasure or respite from the grim misery that is his tormented existence.
At the film’s very beginning, in case we had no idea what we were getting into, actual news footage of slaughter and butchery by the Burmese military against civilians, monks and Karen rebels suffuse the screen. As an entry point, I have to say I was sickened even before Stallone’s strained countenance graced the screen.
Grimly resolved to living his life in virtual isolation, Rambo is approached by some American missionaries who demand that he take them up river into Burma so they can deliver prayer books and medical care to the mostly Christian rebels. Rambo gruntingly refuses, until an attractive blonde missionary (Julie Benz) asks him nicely. They argue back and forth in what constitutes an ethical debate for this film’s purposes, being Missionary Girl’s position that they have to help where they can, and Rambo’s position being “Fuck the World.”
When he said that I had a flashback to an old t-shirt I remember from legendary Melbourne punk band Bastard Squad that had an image of a brutish thug with his pants around his ankles actually fucking the world. Then of course I juxtaposed Stallone into the graphic. Now you’ve had a glimpse into the ugly, erratic nightmare landscape that is the inside of my head, let alone Stallone’s. At least I’m not going to make films about it.
Eventually, being around a blonde white woman softens up his stoic demeanour long enough for him to agree to take them where they want to go upriver, making you wonder when Martin Sheen, Lawrence Fishburn and Marlon Brando are going to turn up. Their passage upriver is interrupted by the first of many threats of rape that Rambo greets with his customary sensitivity and tact by killing everyone and burning the bodies.
In case you think the flick is capable of nuance or subtlety, Rambo is constantly pushed, at first, into situations where to not kill people would result in innocent people dying. He is criticised for this by the missionaries, who, being people who only have sex in one position, are understandably naïve about how the world works.
Because this is what the film, when it’s not annihilating large groups of people, boils down to: the luxury of idealism and faith, and its uselessness in the face of the brutality of evil men.
And boy are these Burmese evil. Stallone is worried that audiences won’t sufficiently feel justified when he starts killing them in large numbers, so he has them perpetrating every outrage that most people could ever imagine or ever want to imagine on innocent people. When Burmese soldiers aren’t forcing villagers to run through minefields and then shooting those who don’t explode in vivid bursts of bloodspray and flying limbs as a reward, they’re raping villagers, throwing children into fires, raining down mortar fire on women and children, using napalm for laughs and feeding missionaries to pigs whilst they’re still alive.
If that wasn’t enough, and I assure you it was, before what has to be the ultimate slaughter, just in case audiences didn’t sufficiently hate the villains of the piece enough, he has a whole group of soldiers terrorising some kidnapped female villagers by forcing them to dance and then gang raping them, all whilst the camp commander molests a teenage boy.
I’m surprised there wasn’t a scene where they sodomise the Pope with a statue of the Virgin Mary whilst eating foetus burgers and wiping their mouths on the American flag.
Technology is where the real advance has occurred, clearly not in Stallone or Rambo’s thinking. CGI, and the will to use it, is what makes it affordable and, I guess desirable for Stallone to have so many people die in the nastiest ways possible. Gunshots don’t just fell soldiers and villagers alike: they amputate limbs, completely remove heads or practically annihilate people so that they are little more than a bloody rain when their body parts hit the ground. Even the relatively ‘harmless’ gunshots from AK-47s, let alone the 50 calibre guns, blow holes the size of watermelons in people. All of this is rendered with such attention and such clear intention to make it as graphic and as extreme as possible that you seriously wonder what is going through Stallone’s hormone-addled head.
Although, I have to say, there were times where I thought that maybe Rambo was the darkest comedy ever made.
Sure, there’s no implication that Rambo isn’t a hero, but he’s probably the nastiest rendering, the least sympathetic American action ‘hero’ that we’re ever likely to see. Stallone doesn’t have the complexity of concept to think about whether Rambo is a figure even more monstrous than the villains, but he is certainly a monstrous figure to the audience. I know plenty of people would still want to pump their fists in the air and bellow USA! USA! USA!, but honestly, the bodies being put through the visual meat grinder, and the maniacal fury with which Rambo dispatches his opponents, should really have the opposite effect on sane, healthy people.
It’s hard to discount or completely dismiss the movie as an exercise in transgression, as a harkening back to a simpler, gentler time when violence for violence’s sake was more accepted. And I’m not comfortable dismissing Stallone’s return to this character as some twisted neo-conservative argument for military intervention in places like Burma, Darfur, Kenya or Byron Bay. The news footage used at the beginning, manipulative as it is, is a keen reminder that as ludicrous as a film this violent is, there are atrocities occurring like this daily. The Burmese military junta has perpetrated countless violations and horrors on the Burmese people, Karen tribespeople and plenty of others. This stuff does happen, and it isn’t stopped with the best of intentions and noblest of wishes.
He doesn’t present a solution that any sane person would accept (being ‘kill them all’), but he does understand the cathartic aesthetic value of destruction, and what he thinks audiences want to get from a Rambo movie. Part of me imagines a death cult arising in some corner of South-East Asia where worshippers build shrines and make bloody offerings to Rambo the Destroyer. Shiva, Kali and Jesus would have nothing on him. Stranger things have happened.
I can’t recommend the flick to anyone, even gorehounds, but it makes for surreal, repellent, repugnant, compelling viewing. It’s the kind of flick the military will be showing its recruits in training for decades to come. And that’s a seal of approval if there ever was one.
7 instances in which I just could not believe what I was seeing out of 10
“You didn't kill for your country... you killed for yourself.” - Rambo