Some thoughts on Rambo (2008) — or as Alex Muniz calls it, Rambo IV — on this, the day after I first saw it.
In his review of the film, A.O. Scott notes that Rambo’s name “is sometimes still used, perhaps a bit unfairly, as a synonym for revanchist, go-it-alone militarism.” Note the parenthetical “perhaps a bit unfairly,” for Rambo’s politics — and for that matter the politics of Rambo franchise — have always been more a bit more complicated than most people think.
Stallone maintains that Rambo himself is apolitical, and suggests that Reagan is the reason everyone thinks of him as an essentially conservative, reactionary character:
Rambo has always been apolitical, but once Ronald Reagan, who I admired, stated, “Rambo is a republican.” In some reference to Rambo and Gadhafi in the ’80s, that sort of sealed my fate and since then Rambo has always been equated with America’s military aggressiveness, but nothing could be further from the truth. Rambo is a solitary creature, not part of any military machine.
In short, according to Stallone, Rambo is a loner, a warrior.
Tom Lutz, by contrast, in his wonderful book Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears, sees Rambo as a liminal figure:
Rambo was an ambiguous hero, of course, not the tough John Wayne type … or the neotough Clint Eastwood. Rambo straddled the cultural conflict between the peaceniks and law-and-order forces, a hippie Green Beret, a decorated macho killer with long hair and antiestablishment anger: when the [first Rambo] film opened in 1982, Variety deemed the film itself “socially irresponsible.” Rambo’s position on the margin allows him to act in ways unavailable to the men around him, men in more obviously proscribed social roles. He knows no fear and feels no physical pain, but sobs and moans and cries out his emotional woe. Unlike the Greek hero who is expected to cry because he is heroic, Rambo earns the right to violate the macho prohibition against crying (as does Stallone’s previous character, Rocky) through his heroism.
(Of course, one could argue that the Rambo of Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Rambo III (1988) is more conservative than the Rambo of the first film, but even in these films it’s not quite as cut and dry as people make it out to be. In Rambo III, for instance, Rambo fights on behalf of the Mujahedeen!)
In his aforementioned review, Scott brushes aside questions about Rambo’s politics by suggesting that what’s really important is (1) the quality of the films and (2) how similar Rambo is to the archetypal male characters found in Westerns and Samurai films, two genres with considerably more status among the so-called chattering classes than action films. Scott writes:
The first installments in the cycle were better films than polite opinion might lead you to believe. At the time their politics made some people nervous, but to dwell on Rambo’s ideological significance was (and still is) to miss his kinship with the samurais and gunslingers of older movies.
My point here is to suggest that Rambo (both the character and the movie franchise) deserve to be taken seriously. To its credit, the New York Times published an article titled “Tough Guys For Tough Times” a couple weeks ago that I blogged briefly about. The article unfortunately perpetuates some of the one-dimensional thinking that I have tried to complicate above by including Rambo in a list of the “leading action symbols of the Reagan era — with all their excess, jingoism and good vs. evil bombast,” but it at least tries to make sense of why, two decades after Rambo III, Rambo is suddenly back.
Sociological and cultural reasons aside, the obvious reason, of course, is so Stallone can cash in on his second-most successful screen persona before he gets too old. I wonder, however, if Stallone just wanted a crack at directing a Rambo film? Maybe he thought he could do better than Ted Kotcheff, George P. Cosmatos, and Peter MacDonald, the directors of the first three Rambo films, respectively.
Did he do better? I don’t think so — the characters are paper thin even by action movie standards, the Herschell Gordon Lewis-style gore was a little too one-note for me, and action set-pieces aren’t particularly clever, save perhaps for the scene were Rambo dispatches a group of bad guys with his bow and arrow while a well-armed team of mercenaries cowers on the hill above — but Rambo is still a fascinating film for all sorts of reasons.
I was surprised, for instance, by how critical it was of missionary/relief work. The white bourgeois Christian group from Colorado that engage Rambo to take them into Burma are presented at best as naive, at worst as contributing to the destabilization of the region by sticking their noses in other people’s business. “Go home,” Rambo tells them at one point. A case probably could be made that the movie is actually anti-Christian. It certainly seems contemptuous of humanitarian efforts, religiously based or otherwise, which is odd considering that one of Stallone’s reasons for setting the film in Burma, at least according to his comments on Ain’t It Cool News, was to draw attention to the injustices there.
Military intervention is hardly presented in a better light. The mercenaries are just as incompetent as the missionaries. In the world of the Rambo movies, the only solution to a problem is Rambo. Anything short of Rambo is doomed to failure.
Yet as critical of the movie is of missionary/relief work and military intervention, it also falls into the trap of presenting the Burmese people (both the good guys and the bad guys, I thought) as non-white, primitive “Others.” Whatever light is shed on the problems of Burma, it’s overshadowed by the implicit message that whatever is going on over there in the jungle isn’t something “we” (read: white Americans) have to worry about, unless of course, we’re stupid enough to try and help. For this reason, a case probably also could be made that the movie is racist.
Some might read all this ambivalence as a deceptively sophisticated problemization of American foreign policy, but I don’t think I’d be that generous. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it confused, but I will say it’s complicated, which is what the Rambo franchise ultimately is, despite people’s attempts to reduce to something that’s anything but.
In his laconic liminality Rambo is perhaps the more fitting antecedent to Jason Bourne then, say, James Bond or Ethan Hunt. One might even go so far as to suggest an ideological affinity between the two, however mired in ambiguity.
Good point, Adam. What’s interesting is that people often talk about Bourne as a “thinking man’s action hero,” or an action hero for people on the left. But maybe Rambo and Bourne are more similar than people think!
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Rambo sees the world as it is, and uses violence only to rescue or defend. He doesn’t fight for the military, or a Nation, he fights for rescue and survival only.