Tag Archives: Stallone

Over the Top

The Mind Is the Best Weapon

Excerpts from Matthew Cheney’s extraordinary essay on Rambo II:

Rambo II is a movie filled almost entirely with enemies … Rambo is a character who is thwarted at every step by people who can only be described by a thesaurus entry: lying, untruthful, dishonest, deceitful, false, dissembling, insincere, disingenuous, hypocritical, fraudulent, double-dealing, two-faced, two-timing, duplicitous, perfidious, perjured; antonym: truthful. Early in the film, Rambo says to Col. Trautman (Crenna), “You’re the only one I trust,” and both that trust and his distrust of everyone else is revealed to be utterly justified—it turns out he’s been sent back to Vietnam to a camp where the military thinks no POWs are. The politicians want him to show the world that the camp is empty so that the war can be, along with its warriors, finally forgotten. When Rambo is spotted running with one of the prisoners, the commander who sent him into the jungle orders the rescue mission to abort, and once again the grunts are abandoned by their country. It’s up to Rambo to fix it.

But Rambo is more than just the Avenger of Vietnam. He’s also Natty Bumppo and Tarzan, the man who lives best outside civilization, the man whose superpowers come from mixing the best of the “savage” world with the natural superiority of the white man. He can’t live in the United States any more than Tarzan can stay in Wisconsin; he’s too pure, too truly, archetypally American for the fallen world the US of A has become since those perfect days of 1776. His final act, after killing hordes of undifferentiated Vietnamese and scheming Russians (thus avenging the failures of the Vietnam War and furthering the cause of the Cold War at the same time), is to return to base and blow away a room full of computer terminals with an M60E3 heavy machine gun. These are the computers that the (lying, untruthful, dishonest, etc.) Murdock had told Rambo were the best technology available, and thus the best weapons, to which Rambo said, “I always believed the mind is the best weapon.” Murdock replied, “Times change,” and Rambo muttered, “For some people.”

Because he rejects computers does not mean Rambo rejects technology. His mind is pure, but his hands are aided by weapons he and the camera revere, the tools that are an extension of his own perfection. An early sequence intercuts shots of Murdock and the computers with shots of Rambo preparing himself for battle. Trautman calls him “a pure fighting machine with only a desire to win a war that someone else lost.” (The fighting machine—Rambo as cyborg.) Moments later, after Trautman has said, “What you choose to call hell, he calls home,” and after a few brief shots of a jet engine and the plane itself being fueled (the machine, warming up), we cut to Rambo’s sweaty, muscled shoulder.

There is no hesitation, no weakness. He moves silently through the jungle, a force of destruction first against the Soviet soldiers, then the Vietnamese. He is silent and invisible. He molds the Earth around him—the landscape itself is his weapon, and he is an extension of it. He reaches out of the darkness like a deadly vine to pull one victim down into a crevice. He vanishes into the mud, like Predator or Swamp Thing. His bullets reach out from everywhere, and they never miss their mark. But bullets aren’t enough—he has saved his exploding arrow tips, and now they fly through the air, bringing immense plumes of fire to all the heretics. Water and fire dance throughout these scenes, culminating in a sequence at a waterfall where a Vietnamese soldier shoots ineffectively at Rambo and then is vaporized by the Arrow of God.

The scenes, despite how much I revile their morality and politics, still bring shivers to my spine, gooseflesh to my own so un-Rambo arms. No matter the tortured screams of my inner pacifist, the archetype of the individual laying waste to forces of evil remains gripping.

And they say film criticism is dead. Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing. Not only is it easily the best essay I’ve ever read on Rambo II (and I’ve read a lot of stuff about Rambo II), it’s a touching piece about the author’s father.

And don’t miss the related conversation between Brandon Soderberg and Benjamin Marra in which the term “New Wave of Hollywood Action” is coined, Cobra (a personal favorite of mine) is referred to as “one of the best action movies to come out of the ’80s,” and Stallone the actor is positioned as a Marlon Brando disciple: “All wounded, mumbly naturalism.” Soderberg and Marra sound like they’d be fun to hang out with.

Related posts: “The Default State for Most of Humanity” and “Rambo (IV).”

Rambo (IV)

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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.