Maybe you’re old enough to remember. There was a time in the 1980s when the Rambo movies were well-nigh ubiquitous. Even then-president Ronald Reagan, who thought real life was a movie, quoted the films. Rambo, with his impossible biceps, for better or worse, here at home and especially abroad, became a symbol of America – charging into action unilaterally and unleashing its fury.
After the release of the sequels, I remember cartoons in Mad Magazine that depicted Sylvester Stallone in Rocky Nine , still in the ring but wearing an adult diaper. Who could have guessed that the joke was on us? Last year, at the age of 60, Stallone put on the gloves again, writing and directing a new Rocky picture for himself. “There’s still some stuff in the basement,” Rocky said. Now, Stallone has dusted off the headband and resurrected his other legendary character.
As you recall, or maybe you don’t, John Rambo is a Vietnam vet, scarred by the war, abandoned by his country. As was common in 80s action films, which had a weird masochistic bent, he was tortured by one set of bad guys or the other, gathering righteous indignation like a hurricane over the ocean. By the end of the film, he had become an act of God, able to mop up entire armies like French bread does a plate of marinara.
But in this new film, gone is that wounded, self-righteous, hangdog hero. In his place is a holy warrior who has owned his violent tendencies. Rambo has spent the last decade or so doing what action heroes do on their downtime, when they’re not playing at Governor. He’s living in Thailand, ferrying folks up and down the river in a skiff, catching poisonous snakes and shooting at fish with his compound bow.
Rambo has always needed a theater and a conflict to ply his trade, such as the struggle of the mujahadeen against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Now, the ethnic cleansing in Burma is his new raison detre. A group of ridiculously naïve white missionaries talks Rambo into boating their humanitarian aspirations across the border. Their discussions – “It’s always wrong to take a life” versus Rambo’s “killing is as easy as breathing” – come in dialog so painfully bad, that little boat veers directly into the territory of camp.
After Rambo drops them off, it takes about five minutes for the missionaries to be killed or captured. Some of them are fed to giant pigs. Yes, this movie has giant pigs. And rape. And pedophilia. The Burmese militia is shown to be about as evil, and as undifferentiated, as they come. The film conveniently tables a point it raises early on: this is largely a conscription army, presumably made up of young men who were forced to commit atrocities by loading them up with drugs and holding a gun to their heads. No moral ambiguity here, just 100 faceless dudes who desperately need some killing.
This culminates in Rambo wielding a machine gun so big you or I couldn’t lift the bullets to load it. As wave after wave of army guys come at Rambo, the carnage goes so far over the top, the bodies don’t just fall – they explode. It’s a classic piece of bloody ‘80s cheese that makes the 300 Spartans look like underwear models.
The message here, and it’s not a complicated one, is that there are times when it’s necessary to beat your plowshare into a sword, because some people just gotta go. If we had sent Rambo after bin Laden, the job would have gotten done . The missionaries sure change their tune by the end; Michael, their pastor, has picked up a stone with which to crush a skull; and Sarah, the chaste beauty, gazes in awe upon the figure of Rambo on a hill. “Thank you, Mr. Rambo,” she thinks but does not need to say.
So does the movie work? It does, presuming you remember fondly the golden era of action films, when Schwarzenegger could pitch an entire tree over his shoulder. If so, and if you know how to laugh, you might find, as I did, that watching Rambo elicits a glowing glee. New heroes may have replaced him – and he’s okay with that – but Stallone, who has aged like a cliff has aged, is here to remind us: there is one, and only one, Rambo.