Kill One for the Gipper

20 years later, our bandanna’d national treasure is still kicking ass and taking names

He's back—unflagging, indestructible, super-colossal. Through this epoch-defining figure one may refract American history. John Updike has his Rabbit Angstrom and Philip Roth his Nathan Zuckerman, but who are they compared to John Rambo, woken from a 20-year sleep in Rambo: "A Film," as the credits have it, "By Sylvester Stallone."

A veteran now in his 60s (as well as of them), Rambo has chosen to spend his retirement in deepest Thailand, dreamily fishing with a bow and arrow or capturing cobras for a backwater snake show. He's still wearing his trademark bandanna (over a wig hat, unless the still-luxuriant coiffure is a function of the HGH that the star has admitted using). More to the point, he remains unreconciled, still nursing that thousand-yard stare and schlepping a cargo of resentment. Rambo's first line of dialogue is the traditional "Fuck off!," delivered over his shoulder at his jabbering gook boss.

What crisis has disturbed the creature's slumber and brought him back to life? Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Hugo Chávez? Somewhere in the Ramboverse, there's been a chemical-weapon attack—it's the crisis in Burma! Accompanied by newsreels too grisly for the Human Rights Film Festival, Rambo explains that Christian farmers have been singled out for extermination, their rice paddies turned into killing fields. Rambo is approached by a church-sponsored group of idealistic American doctors looking for a way to enter Burma and save a bit of the world. Will he ferry them upriver? "Fuck the world," he tells the group's wimpy leader (Paul Schulze).

I’ll show you trickle-down economics!
Lions Gate Entertainment
I’ll show you trickle-down economics!


Directed by Sylvester Stallone
Lionsgate Films, now playing

The expedition's lone woman (Julie Benz) tries to reason with the Rambot: "We're here to make a difference," she insists. "What is is what is," he explains Buddhistically. But when she remarks that he must have believed in something once, Rambo relents. Naturally, his worst fears about human nature are immediately confirmed once their boat is attacked by slavering river pirates who want nothing more than to kidnap and ravish the White Woman. Rambo liquefies the scum. The Christians are appalled ("Taking a life is never right," the Schulze character whines), but the mission continues.

A sort of parody Apocalypse Now, complete with listless coochie dancers entertaining the Burmese troops, the movie finds its own heart of darkness once Rambo drops the doctors in Burma. No sooner have they begun nursing the maimed and ministering to the mutilated when ka-BLAAAAM!!!!!! The local storm troopers attack, stabbing children, blowing up houses, massacring old people, and making off with the WW—the village left looking like Jonestown after the Kool-Aid.

Rambo has the feel of a terminal Vietnam flick. The absence of choppers hovering like angels overhead only reinforces the sense of abandonment in this green hell. Smeary black-and-white clips from Rambo: First Blood Part II establish historical perspective, such as it is, and function as the turgid nightmare from which the hero is trying to awake—and which is, in fact, interrupted by another pastor pleading with him to help rescue the captives. Strapping on his mega-bowie knife and leading a band of screwball mercenaries into the jungle ("Live for nothing or die for something"), Rambo penetrates the storm trooper stronghold just as the rape orgy commences and initiates his own bloodbath. It's a reasonably entertaining spectacle replete with half-animated action sequences in which CGI bodies disintegrate like breakaway bottles.

After 20 years in remission, Rambo remains tough enough to rip out a guy's throat with one hand, smart enough to assemble something like a tactical nuclear device while galumphing through the underbrush with Burmese police dogs nipping at his keister, and noble enough to pose for Mount Rushmore. He finishes the job and, his curiosity whetted by the White Woman, goes home to "the world." But this is where, 26 years ago, First Blood began—can the Rambodyssey really be over?

At once cowboy and Indian, GI and VC, Rambo was arguably the great pop icon of the Vietnam War. Or rather, this puppy-eyed, Nautilus-built killing machine was the great pop icon of the decade-after Vietnam War revisionism that characterized the reign of Ronald Reagan. It's as though the ongoing political discourse, with some politicians claiming to be the new Reagan and others denying it, had conjured his reappearance: Rambo redux.

Back in 1982, First Blood gave the cliché of the psychotic Vietnam vet a novel twist. Driven to run amok in the Pacific Northwest, Stallone's sweet but implacable Green Beret was misunderstood and unappreciated. He was a victim not only of the war overseas but the one at home— another longhair vagrant persecuted by the pigs. First Blood was constructed to appeal to hawks and doves alike and, however schematic, struck a responsive chord. It was an unexpected hit, the movie that dethroned ET as the nation's No. 1 box-office attraction and gave Stallone his first real success outside the Rocky cycle, returning him to the charmed circle of bankable stars.

Three years later, Rambo: First Blood Part II provided Stallone the muscle to elbow aside Clint Eastwood at the top of the list. Sprung from the prison where his earlier rampage landed him, the Green Beret extraordinaire was recruited to parachute back into Nam on a 36-hour mission to find and photograph 2,500 MIAs (who are actually POWs). Bucking orders, he leads them to freedom. The scenario effectively reworked the previous year's Uncommon Valor and Missing in Action, with a greater body count and more explicit meaning. "Sir, do we win this time?" Rambo plaintively asks his Green Beret guru. Affirmative to the max!

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