Kill One for the Gipper

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

New morning in America: Rambo was the fetish rattle brandished by our national medicine man. During the movie's third boffo week, Hezbollah terrorists hijacked a TWA flight en route from Athens to Rome and forced the plane to land in Beirut, holding it there for 17 days. (After one American hostage was killed, the hijackers released the rest—followed soon after, in an implicit quid pro quo, by Israel freeing a number of Shiite prisoners.) Asked how he would deal with terrorists in the future, Reagan promised to consult his oracle: "After seeing the movie Rambo, I'll know what to do the next time something like this happens." The master of fantasy merged with the fantasy of mastery—Ronbo. Meanwhile, a pumped-up Bruce Springsteen was hailed as the Rambo of Rock. The Vietnamalais was over. America stood at attention.

Released in the Reagan administration's final year, Rambo III was necessarily anticlimactic. Vietnam behind him, Rambo was available for commando work in Afghanistan, teaming with the mujahideen to rescue a captive from the Russian occupying army. (Having fought to make the world safe for bin Laden, sending Rambo back to wipe out the Taliban would seem the least Stallone could do for us.) In September 1990, Stallone was in his kinder, gentler bespectacled phase; the star declared he would never do a Rambo movie about Iraq's occupation of Kuwait. That was minor, "just another speed-bump in history." Instead, his never-realized Rambo IV would focus on "environmental concerns."

How green was my beret. Reviewing Rambo: First Blood Part II, I noted that its protagonist was a symbolic reminder that the Vietnam War would never be behind us: "The bitterness and resentment of the men who fought and lost there is a political time bomb, to be activated anytime between now and 2001"—which then seemed to me like the end of time. I assumed that the Vietnam issue was buried with the 2004 election, in which a meretricious pair of draft-evading warmongers successfully slimed a genuine anti-war war hero. But I was wrong.

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

Stallone may have recently entertained a Time interviewer by quoting an obscure bit of 1968 acid rock as his source of inspiration, but it hardly seems coincidental that as part of Rambo's eve-of-release PR blitz, the star used a Fox News morning show to make a political endorsement: "There's something about matching the character with the script," he explained. "And right now, the script that's being written—and reality—is pretty brutal and pretty hard-edged, like a rough action film, and you need somebody who's been in that to deal with it": Who else but Senator John McCain? (To complete the love fest, as well as the script, McCain has taken to using the Rocky theme as entrance music.)

Hooray for Hollywood: Brian De Palma is hardly the only old New Lefty equating Iraq with Vietnam. But Redacted is "Vietnam: The Bummer." Rambo is something else. Stallone knows that if the Republicans nominate action-hero McCain, Vietnam will return—with bells on. And, back on the national agenda, the war will have to be won again. (All the more if John-bo runs against Hillary: While he was rotting in a tiger cage, she was out waving a Vietcong flag.)

As the current obsession with Reagan suggests, it's back to fantasyland! The Democrats can consider themselves lucky Arnold Schwarzenegger was born in the Austrian zone of the former Third Reich. Meanwhile, McCain rival Mike Huckabee has cast his suitably bargain-basement Reagan-era muscleman as the embodiment of homeland security: "My plan to secure the border? Two words: Chuck Norris." But as McCain's been suggesting, his guy could kick that has-been's butt—and anyway, homeland security begins over there.

Stolidly slaughtering thousands to complete a dubious mission bungled by Christian do-gooders and incompetent bureaucrats, Our Rambo once again frees the captives and redeems the nation. He's not just a rerun but a great second chance, history rewritten. The answer to a Republican prayer, he's economical, too: a one-man surge.

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