Sunday, 22 November 2015

Rambo, Thirty Years Later: Well, That Could Have Been Worse

I was in kind of a silly mood last night, so I watched Rambo: First Blood Part 2 on Netflix, and it reminded me of why 1980s action flicks were so great.

Rambo's such a big part of 80s culture that it's easy (at least for me) to overlook the fact that Sylvester Stallone made only three of those films in that decade, and just two of those are actually what we think of when we hear the name "Rambo" - the first one takes place entirely in the US, and is remarkably bloodless, apart from some accidental collateral damage. It's also surprisingly nuanced and heartfelt, in that it's all about someone coming back from war to find that he doesn't fit in at home anymore. I won't say I was disappointed, exactly, when I saw it a few years ago, but it's fair to say that wasn't the film I'd been expecting.

Rambo 2, on the other hand, must have filled the pockets of fake-blood merchants quite considerably. It's pretty unapologetic about what it is and what it wants to accomplish, and does it with a reasonable economy - no pissing about, he's in Asia within ten minutes, and shooting people full of arrows by about the halfway mark. It's got double-crosses (dishonest politicians, of course), doomed love (in the shape of his Vietnamese contact who gets blown away somewhere in Act 2) and a nicely histrionic but still straight-forward approach to action scenes.

One of the things I lamented most about action movies in the 90s is that they all became a bit too self-aware, which led on the one hand to certain (mostly French) directors trying to make them operatic, and on the other to the effects-heavy approach pioneered by the Matrix.

(You could argue that action movies had a similar evolution to rock music: it got crazy and filled with excess in the 70s - ie Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones - which turned into a parody of itself in the 80s - Styx, Whitesnake - and then was all swept away by grunge in the 90s.)

Rambo also has some pretty questionable politics at its core, which another hallmark of 80s action flicks. When Rambo's being told about his new mission, his only question is, "Will we get to win this time?" I think I get where they were trying to go with that (veterans' sense of betrayal and shame), but it just landed too close to the "stab in the back" accusation that the Nazis used to explain why Germany lost WWI.

Godwin's Law aside, its portrayal of the Vietnamese is not particularly flattering, and when the Russians arrive (in the form of perennial baddie Steven Berkoff), you get the sense that it's some big wish-fulfillment for those asking why we couldn't just go blow up the Russkies and have done with it.

At the same time, though, the slightly less intellectual parts of my brain were just reveling in the sheer ridiculousness of it all. I mean, you have to have a cold, dead heart indeed to not appreciate Rambo shooting a bazooka through the broken windshield of his helicopter to destroy his nemesis, or blowing up the Vietnamese officer with a grenade arrow.

I guess the silliness becomes a little more apparent when we're 30 years off from those days - all I knew about Rambo in the 80s and 90s was that my parents wouldn't have approved of me watching those movies, and that Green Lantern Guy Gardner's love of the character was shown as the worst excesses of Reagan-era right-wing politics.

You could argue that the current crop of Republican candidates shows that things have changed for the worst, but it's hard to imagine a summer tentpole action flick taking on geopolitics so obviously. Although a lot of folks loved American Sniper, which by all accounts was even more reprehensible, so maybe that kind of filmmaking has moved up into the prestige category?

What I'm trying to get at, in any case, is that as awful as the movie and story were, we're far enough away from those days that we can appreciated just how dumb it all is, and revel in that stupidity. In his travel book about the Pacific, Paul Theroux holds up Rambo as the thing that's ruining traditional cultures in the region, but I find it hard to see what all the fuss is about now. I mean, compared to the coups that the CIA was instigating throughout the global south, Rambo seems quite straightforward and broadly harmless.

I don't mean that to negate my political/philosophical objections from a few paragraphs ago - but it's not exactly Birth of a Nation, is it? First Blood Part 2 is violent, brutish and stupid, but unlike, say, Zero Dark Thirty, it doesn't try to glorify the shitty things done in our name - it just presents a simple, black-and-white view of the world. It is entirely itself, without apologies or equivocation, and that's why it works.

Hopefully Rambo III will hold up just as well, though I'm not getting my hopes up.