You can learn everything you need to know about Rambo from the title. It’s short, simple, and blunt. There are no Roman numerals, no colons, no hokey subtitles, no frills or fanciness. It’s not particularly creative, but it’s certainly effective, in a crude, brutish way, because it gets right to the point, and it knows exactly what its audience wants: Rambo, just plain old Rambo, with nothing else in the way.
It’s a simple formula built to showcase a not-so-simple character. When Rambo first emerged in 1982, he was an action hero who refracted the social and political tensions of his era, a long-haired Vietnam vet who lashes out at small-town authorities and complains that war protestors “wouldn’t let us win.” Part hippie, part reactionary, he appealed to both the establishment and the outcasts. As the sequels progressed, though, the character’s blue-collar appeal increased, and he became more violent and more explicitly bent on taking on America’s enemies. Rambo was such a potent symbol that even Ronald Reagan dropped his name. He was an all-American superhero given everyman authenticity by Sylvester Stallone’s bruiser’s glare and authentic Philly mumble.
In the 20 years since John Rambo last waged a one-man war on America’s enemies in Rambo III (tagline: “God would have mercy — John Rambo won’t!”), Rambo has become an American icon, part pop political allusion, part nostalgic kitsch — an over-muscled, hyper-violent cartoon fantasy. (At one point, he was even turned into an actual cartoon character.) Despite the character’s enduring popularity, the type of hero he represents has been sorely lacking in Hollywood, as action films have sought a younger audience, and moved increasingly toward glittery, effects-driven spectacle. Rambo — gruff, grim, and terrifically violent — is in part a reaction to the new-fangled excesses and adolescent bent of modern action film, and a homage to a lost generation of working-man action heroes.
That idea is coded into the very structure of the film. As the film opens, John Rambo is living out his days in Southeast Asia, not far from the border of war-ravaged Burma. He lives a hermit’s life, driving a boat, hammering hot iron, and catching deadly snakes for a living (how’s that for tough?). He’s become a relic, locked in exile from the modern world — which seemingly no longer needs old-fashioned men like him.
He quickly becomes necessary again when a team of missionary doctors from Colorado convince him to take them to Burma in his boat. He resists at first, arguing that their quest is hopeless. “Things never change,” he says. But up the river they go, and before long, the missionaries are captured by a warlord-like Burmese army major, at which point Rambo finds himself again gunning down swarms of foreign regulars. Rambo, it seems, was right: Things don’t change.
One might say the same for the film’s star. Stallone, who directed and co-wrote the film, is now in his sixth decade, has dropped the greased-up body-builder’s look he sported in the early films, but he still looks like a human mountain. Implausibly, he seems to have gotten bigger over the last two decades. Burly and lumbering, with oak-sized arms and a neck the size of a bridge column, his presence has the same imposing quality as a tank — which for all practical purposes he is.
In John Rambo, Stallone presents an unreconstructed vision of old-fashioned masculinity. He doesn’t speak much, except to bark a command or a put-down (the first thing he says is “f**k off”). He’s capable and determined, and the only emotion he expresses is rage. He thinks to himself, “You know what you are. What you’re made of. War is in your blood.” It’s a sentimental, sympathetic portrait, but not always a positive one. Rambo doesn’t live a happy life; he’s an outcast and a misanthrope, and he only seems alive when duty compels him to perform various acts of violence. The old-school macho ethos isn’t celebrated so much as respected; it’s not pleasant, but it is necessary.
This is, by far, the goriest film in a series not exactly known for restraint. Stallone not only bulked up his body, but also the body count. According to Ohio State University’s John Mueller, the movie boasts almost 3 kills per minute. Aficionados of cinematic bloodletting will no doubt be pleased with the requisite variation: hands, knives, compound bows, and a gun-show’s worth of hardware dispatch all manner of villainous foreign enemy.
It’s gruesome and mostly humorless, a wildly over-the-top spectacle that exists solely for its own sake. “This is what we do,” Rambo says. “Live for nothing, or die for something.” Rambo, both the character and the movie, seems designed purely to deliver this sort of gut-busting jolt; violence, or its possibility, energizes every frame of the film, and gives it and its main character a reason for being.
There’s a strange comfort in Rambo’s “this is what we do” sentiment, a certainty that used to pervade a certain type of action film, and it helps explains the film’s blue-collar popularity. It’s an essentially working-class notion, and one that’s gone missing from the movies in recent years: Life has a mission, stable and knowable, and simply pursuing that mission will eventually result in victory. Or, put another way, hard work leads to success.
And Rambo is good at his deadly work. Action junkies, especially those who grew up idolizing the buffer-than-thou heroes that populated cineplexes in the 80s, are certain to go wild for Stallone’s paint-it-red vision. It’s the most violent spectacle in years.
Watching Stallone pump round after round of beer-can-sized bullets through a turret-mounted machine gun is a thrill, and seeing justice meted out delivers a primal sort of satisfaction. The problem with revenge fantasies like this, though, is that they require not just bad guys, but also victims. And in Rambo, that lot mostly falls to the scores of nameless Burmese Christians who’re shot, maimed, and tortured in appallingly grizzly detail by the Burmese army. The movie’s excitement, then, is propelled by terror and atrocity — a grimly simplistic formula befitting a grimly simplistic film. In a voiceover, Rambo mulls his violent impulses. “When you’re pushed, killin’s as easy as breathin’,” he says. And that’s far too easy.
–Peter Suderman is associate editor of Doublethink. He blogs at www.theamericanscene.com.