Friday, January 25, 2008

Social Relevance? What Social Relevance?

When Sylvester Stallone announced in late 2005 that he would be jumpstarting his two “iconic” characters, the reception was lukewarm at best. As attested to by the obligatory, yet perfectly apt, headlines like “Aging Bull” or “Hambo,” the media did not hide their skepticism, and neither did the public. Yet, in the run up to the release of last year’s Rocky Balboa, Stallone, seemingly satiated with not only human growth hormone, but also a relatively large piece of humble pie, and not without the help of a publicity machine working at maximum intensity, managed the impossible. He turned the expectations around, and managed to come across as a forgotten star, who had learned his lessons, and whose only desire was to pay his dues: to the character that once made him famous, and the public who once adored him. Of course, this was half the battle – the rest depended on the film itself, which, surprisingly enough, came out OK (though not great, as many proclaimed at the time: hindsight, that most valuable of observational tools, comes in especially handy when judging yesteryear’s event films). But even before the final Rocky opened, Sly was hard at work filming the follow-up to Rambo III, where, his words, not mine, this war machine without a country would be forced back into action. This was a bad decision then, and it is a bad decision now, and whatever Stallone’s intentions, a new Rambo film is as incongruous now as John Wayne’s The Green Berets was in 1968.

Growing up in the early eighties, action movies never really invaded my conscience, which is not to say I was raised on a diet of Tarkovsky and Fassbinder, but early 80’s action cinema was not an oeuvre I was very fond of. An action film needed science fiction or fantasy elements to lure me in, or a sympathetic lead, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and even then I only saw his pure-action films like Commando only once. As such, the Rocky and Rambo films were never life-changing events for me as they were for many contemporaries, and Sly was but a pallid comparison to Arnie. Thus, unburdened by fanboy nostalgia (both the blessing and the curse of all re-invented franchises), I could see the new Rocky and Rambo films as what they were: a faded star’s desperate need to get back in the game.

Nostalgia was obviously an important factor for Stallone also: like Jason waxing nostalgic about the good old days under the decaying stern of the Argo, Stallone, too, had languished for years beneath the fading glory of his two franchises. And, like Jason, I was sure he was destined to be crushed under the weight of the past, when Rocky Balboa came as a delightful surprise: mediocre at best, that film was a success considering the precipitous expectations its mere announcement had garnered. Also, at its heart, there was a metatextual penitence that gave the film an extra dimension of, shudder, genuine sentiment. It was Stallone’s way of saying to the audience: “Yo, I know I fucked up, but I’ve learned my lesson and it’s all good now and here is a story that proves it.” It was his Mea Culpa.

And now we have the new Rambo film, which is Stallone’s “J’accuse!” This time he is on the offensive: “Yo, you assholes. You left me in the jungle for all these years, yet I am still mental and look what I can do.” Yeah, we know - there was a reason we left you out there, chum.

Of course, the dichotomy can be regarded as intentional, with Rocky and Rambo as Stallone’s ying-yang twins. But that simply is not the case. Whatever Rocky and Rambo might represent of the human condition (and it is not that much), the former is a rags-to-riches(to-rags-to-riches) fairytale, whereas the latter is emblematic of serious real-life issues: veterans, wars overseas, imperial supremacy, alienation - with violence as the linking thread. The fact that the Rambo films had consistently managed to fail in their heavy-handed pontification while producing an on-screen bodycount to rival Pol Pot only highlights the despicability of bringing the character back now.

(Aside: The only successful time a modern-day movie star manages to highlight an inherent disunion in his career is Eddie Murphy in the two Nutty Professor films. As in Rocky Balboa, The Nutty Professor has Murphy almost apologizing for his loud-mouth on [and off] screen personality, and, literally, exorcising that demon. In the second film, his character realizes that without that unpleasant side to his personality, he is nothing but a blabbering buffoon – “I am what I am,” he seems to say. Stallone is not that genuine.)

The one thing Stallone doesn’t realize is that Rambo films have always been a joke. The supposed rawness of the first film is an urban legend; the unsubtle revisionism of the second now a self-parody, and the third… Well, the third cuts a bit too close to the bone these days. Even a cursory glance at all of that should have made Stallone realize how tasteless it is to revive a character that goes against the very ideals of human decency. That Stallone tries to comment on real world problems while body parts fly through the air like rice at a wedding is a testament to how truly out of touch with reality he has become. The US is fighting a war on two fronts, and neither is going very well. Global terrorism is still a genuine threat. The world is on the brink of recession. Basically, things are not going well. To have the audacity to plead the case (with big fuck-off machine guns, yo!) of a return to, and a delectation in, gung-ho values of the jingoistic eighties is mind-blowing in its short sightedness.

The basic counter-argument in these cases is always the same: these are mindless action films, and what’s wrong with a few disemboweled bad guys now and then. Of course, the answer is nothing (unless you have seen, literally, every single film ever made). But Rambo films are not mindless action, and this, according to the person in charge (I really can’t use the word auteur - but that’s mainly because I don’t know what it means). Ever since the second Rambo, Stallone has gone to the ends of the earth to mumble earnestly that they are about something. The gore is not the message – the message is the message. And what is that message? That the US army would have obliterated the Viet Cong if only those liberalistas in DC left them alone? That the US should have intervened directly in Afghanistan on the side of the (incredibly undemocratic) resistance risking the fine balance of the Cold War? That the US should act as the protector of the Lord’s Word in Third World Countries (even though the film makes an inane case for defending freedom from oppression, and not missionaries per se)?

This final so-called message is the most despicable of them all. According to Stallone, he found out about the plight of the Karen Christians from Soldier of Fortune magazine. He, literally, called them up, and asked them for a list of all the trouble spots in South-East Asia. The fact that he had to call up a bunch of nutjobs to find an oppressed people he could use as a flimsy excuse to up the on-screen bodycount does not worry me (though it is pretty base). The fact that he is so earnest about it does. Masquerading behind social relevance, Rambo’s only true intention is to blow shit up good, and as such, it reminds us why he belongs squarely in the 80’s. His fans lament that they don’t make ‘em like they used to. Yeah. Thank fuck for that.


Oz Kanka said...

The numbers of deaths in the Rambo films:
First Blood: 1
Rambo II: 69
Rambo III: 236

How much higher can he go?

Unknown said...

Do you think that'being raised on a diet of Tarkovsky and Fassbinder' instead of meat and two veg. has had an influence on your loftiness problem ?

Edward Copeland said...

Having seen the first two Rambos in the theater (never saw the third and never saw either by choice), this always seemed like a bad idea. My favorite P.R. ploy of Sly's was to endorse McCain the day before the new Rambo opened. Still, I think Sly showed cowardice by picking Burma, albeit full of really bad people, as the enemy instead of stepping up and battling al-Qaida, especially since Rambo III had him helping the mujahedeen that became the Taliban.

Ali Arikan said...

Clive - I said I wasn't raised on a diet of Tarkovsky and Fassbinder. Many films my parents took me to were, as you say, lofty (they couldn't find me a babysitter for I was devil-child), but that is not to say I did not revel in 1980s pop-culture Americana. My aversion to Rambo has nothing to do with an apparent overarching prejudice against action films.

Edward - That's a good point. It would have been very interesting to go back to Afghanistan to fight his former allies, an angle from which the Rambo films have historically shied away.