Apparently, I get to review all of the screenplays for upcoming films featuring combat veterans with loose screws…
Having recently revisited the Rambo franchise, I was surprised by a couple of things.
1) Despite its superior pedigree (and by that, I mean to say that James Cameron toiled on the screenplay, was tossed, changed the Cong to xenomorphs and Stallone to Sigourney and had a hit on his hands in 1986) Rambo: First Blood Part II is hilariously weak.
2) Despite their reputation as Reagan-era macho bullshit, the Rambo movies are actually really lefty.
The Rambo films – if we’re to attach any sort of cultural significance to them at all – are the continuing story of how the Vietnam war reshaped and ruined many a man, and this makes them inherently critical of the government in general – and since all three films were produced and released during a particularly hardcore Republican regime – they can only be indicting the foreign policy of the day (policy that paid only lip service to the notion of soldiers incarcerated on foreign soil, or policy that left “the gallant people of Afghanistan” high-and-dry, stewing in their own juices until they came to realize that yes, America may indeed suck).
From the beginning of the first installment, these films call out our government for its inability to grant the slightest aid or respect to people who sacrificed their health, sanity, and lives for some of its most misguided notions.
In Rambo II, what Stallone’s “hero” sees as a chance at redemption (for both himself and his government) turns out to be a scam that sees his leaders – once again – turn their backs on him. In Rambo III, he’s learned his lesson and refuses to be duped, but he’s forced to return to conflict when he discovers that even his mentor/superior is regarded as every bit as expendable as he was/is. It is Rambo’s view that no one is expendable, and no soldier should be sacrificed lightly – and I think we’ve learned by now that is not quite Republican rationale.
These films get their jingoistic/patriotic rep because of the manner in which at least one self-serving politician tried to align himself with the character. Ronald Reagan once said that he’d know how to handle foreign devils "now that he’d seen Rambo", and he mentioned the character quite a bit in speeches in his day (guy never really did leave Hollywood). I always laugh when some out-of-touch politician tries to hip it up by name-dropping some pop-cultural tidbit he doesn’t understand. Reagan was great for that – like when he wanted Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA to be his campaign theme – have you heard the song, Bonzo? Have you? Really?
Despite Reagan’s oddball interpretation of the material, the Rambo films are pretty anti-war – the John Rambo character ruined his life fighting a war that changed nothing.
Adding to the tarnished reputation of the franchise was Stallone’s ego run amok. He lost sight of the idea that, be it Rocky or Rambo, his characters were far more interesting when they were trying to save themselves – not the world. The surprise success of Rocky Balboa was born of the dismantling of Stallone’s cinematic fortunes. With his eyeline cleared of hubris, he was able to see that Rocky was never supposed to single-handedly defeat Communism – he was just a mooky guy from the neighborhood who wanted a little dignity and maybe someone to love – just like a lot of people.
John Rambo is not dissimilar – he’s just too messed up emotionally to ever have those things – and he knows it. So he checks out of the world and tries to find a bit of inner peace and quiet – at least, that’s where he was in Rambo III; hanging out in Thailand fixing wagon wheels and temples spires like a Buddhist Bob Vila.
Rambo IV – or John Rambo as it is now titled – sees him on a similar path, eking out a living as a snake wrangler (which, for me, conjured remembrances of that ancient Dan Ackroyd SNL sketch). Though he has a few associates in this endeavor, he doesn’t really seem connected to them in a way that suggests that they hang out after work knocking back Phuket (come to think of it, I’ll have a CHANG). Rambo is not a loner by nature – he’s a loner by design. The world has taught him that it’s a necessary thing. For Rambo, people complicate things. People like…Christian missionaries, for example – as a group of them attempt to hire him to take them to Burma to provide aid to Karen refugees.
So…why Burma? The story goes that, in an attempt to avoid making another awkward political statement (see: Rambo III), Stallone called the offices of Soldier of Fortune magazine (still America’s premiere resource for Trailer Park Ninjas) and asked them where the single worst man’s-inhumanity-to-man scenario existed. The staff told him that Burma’s where it’s happening…
Rambo is reluctant to take the bible thumpers anywhere, but once he’s warned not to take them by an obnoxious U.S. Government asswipe (named “Baumgardner” in this draft), the deal is sealed and we’re heading up river into the Heart of Darkness.
One of the missionaries – a God-Girl named Sarah – is intrigued by Rambo, and while he tries his best to converse with her, his banter is at turns nervous and dire. She instantly sees him as a wounded soul to heal. He knows there’s just no way she can. It’s a neat dynamic, as there’s got to be a guy with a bag of money somewhere wondering why these two don’t get it on – and the temptation to turn the whole thing into a riff on The African Queen must have skittered through Sly’s brain at least once.
Rambo and his Christian Soldiers run afoul of a group of dodgy pirates who have a thing for blondes who look like that evil vampire girl from Angel. They won’t let the Ram-boat pass, and so – in a sequence that reads as really shocking despite the fact that you know it’s gonna’ happen as soon as we’re introduced to this batch of river rats – Rambo wastes the pirate clan. It’s a tough call as to whom this disturbs more, the missionaries or Rambo – because while they’re shocked by the sinful brutality of Rambo’s actions, Rambo knows he’s unleashed a rage he can’t cork, and the consequences will be difficult to bear. He makes to turn the boat around, but the power of Christ compels him to take the religious relief workers to their destination despite what they see as his evil behavior.
Rambo reaches the Karen refugees, offloads his charges, and heads back up river to dispose of the evidence of his murderous freak-out.
There’s a sly (haaaaaa) juxtaposition of his burial of the pirates and a sudden attack on the little Karen village – as Rambo fills a single grave with the bodies of the pirates, a sadistic Burmese Major named Tint leads his soldiers in a butchering of the villagers that will never pass muster with the MPAA. It’s a frightening and sad sequence, more so because there’s a real element of truth to it. By the end, many of the Karen refugees are dead, and the missionaries are dragged off to – where else? – a military compound…
Baumgardner returns to Rambo, hands him a withering “I told you not to take them” speech, menacingly mentions that he and his saw what Rambo did to those pirates – and introduces him to the leader of the missionaries, who begs Rambo to help him get his people back.
The film then becomes a “Men on a Mission” movie, as Rambo accompanies a group of military mercenaries on their missionary mission of mercy. The mercs are filled to the brim with all the macho-madness of a mess of high school jocks – but Rambo knows that they’re ill-prepared for what lies in store. It’s twenty-two years on, and Stallone finally takes James Cameron’s advice…
The group breaches the camp, and – faster than you can say "Game Over, man!" – totally botches their saving throw versus evil Burmese military guys, setting in motion a mad-dash retreat from the compound – with anyone not dead frantically dragged along (including a freshly-raped Sarah). This affords Rambo the opportunity to kill a lot of army guys in the utterly crowd-pleasing fashion you may have witnessed in the trailer released to the internets awhile back.
No one will be able to swat at this film with the face-saving/revisionist history criticism Rambo II has engendered…or dismiss it as Red Scare posturing – this film is all about human rights. John Rambo is not about winning a war or fighting a government-generated boogeyman – it’s about surviving in the face of atrocity. The script’s structure is very similar to that of Rambo III, (Rambo finds himself reluctantly dragged into the battle) but without the elements that make that film so easy to write-off as propaganda. The tale is crude and conflicted, as Stallone the writer seems to have a deep respect for the bright-eyed activism of the missionaries…he just knows it doesn’t always work out – especially not in a part of the world where turning the other cheek gets you decapitated, and the meek inherit bullets.
And sure, as a war film, it’s not The Thin Red Line (John Rambo is a film that needs to blow shit up), but it does feel as though it was conceived as an homage to Samuel Fuller-style "tabloid" screenwriting – it’s brutal and arguably exploitative, but with a point to make about people. Of course, the film must stand as a nostalgia piece first and foremost – and if it can’t trade on your love of Stallone’s second most popular character (right behind Joe Bomowski), then it’s more than ready to trade on your fuzzy affection for the genre Rambo inspired. As the aforementioned trailer garishly demonstrates, the film is constructed to be a love letter to every over-the-top, mud-covered, jungle-creeping, throat-slitting, garrote-wired, squib-splattered, bamboo-splintered ‘80’s actioner ever made. If Stallone does his screenplay justice, John Rambo will stand as the best Joseph Zito movie Joseph Zito never made.
And really, who can’t love that?