Based on True Events: Rambo (2008)

Posted by Charles Reece, June 14, 2008 05:12pm | Post a Comment

So this isn't, practically speaking, a summer movie, but if they still made 'em like they used to, it would be. This time around John Rambo is a snake handling loner living in Thailand who makes money on the side by ferrying people across the river to their inevitable death in Burma. As in the previous films, he hates humanity and has little patience for ideology of any kind. He's content playing with his snakes until a hot Evangelical missionary (played by Angel's ex, the vampire Darla) convinces him to take her group over to feed a Karen village being tormented by the Burmese military. I read a few reviews that found this scenario unconvincing, suggesting that her platitudes wouldn't be enough to get Rambo to care.  Rambo's been playing with snakes for the past 20 years in a jungle, what more reason does he need?  It's not what's said, but who's saying it. Fear not, Rambo doesn't have sex, only its substitute, killing, which brings up a question I had while watching Bret Michaels in Rock of Love: how does the bandana stay on during intimate moments? Does Bret pay the girls not to say anything, has it written in their contracts? You'd think at least one of his rejects would call him on it. Is this why Rambo takes no prisoners? Regardless, kudos to both men for laying waste to a bunch of bodies while keeping their hair on straight.

Rambo is the second part of Stallone's Christian marketing diptych, following Rocky Balboa. Originally he wanted to call it John Rambo, but the studio demanded it be changed for some reason. He saw how well Mel Gibson was doing marketing bloodletting and violence to the fundies and decided to continue his successful franchises with that strategy in mind. Look how well it worked with the Rocky sequel:
What was also wonderful about the film was how Stallone incorporated, what I like to call, the faith factor. As part of his corner crew, Rocky brings along Spider Rico, portrayed by another former boxer Pedro Lovell, as his spiritual advisor. Before going out to take on Dixon, Rocky is sitting in his dressing room while Rico is reading scripture verses to him. In his restaurant, Rico always gets a free meal from Rocky until he takes it upon himself to start washing dishes for Rocky telling him, “Jesus wants me to work.”
Over there on Christian Spotlight, the reader responses were overwhelmingly positive, with only a couple of negatives that had to do with the profanity (these guys use the aesthetic criterion of bean-counting the number of salacious words in a film) and some kiss between a supposed 10 year old and a 40 year old (but this problem was brought up by teenaged reader). Christian moralizing has come a long way since the days of the Hays Code and the League of Decency, when violence itself was largely deemed indecent, irrespective of who was killing whom and for what reason. Now, as Gibson's Pollack-cum-blood manifesto, The Passion of the Christ, demonstrated, it's okay to get off on unrelenting gore so long as it serves a higher purpose. This a good thing; Christian films have finally caught up to their brutal legacy. Therefore, when Rambo is trying to get a group of mercenaries to go in and risk their pagan lives to save the Christian tail who inspired him earlier in the film, he mumbles, "live for nothin’, or die for somethin’."  Like the ambiguity of all that S&M Catholic self-flagellation and torture, is Rambo's new found higher calling a sublimated rejection of his celibacy or a belief in Divine Will?

Going by the Spotlight responses, the conservative Christians seem to take the film as an allegory for God's Wrath. But this film proved a bit more divisive than Rocky Balboa. The sheer amount of gore showed that there are some old-fashioned moralists who just can't take it, regardless of intent. As for the largely positive reviews, the violence was seen as a necessary realism for the way war is, carnage adding verisimilitude. Expressing the ambiguity I alluded to in the previous paragraph, one reader says:
My main objection to this film was the scene of a woman's breasts. I really am trying to stay away from films containing such material. There are other scenes of sexually related material as well. This film is EXTREMELY violent -- but this is to be expected fom a Rambo movie. The violence did not bother me, especially considering it is a means by which we privileged people can see the genocides occur in areas where few even know exist.
Why sex in art is never taken by the fundies as being a necessary depiction of the way life is continues to be unexplored, or outright shunned (cf. the differing reactions to The Last Temptation of Christ and Gibson's magnum opus). Had Stallone decided to give Rambo peace of mind by having him fuck a lot, rather than murder a couple hundred Burmese soldiers, the film wouldn't have been as well received by the right-wing Christians. God is always vengeful, loving in a strictly platonic way, never ordering His followers to go fuck their enemies, but only smite them. Unlike violence, fucking would be turning away from God, not towards him:
This movie so accurately portrayed the evil that man, without God, is capable of. To think that these acts of torture and cruelty actually happen in Burma. May God save those people. Is this what King David faced when he and Israel went to war? Of course, not the modern weapons, but the sheer hatred, the brutality, the lack of concern for life, the lack of respect for God?

Is this what will happen to us if America turns from God? Is it really a waste of life to go into these areas and try to bring the peace of Christ? Rarely does a movie cause me to ask so many questions, but this one did and still does. An excellent movie!! I salute Stallone for his bravery in making this film.
Just so the fundies know Stallone is on their side, he made the junta leader a HOMO-sexual predator -- along with the groping of some Burmese hookers and a touch of rape, it's the only sex directly referenced in the film. Any positive depiction of sex would be cause for concern for right-thinking parents everywhere. If these Christians watched more Battlestar Galactica, they'd know that even genocide can be forgiven with a lot of sex. Sleeping with the enemy produces hybrid offspring, ideological miscegenation. But, then again, that's not something the Evangelical types strive for, as it would dilute the purity of their beliefs -- "segregation now, segregation forever."  That's why they have their own Christ-brand simulacra for everything we secularists and pagans enjoy, like death metal, theme parks, feminism, genre fiction and the aforementioned example of torture porn (well, in fairness, this last one is merely returning to its roots). These Christian extremists exist in a alternate world that's akin to the Star Trek holodeck, where any kind of story might happen, but in the final instance, the flock can rest assured that it hasn't left the Biblically literalist sub-structure. It's certainly homo-ideological, even while it denounces any -sexual part. 

Besides, the inclusion of negative homosexual stereotypes -- as with 300 -- will ultimately give this film, featuring a bunch of overly muscular men slaughtering everything in sight, an interesting angle for future queer theoretical analyses, rather than any sort of consistent moral agenda for the impressionable masses.   In other words, any sort of sexual argument the film makes will probably go unnoticed to anyone who doesn't over-think their mass entertainment (like yours truly). Since the Sixties, the medium has been the message, and Stallone's medium is violence. It is in violence that pagans, Christians and atheists can all come together and love the same thing.  Take my god-hating limey pal, Simon (who's trying to be American, but he still doesn't drink coffee):
I've never seen so much awesome carnage! Legs getting blown off, people exploding in a fountain of blood and getting cut in half, and don't forget about babies being thrown into burning rubble. That's especially awesome! And what about the ending of this movie. It brought a tear to my eye. I give this movie a roman thumbs way up. This movie gets a perfect 10 for total entertainment! I have to say I love Stallone for making this picture.
Everyone loves babies and everyone loves specular violence; they go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Rambo is a rejuvenation of the Eighties superhuman action flick for a post-Saving Private Ryan generation. Back in the Reagan era, the muscular hero would mow down an impossible number of villains at a distance with very little bloodshed. Stallone's great aesthetic innovation here is to personalize the carnage, giving the audience both quantity and quality. Rather than just keeping the camera with Rambo, he locates it within the ranks of those being lacerated à la the first 30 minutes of Spielberg's film, letting the finely detailed blood splatter and limbs fly across the camera eye. The result is as close to a summer movie being directed by Takashi Miike as we're likely to get. That's high praise in my book.

One doesn't have to be a homophobe and/or Christian to appreciate Stallone's ability to use realworld events to occupy our leisure time. It's a sign of the new interventionist aesthetic where it's politically correct to enjoy violence involving the Other so long as Our Hero is stopping it from killing an-Other (as was recently seen in Iron Man). What's not as widely acceptable is when we're supposed to be entertained by the fictionalized versions of acts perpetrated on us (confer the conservative reaction to United 93). Thus, Stallone cherry-picked the worst of the current political crises that didn't directly involve the U.S. and interpellated his hero into the story. As an action director, Stallone knows how to entertain.

In fact, so committed to violent entertainment is Stallone as an auteur that any proselytizing ability the film possesses is only going to work on the most committed, red-meat eating kind of Christian (you know, the ones who see the story of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son for God as a sign of loving devotion). On the way down the river, Rambo kills a bunch of Burmese marauders who were trying to steal supplies from him and the missionaries and keep Darla as a sex slave. Instead of thanking him, the head missionary chastises Rambo with a bunch of claptrap about "thou shalt not kill." Reminiscent of the moral dilemma in End of Days where Schwarzenegger has to give up his gun and go fisticuffs with Satan in order to prove his love to the Lord, this pacifist missionary is shown gleefully smashing in Burmese skull with a rock later in the picture. What a right-wing Christian might see as an allegory for Divine Wrath, a homo-loving atheist might see as leisurely entertainment. Such is Stallone's complexity as an artist. Truly heady stuff: like the morality of sex, is violence only to be appreciated when it's done for God?

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Sylvester Stallone (2), Simon (2), Christianity (9), Rambo (4), Violence (12), Sexuality (2), Dvd Criticism (26)