Sunday, 31 July 2016

Sylvester Stallone in the 1980s - Rambo III

Rambo III is simplicity itself. Divorced from a modern framing inclined to laser in on the dissonance created by having Rambo fight alongside the Mujahideen, Peter MacDonald's film is basically Cowboys and Indians relocated to Afghanistan. James Cameron's First Blood 2 screenplay, not to mention the successful film it spawned, kickstarted a mini-movement of high-tech action epics centred around steely-eyed loners. Cannon recruited Chuck Norris for their Missing in Action series, while Arnold Schwarzenegger muscled in at Fox with Commando, an obvious attempt at emulating Stallone's success.

Each knock-off diluted Cameron's original black ops concoction, toning down the politics and Soldier of Fortune trivia to arrive at a breezy sequence of events that allow a hero to murder his enemies in interesting and inventive ways. Commando proved to be particularly notable in this regard, introducing rusty gardening implements into the action man arsenal, and providing even more connective tissue between shoot-out films and slashers. Schwarzenegger mangled his victims with the same detached, dispassionate efficiency as Jason Voorhees.

John Matrix cuts a similar hulking but chaste shape as his Friday the 13th doppelganger, happy to evoke the same overpowering but sexless masculinity. Under Schwarzenegger these films were safe, kids raised in-front of Masters of the Universe or the WWF could score a video rental and experience the transcendental thrill of on-screen mutilation without any of the obvious baggage associated with actual pain and suffering. Rambo III builds on this conceit, paving the way for the likes of RoboCop 2 and Predator 2, and is itself the key example of a violent film series explicitly repackaging itself in an effort to appeal to children.

Accounting for these home screening mutations results in a psychologically lighter film than its predecessors. Stallone and his co-writer Sheldon Lettich (Bloodsport and Lionheart / AWOL: Absent Without Leave) craft a Rambo free of the obligations that Vietnam burnt into him. When Colonel Trautman finds Rambo in Thailand he's shed his nationalism and maybe even his Christianity. Just in case we think he might have turned soft, we're introduced to John acting as a blunt instrument to raise funds for a crumbling temple. Rambo is still happy to offer up the safety of his body for what he deems to be a worthy cause.

Importantly, Rambo isn't exactly what you'd call happy here, he just has purpose. A low-impact role in an endless refurbishment job that could comfortably occupy decades. Rambo may have rendered himself emotionally neutral but he's still allowing himself to be used as a tool. His role at the monastery may convey virtue but it's an assignment that deliberately fails to make full use of his incredible talents. Rambo III then starts to build towards a place where the titular hero could truly feel at home. After refusing Trautman's call, John is eventually dragged to Afghanistan to rescue his ageing (incompetent) commander after an unsuccessful run-in with an airborne Soviet general.

Rambo: First Blood Part II proposed catharsis as a way of healing its hero. Rambo was given the opportunity to correct the mistakes made by America during the Vietnam conflict. He represents a response to the Rock 'n' Roll war that is somehow both surgical and wilfully primitive. Rambo didn't need napalm or Agent Orange, he had a quiver full of arrows. First Blood Part II's Rambo is the Vietcong's guerrilla tactics cannibalised and regurgitated back at them. The film pushed deep into wish-fulfilment territory too by having Rambo confront and kill the Soviets bankrolling North Vietnam's quest for reunification.

Rambo III goes further still, placing Stallone's chewed-up ubermensch inside another East vs West proxy war, only this time he gets to fight alongside a unified front of indigenous people. Afghanistan is a framing device for Rambo, designed to strip the character of any lingering sense of internal conflict. The Mujahideen's struggle against the Soviet Union's blitzkrieg campaign is presented as just and decent. Stallone is moving his character beyond personal revenge into a state of benevolent, international, altruism. He wants to help and, more importantly, the people of Afghanistan are happy to be helped.

MacDonald's film doesn't just posit a political synchronicity between Rambo and the people he meets in Afghanistan either. Rambo III stresses a sense of belonging for the nomadic hero, it gives him a home. The Mujahideen are portrayed with the same kind of macho shorthand as Rambo - they're tough and self-reliant, a tribe of taciturn men who express themselves physically rather than verbally. Rambo instantly fits in, asserting his place in the pecking order with an electrifying, ego-stroking, buzkashi performance. This is the root of Rambo III's biggest failing, it doesn't follow through on the idea of a Rambo happy to live out his days amongst the gallant people of Afghanistan. We are denied a sense of conclusion.

Stallone and Lettich are instead content to file off John Rambo's last vestiges of uncertainty, aligning the character's silver screen portrayal with the action figure seen in his syndicated cartoon spin-off. The audience is being reassured, they aren't to worry, we've moved beyond complicated, cloudy matters of post-war identity into a binary state of good vs evil. Rambo III is the Reagan Doctrine as action entertainment, movie stars gleefully rolling back the tide of Communist expansion. With that as a starting point, it's no wonder the film is so deliriously untethered. This is apex Dead Red cinema. Stallone not only breaks into, then out of, then back into a makeshift Gulag, he stares down an entire battalion of jeeps and attack choppers, each one bristling with machine guns and missiles.

This is the fun of Rambo III, it runs on contempt. There's no reality in its confrontations, Rambo is simply here to win, the star of his own $65 million Wild West stunt show. Faced with an army's worth of death zooming straight at him, John simply jumps out of the way and into a waist-deep hole. Naturally, that's enough to confound the USSR's finest. The film reduces the entire Soviet-Afghan conflict down to a hyper expensive game of tag with its hero as a spoilt brat who'd rather change the rules on the fly than lose. Everything is grist for the Stallone ego machine. Shrapnel, far from being a debilitating setback, is instead just another opportunity for Stallone to assert his hero's all-consuming hard man credentials.

Faced with an oozing gut gash, Rambo loads the wound up with gunpowder then sets himself alight, Stallone literally burning out even a suggestion of weakness. With this psychotic self-surgery episode in mind we arrive at the crucial difference between Stallone and his weightlifting rival. In films like Commando or Raw Deal, Schwarzenegger's body is largely presented as a bubbling, cosmetic, delight. He's complete and comforting, an exploded, towering father figure designed to make an audience feel safe. Stallone's aesthetic, particularly when playing Rambo, is completely different. He puts you inside the addictions that power this brutalised frame. If Schwarzenegger's body represents health and vitality, then Stallone's communicates pain and obsession.

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