Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Sylvester Stallone in the 1980s - Rambo: First Blood Part II

Rambo: First Blood Part II is the polar opposite of the accepted, prize-winning, way in which the Vietnam War was being presented in American cinema. Instead of the usual strung out, psychedelic chaos, Rambo imagines the conflict as a household task that has simply been neglected. America didn't lose the war, it just forgot about it and moved on to something else. In that sense Rambo is emblematic of the rhetoric that drove the Reagan administration - the film was about making the country great again. James Cameron was contracted to write the sequel to First Blood, the writer-director dashing it out alongside a new draft of The Terminator and his Alien sequel, whilst waiting for Arnold Schwarzenegger to finish up his contractual obligations to Conan the Destroyer. Cameron's script, entitled First Blood II: The Mission, is a sombre continuation of Ted Kotcheff's film that begins in the bowels of a psychiatric hospital then goes on to explore the post-traumatic stresses that haunt Rambo.

As he displayed with apex sequels Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Cameron has an innate sense of where to take a character next. Cameron approaches his writing from an almost psychoanalytical perspective, drawing out internal conflicts as a means to construct plot. Like Ripley, Rambo must return to the scene of the crime and exorcise his demons through conflict. Only then can his past trauma be resolved. As with Ripley, Rambo is elevated by his past experience. They are both uniquely able to shoulder the responsibilities ahead because of the suffering they have endured. It's interesting then to see how Sylvester Stallone approached this material for his rewrite. He retained the mythic, prowling, sense of an unfettered Rambo but deleted much of the supporting architecture. Cameron's draft, taking in frazzled fly boys, a co-starring role that screams John Travolta and intense, body-shredding violence (that Stallone would go on to employ in 2008's Rambo) is jettisoned. Cameron's writing made himself the star, an avowed military nut working his way through all the data and anecdotes he'd assembled whilst researching CIA black ops. Stallone doesn't need any of that. He's the star, he's the machinery.

Stallone's take on First Blood Part II begins in a quarry, with John working hard time cracking rocks. The star's physique is tanned and intense, despite his incarceration. First Blood's emaciated attack dog is gone, instead we have a Muscle & Fitness pin-up. We're instantly keyed into a state of glamorous unreality: Stallone will fight the Vietnam War again, single-handedly, and this time he will win. Rambo then marks a clear cultural shift. Any event, no matter how recent or mired in defeat, could be used to tell a Cambellian tale and sell some licensed merchandise. Lured back in-country by a POW rescue mission, Rambo immediately nixes his surveillance brief and attempts to get one of the prisoners out. Despite a heroic effort dragging some half-dead GI across endless, exploding paddy fields, Rambo is betrayed by his superiors and left to rot. So begins the scourging of Rambo, Stallone piling on the hurt for his very own Battle Christ. At a loss how to proceed, the Vietnamese soldiers holding Rambo call in their Soviet superiors to physically and spiritually destroy the American super soldier.

Despite having enough electricity ran through his body to dim the local barracks, Rambo refuses to break. It's only when his skeletal companion is threatened with a blazing knife that the hero agrees to comply. What makes Rambo so notable then is his total lack of complication. He's just a walking job, searching for appropriate purpose. He doesn't even respond well to the rigid structure of military life, only taking orders from his beloved father figure Colonel Trautman. He has to believe in the mission. First Blood proposed a man seeking validation for the sacrifices he made in war. First Blood Part II goes beyond that, making America itself the source of his resolve. It's his religion, the strength he uses to surmount difficulty. Rambo represents an idealised, inflated version of the flag-waving, patriotic US citizen. Unlike the CIA spooks that cooked up this non-mission, he doesn't ignore the suffering of his fellow soldiers. He embraces it, then transforms it into his own. Rambo would rather be put through the wringer himself than see another grunt suffer.

This notably Catholic conception of Christianity is everywhere in Stallone's films. The Rocky series tracking a simple man through a variety of rebirths, usually in-step with the actor's own fortunes. Staying Alive turned the idea of relentless exercise into a kind of self-flagellation. Tony Manero broke his body down and rebuilt it for the opportunity to take his place in Broadway's pantheon. Rambo goes one further, engaging with the punishment and destruction that facilitates the saviour's triumphant resurrection. The film is explicitly reaching for iconography, Stallone cluttering the film up with adoring, obsessive, close-ups. His eyes heavy with regret, his head held in repose, like a Renaissance painting. Stallone and his favourite yes-man George P Cosmatos are attempting something new. This is the action movie as a healing prayer, salving the frayed American psyche and offering a Messiah that won't look the other way or turn his cheek. Instead he'll climb into a Huey attack helicopter, lift himself into the air, then obliterate America's enemies with whirring mini-guns and belching missile pods.

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