Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Series Run: Rambo (First Blood; Rambo: First Blood Part II; Rambo III)

First Blood -- 1982, d. Ted Kotcheff
Rambo: First Blood, Part II -- 1985, d. George P. Cosmatos
Rambo III -- 1988, Peter MacDonald

As a child of the 80's, of course I knew about Rambo.  There were toys and cartoons and videogames all devoted to Sylvester Stallone's hyper-machismo action hero, all designed to sell an R-rated character as a superhero for modern kids (they did this with Robocop and Terminator too, amongst  other inappropriate things).  Thing was, I was never much into Rambo.  I wasn't really allowed to be.  Fantasy violence like Star Wars or G.I. Joe was more than acceptable, but the oversimplification of John Rambo's reality of war wasn't something my parents were willing to condone.  I remember the stories damning the excessive violence of Rambo III on Entertainment Tonight, which, to naive eyes, made it a bad thing outright anyway.

As the 80's turned to the 90's and I became a teenager, Rambo became remarkably passe. Iconic imagery of Sly Stallone as Rambo had been mocked incessantly by Weird Al and Hot Shots Part Deux, and Stallone himself had become a bit of a joke.  I never saw the Rambo movies, nor did I have any desire to.  I felt like I had seen all that I needed to.  I felt like I knew what the Rambo movies were, and that they weren't for me.

That firmly held belief persisted until this past Friday as I read Tom Breihan's latest entry in his "A History of Violence" series over at the Onion AV Club.  The series starts with 1967's Bullitt as the speculative first entry of the modern action movie, and then each installment covers the most apropos representative of the action genre for each subsequent year.  This latest found First Blood to be the monumental action movie of 1982 (1981 was a hard fought battle between Escape From New York, Mad Max 2, and champion of all-time Raiders of the Lost Ark.  1980 had dire pickings with The Octagon).  Breihan makes a very enticing case for watching First Blood, not only in being his choice for that year's top action movie, but more to the point he actually told me what the film was about.

John Rambo, a Vietnam Vet, is run out of a small town in Oregon State by the local sheriff (Brian Dennehy) who just doesn't want "his type" running around, disturbing the locals.  Rambo just wants to have a meal and gets arrested for returning, where the local PD (including a young David Caruso) manhandle and abuse him to the breaking point, triggering his PTSD.  He lashes out and escapes, and then is hunted like a dog.  Eventually, though he becomes the hunter, and, at a certain point his actions become so extreme, as the audience you're not quite certain you're rooting for him anymore.

Up until reading Breihan's article, I had just assumed all Rambo movies were dumb jungle revenge movies where big dumb ape Rambo has some mission or other where he's tasked with killing foreign faceless enemies with "rah rah 'Murrica" bluster.  To my surprise, that couldn't be further from the truth, at the very least not for first entry of the series.

First Blood is actually a remarkable film.  I mean, yeah, it's quite dated, and a lot of the richness of the character, as presented, here has since been lost to the subsequent iconography and hero baiting, but the film itself is well acted, well made, and has genuine meaning.  As I noted above, it gets very gray as to who is right or wrong.  Cops harassing someone is never cool, especially when they're doing so based on appearances alone.  I could see a modern version of this film starring an ex-Afghanistan or Iraq War veteran who is also black, and it taking on a whole other level of meaning, a veritable powderkeg of intent.  Here though, nobody seems to care that John Rambo is an Vietnam veteran, nor that his PTSD is to blame for much of his actions.  There was a lack of awareness around PTSD at that time (even today there's still a stigma around it), but also the veterans of Veitnam returned home not as heroes but as the losers in a war they never wanted to participate in to begin with, and, in many cases, as monsters who society-at-large seemed to want to forget.  Vietnam was a bullshit war, and America wanted to sweep it, and those who were forced into fighting, under the rug.  This is the subtext of First Blood.

Rambo, is chased to extreme ends up a mountain side.  He calls out to be left alone, but the cops have a blood lust.  Using his Marine training, he takes out practically the entire force, non-lethally, but painfully.  Things escalate from there, to the point that Rambo winds up in the center of the small town, shooting out store windows, blowing up transformers, just ready to kill or be killed (it should be noted, Rambo does not kill a single person, at least not directly, the entire film).  The question is laid bare, is Rambo a rabid dog that needs to be put down?  His sympathy is stretched to the breaking point, if not past it, up until it's poignant conclusion.  The film ends not with a gunfight though, but with a conversation.  John breaks down in front of Trautman, his former commanding officer, and in a seeming stream-of-consciousness explosion, relates the most horrifying visions he's had to live with from the war.  The horrors he's seen that nobody wants to hear about, that everyone wants to ignore.  John Rambo is tired of being invisible, treated like the war was his fault, that he's unwanted.  He's a broken man psychologically and spiritually.  He needs compassion and consolation, not estrangement and derision.  It's a powerful sentiment, and a powerful undercurrent to the character...one that was completely thrown away for subsequent outings.

Rambo: First Blood, Part II as a follow-up is a filmmaking travesty.  It comes as no shock to me that it's co-written by James Cameron because it's exactly everything I detest about Cameron's films.  Cameron's script (which was rewritten in great swaths by Stallone) is so full of MOMENTS, big hacky MOMENTS where the character is put in PERIL, big cinematic PERIL (like when Rambo is jumping from the airplane only to have his strap caught on a door hinge and he has to cut himself free...it's a meaningless MOMENT of tension that feels plugged into place for that very purpose.  It's not clever, nor really that tense, and there's never a moment's doubt that Rambo is in any real danger.

Cameron's story strips Rambo of all his nuance and poignancy from First Blood.  I would think the last thing you would want to do with a soldier who went a bit crazy and shot up a town as a result of his PTSD would be to send him right back to the place where his PTSD manifested.  But that's what this film asks of him.  A government bureaucrat is trying to discern whether there are still POWs in Vietnam, and Rambo's mission is to get evidence one way or the other.  But, it turns out, the government doesn't really want any evidence of POW's, they just want to be seen taking action.  This is all revealed when Rambo is trying to escape pirates and Vietnamese soldiers with a prisoner, only the have the mercenaries hired to airlift him out turn and leave without him.  Colonel Trautman is obviously upset but has little power in the situation.  Rambo is captured, thankfully his (painful) broken-English speaking local ladyfriend busts him out, and after they escape, they have their MOMENT, their "take me back to America, yes?" MOMENT where they kiss, and she immediately is gunned down seconds later.

Rambo, if he wasn't pissed before is now out for revenge on top of rescue.  Not to forget that the Vietnamese soldiers here are supported by the Russians, because of course they are.  Rambo takes out almost the entire station himself before commandeering a helicopter and freeing the POW boys from their cells.  A hairy helicopter chase sequence ends with Rambo firing a bazooka through his own cockpit window towards the opposing chopper.

It's a dumb movie, punctuated by an unearned moral at the end: "We love America, we just want America to love us", and further punctuated by the most inane Frank Stallone song in Frank Stallone's grand pantheon of inane songs (to be clear, none of the closing credits songs are all that great).  It's a terrible looking movie, with unbelievably fake looking sets, some terrible day-for-night shots, and for some reason it's shot with a soft focus lens (the old Vaseline smear, methinks) to give it this fuzzy, hazy, romantic look.  It's just ugly and cheap looking.  It feels like a modestly budgeted, totally '80's made for TV movie at best.  It's a hot garbage film, whose sole purpose was to take a complicated, tragic, yet likeable character and turn him into a machine-gun toting, muscle-bound, bandanna-wearing super-soldier hero.

First Blood, Part II was so bad that I could barely feign interest in the third installment when it started, but I committed to all three films for the evening so I let it run.  The first thing I noticed was how much better Rambo III looked than First Blood, Part II.  The film opens with Rambo stick fighting for money in Thailand (Stallone looks good, like he actually trained hard for this sequence), money which he gives to the Buddhist monastery where he lives.  Col. Trautman returns to try and get Rambo's help with a mission in Afghanistan.  The Russian war there is taking its toll on the civilian population and the US has agreed to covertly supply the freedom fighters there with weapons and basic necessities.  Rambo, tired of war refuses, but when Trautman proceeds without him and is captured, Rambo volunteers as a one-man-rescue force.
Something about this poster has always
made me laugh...like Rambo is 200ft tall
and, perhaps, an aerobics instructor

Rambo III has a more world-weary feel to it than the previous films.  John finds himself in unfamiliar terrain in Afghanistan (unlike Oregon or Vietnam) but finds a contact and makes friends with a local band of freedom fighters.  He learns about their plight and respects the bravery of the fighters, including the young men (barely even men...one teeters perilously close to kid sidekick here), but is truly focused on the sole mission of rescuing his friend from the Russians.  Which, of course, he does, with an immense amount of gunplay and knifings.

I spent large swaths of Rambo III's run time reading about the Russian war in Afghanistan, so I wasn't exactly paying immensely close attentions, but overall it's an above average 80's action movie.  They spent some fair coin into the production so it looks good all around.  Director Peter McDonald has a good eye, and comes up with some pretty amazing action sequences and iconic scenes (like Rambo fixing a puncture wound with gunpowder...it's stunning).  But as with any film overly reliant upon gunfights and gunplay, all that "rat-tat-tat" "ch-ch-ch-" "kapow" gets pretty tedious when it lags on for too long and the last 25 minutes of the film are pretty much non-stop that.  Even still, Rambo III returns the character -- at least a bit -- to the grey area from where he came.  The conflict in Afghanistan was pretty nasty, but America wasn't willing to step in directly.  This was a bit of a critique of that...but at the same time, "Russia's Vietnam" was also a war that Rambo (and by proxy, the film implies, America) didn't want to thrust themselves headlong into.

What's most astonishing is how none of these three films are meant for children, at all.  They are exceptionally violent movies with some questionable moral grounds, and in some cases some difficult questions asked.  They aren't funtime action movies, but instead (at least with the first and third) full of questions that are in most cases not forthcoming with easy answers.  That Rambo became a cartoon/toy/video game action star is taking the worst traits of the character -- his aggression and ruthless efficiency -- and building those up as his admirable qualities for young people to replicate.  It's no wonder today's American society is so gun-culture focussed, when the wrong aspects of characters like these were promoted as role models and heroes 30 years ago.