I’ve only seen the first Rocky movie, Rocky it was called. It’s really an excellent film, even though for years the sequels made the whole thing into a bit of a joke. But then, out of the grey, another sequel was announced. Ridiculous! He’s too old! Who would believe a geriatric boxer could hold his own against a world champ for thirty seconds in the ring. But apparently, against all the odds (as it must always be for a Rocky), it works. Cham-pi-on, the Un-der Dog. Rocky Balboa they called it, presumably to leap-frog all the crap that came in between them down the years.
I’d only seen the first Rambo movie, First Blood, it was called. It’s been a while, but my recollections of it are two-fold. One came from my studies as a screenwriter; we watched the first five minutes or so in class, after which we were told by our course leader that some film guru type, I forget which, once claimed that in those few minutes First Blood employed more than seventy “empathetic devices” to help the audience engage with the silent, lonely anti-hero John Rambo. We, the class, sat and stared at the course leader like he was a madman – which was unfair, because although he was a madman he was only recounting the words of another one.
The other recollection is an amalgamation of the times I’ve actually watched the thing, probably twice. I think it is also a pretty good film, for what it is. I also read the book, way back in my mid-late teens and I don’t really remember the quality of it, just that some passages remain very clearly with me even now. The biggest difference though is the climax; in David Morrell’s novel, Rambo has become less a human in need of salvation from the training which made him a killer than a rabid dog in need of execution – and that is what he gets. His former commander arrives to hunt down and kill him before he can do more than disembowel the cop who persecutes him. The military must kill the beast it created to save from it the society it was created “to defend”. In the movie First Blood, things are somewhat different. Here his trusted commander and the belligerent cop witness Rambo’s confession, so they and we are allowed into the mind of the animal and come to understand the damage that he has suffered, and finally he is lead out into the light from the darkness he carries within. It isn’t as powerful a message, it over-emotes and rather shamelessly celebrates the warrior and thus excuses the mistakes, but it works okay.
How different things would be if the book and that film had been as one. Once upon a time, the novelistic Rambo was a killing machine in need of destruction, unfair though it might have been. The filmic Rambo was ultimately just misunderstood and deserved help, not death.
Now it deserves death.
John Rambo they call it, not to leap-frog all the crap that came between this and First Blood but to remind us how well Rocky Balboa recently did. It begins with what is, I presume, actual reportage footage of Burmese atrocities which are genuinely disturbing in their own right; the “real” news voiceovers we hear end on a female reporter whose tone drips the kind of inappropriate, sensationalist voyeurism that can make US TV news such a turn off. The film then immediately attempts to prove that fiction can exceed truth when it comes to unpleasant images, as a squad of Burmese soldiers deliberately mine a paddy field then force their civilian captives to run across it, placing bets on who will “survive” – those not reduced to a shower of bloody water being machine-gunned at the far side anyway, of course. These are Bad People.
Enter a Good Person in the form of John Rambo, who now looks twice the breadth of his sleek, post-Vietnam self. We know he is good already, of course, but this is reinforced for us by the respect he has for his Vietnamese colleagues while snake hunting in the jungle, the fish he selflessly gives to the hungry monks he passes on the river, his quiet centred calm, almost monastic in itself. And while handing his prize off to the proprietor of a snake fighting show he doesn’t truly approve of, he encounters the Good-but-naïve members of an American church, seeking his guidance up the river into Burma to provide medical aid to the persecuted population. Because he is a Good Person he refuses, telling their idealistic leader that he can change nothing and only expose them to danger; but because he is a Really Good Person, he allows the attractive blond on the team to convince him to let them live their own lives.
So touched is Rambo by her words he doesn’t even take payment and doesn’t tell the team leader either, thus earning respect from all concerned. This saintly man truly is a lesson in humility and humanity. And when their boat is stopped by Burmese aggressors who demand all their supplies and want the blond for a rape toy, Rambo does the saintly thing and shoots them all dead like it’s a Spaghetti Western shootout, finishing off their disgusting leader by destroying his head with bullets. Although the film has barely begun at this point, this is the tone of which the rest is set to follow.
After giving the blond idealist effective command and taking them on to their destination as per her wishes, Rambo turns back, leaving them all to be slaughtered except the blond and her nominal leader. After returning home Rambo is hired again by the church’s founder to escort a band of multi-national mercenaries to the site so they can rescue any survivors and the film turns into the start of Predator, with Stallone in a “reluctant” Arnie role amidst a pack of obnoxious but comparatively “good” killers, forced to take an aggressive stance to show them what “good” people are supposed to do when confronted by evil ones. Some are captured, the rest assault the enemy camp to rescue the blond, the leader and any other friendly captives, and then Rambo butchers everyone in sight who isn’t on his side or a terrified neutral.
And butcher really is the word. In the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan special effects were used to horrible but stunning effect to show the impersonal destruction of human beings by a faceless, inhuman mechanism; in John Rambo this process becomes personalised, first by the bloodthirstiness of the enemy, then in the coldly relentless advance of “the hero”, who decapitates, skewers, guns down and disembowels his targets with barely a flicker of emotion. With a few exceptions it is, from a strictly technical point of view, amazingly realised; horrific in how convincingly you are shown living human beings being reduced to dead meat, in some cases to the degree that they no longer resemble anything more. Graphic violence is nothing new, but it is rarely this proficient and here it disguises a worse sin.
Co-Produced, co-Written and Directed by Stallone himself, John Rambo is a really miserable piece of film making. The “empathetic devices” of First Blood are now traded for, well, whatever the opposite would have to be – “dissociative devices” perhaps? – which are used to prepare and prime us for an impending slaughter of revenge. These military animals, whom we see committing such barbarous acts against their own people, must become so hated by the audience that we can not only stomach their deaths but anticipate them with relish. It is still an empathy of sorts, pre-empathy for Rambo’s eventual decision to kill them all, but it’s a cold and empty version of how humans are supposed to be motivated; how we are supposedly being motivated. The absence of a valid morality to the film itself is made contagious to the characters, where even the most stolidly upright, blind-to-the-dangers, right-and-kindness-will-prevail Christian missionary is reduced to an act of lethal brutality in order to embody the greater virtues of killing in the name of. And in the process of inflicting all this Rambo comes to realise that family is important and it is time to make a long overdue journey back to paw’s horse ranch. Pretty fucked up.