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Monday, March 2, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 7.0° F  Fair
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Rambo: Why he fights
Rambo explores the nihilism that drives a super-patriot
There's still life in the aging icon.
There's still life in the aging icon.

Like it or not, Sylvester Stallone is going to go down in history as the creator of not one but two movie legends, Rocky and Rambo. Always slyer than he's let on - his nickname's Sly, for crissakes - Stallone is pretty smart at playing dumb. And his pair of verbally challenged strongmen picked up on a mood that was starting to sweep the country in the late '70s and early '80s. People were suddenly tired of the malaise induced by the Vietnam War, the Watergate affair and the OPEC oil crisis, tired of being tired. "This country has really needed to flex its muscles again," Stallone told Rolling Stone in 1985, not long after the debut of Rambo: First Blood, Part II, which went on to make over $300 million at the box office. And Stallone was just the guy to get us back on the geopolitical stage, pushing our weight around again.

On the symbolic plane, anyway. In real life, Stallone, though exactly the right age, had missed serving in Vietnam, which made Rambo's return trip to rescue left-behind MIAs all the more a fantasy. But he knew a mythic character when he saw one, and Rambo, which he once described as "a war machine that can't be turned off," was a doozy - Uncle Sam on steroids. It was all about the muscles, of course. Spending most of his time at the gym, Stallone allowed his vanity to get away from him, endowing Rambo with a musculature that could only be a hindrance when slithering through the jungle. And by putting himself on display like that, he gave Rambo a slightly feminine cast, which the headband and the '80s mall hair did nothing to offset. But hardbodies were what it was all about during the Age of Reagan, when the closest we came to an actual war was the cute little invasion of Grenada.

Well, that was then and this is now, or at least it would be if Rambo weren't back at it, defending to the death his constitutional right to defend things to the death. Stallone, whose motto must be "Never Say Die," has somehow resurrected both Rocky and Rambo, the former after a 16-year absence, the latter after a 20-year absence. And once you get past the Rip Van Winkle aspect - does Hollywood's target audience, a.k.a. teenage boys, even know who these guys are? - you have to admit that there might still be a little life left in the aging icons. Stallone deserved more credit for last year's Rocky Balboa, which had some of the same palooka charm the original did back in 1976, the year of the American Bicentennial. And if the audience I saw the brand-new Rambo with - all single men about my age, but quite a few of them - is any indication, he's got another modest hit on his hands.

Yes, but will it tie into the zeitgeist, add up to more than its box-office receipts? Possibly, but I doubt it. I will say this for Stallone, though: He's figured out how to pack a punch. For all their ability to work us up and work us over (lots and lots of torture scenes), the other Rambos were a little lame as far as the action sequences went. But Stallone, sitting in the director's chair (he also co-wrote the script), shows a real flair for mayhem, at one point staging the complete and utter destruction of a Burmese village without once losing his bearings. If you thought the other Rambos were high-impact - and they were, for their time - you're in for a surprise, because this one's a real killer-diller, the bullets arriving with a "thwonk," after which a part of the victim's body is missing. And the victims, as often as not, are women and children. It may not be your cup of tea, but it's extremely well brewed.

So, Burma, a country that's not exactly in our thoughts these days, but neither was Afghanistan when Rambo III dropped by to give the mujahedeen a hand against the Evil Empire. Given all the international hot spots there were to choose from, Burma seems a little evasive, especially after last year's The Kingdom headed straight into the streets of Baghdad. But the trick, as always, is to get Rambo to fight for something he doesn't really believe in, and with the dearly departed Richard Crenna out of the picture, that pretty much comes down to the opposite sex. When the movie opens, Rambo is somewhere in Thailand, transporting people up and down the Salween River and bringing in some extra cash by catching and selling cobras and pythons. And he might have been content to live out his days as a snake charmer if not for the arrival of a band of missionaries bent on getting medical supplies to the beleaguered victims of Burma's military dictatorship.

They're peaceniks, whom you would expect Rambo to treat with disdain. But among them is Sarah, an ethereal blond played by Julie Benz, who appears to have been chosen for her resemblance to Naomi Watts in King Kong. This would put Rambo in the big-hairy-ape role, which he has no trouble pulling off, Stallone having whittled away at any signs of intellect over the years. Rambo tries to talk the missionaries out of their mission, but they're way too idealistic for that, and it's not long before he has to rescue them from a military camp run by a guy who could give Idi Amin lessons in sadistic nuttiness. One of the soldiers' favorite pastimes is strewing a field with land mines, then taking bets on which prisoners will make it all the way across before being sprayed with machine-gun fire. The first time I saw this, it was deeply disturbing. The second time I saw it, I must confess that I was ever so slightly bored.

Stallone so overplays the military dictatorship's cruelty that, despite being one of the more brutal military dictatorships in the world, it might still have grounds for being offended. But that doesn't really matter, because Rambo's about to get all medieval on their asses. He's joined, this time, by a band of mercenaries who are supposed to draw a contrast with the band of missionaries. They're also supposed to draw a contrast with Rambo, who, whatever he might be doing this for, isn't doing it for the money. And whenever the movie slows down long enough to catch its breath, it resumes its investigation of what exactly makes Rambo tick. I wouldn't say the investigation is conducted at the highest levels of artistic creativity. I wouldn't even say Stallone appears to have put a whole lot of thought into it. But there's a nihilism to Rambo that gets ignored by his critics, who see him only as some kind of super-patriot.

He's much closer to a seriously warped Viet vet who, after all these years, still hasn't forgiven his country for what it did to him. And Stallone shows signs of wanting to dig even deeper into Rambo's near-psychotic need for vengeance. He dangles another sequel in front of us in the last scene of Rambo, which shows the prodigal son back in Arizona, where it must have all begun. And against my better judgment, I'd kind of like to see what Stallone can come up with. He'll need to hurry, since he's already in his 60s. But he's still got pecs and buns of steel, now thanks to human growth hormone. The movie itself has speed and power, even grace, which is to say it serves up its heapin' helpin' of red meat on a silver platter. But it's not just a splatter-fest. Stallone's picking up on the nihilism that's out there - the idealism, too. Rambo's always been part Christ figure, part Prince of Darkness. May the best man win.

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