Not My Worst Nightmare: Rambo (2008)
by Nate Garrelts
During the eighties it seemed as if Hollywood was overrun with male actors ready to defend America, democracy, and beautiful women on the big screen. These heroes ranged from ultra buff muscle men like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone to martial arts experts like Stephen Segal and Jean-Claude Van Damme. For a number of reasons, including new developments in film making technology that made big muscles and big explosions mundane, these testosterone heroes began to slowly disappear. Moreover, with the fall of the Berlin wall and the demise of the Soviet Union, the cold war cowboy no was no longer relevant. The nineties saw our male heroes replaced by tender actors like Will Smith, Keanu Reeves, and Nicholas Cage who battled aliens, computers and terrorists. And the new millennium cast tough guys like Vin Diesel and Duane “the Rock” Johnson in roles that were as family-oriented as they were comic. They have been recently complemented by a resurgence of popular comic book heroes who can protect us from evil doers whenever and wherever they may appear. Even so, I am skeptical if Toby Maguire’s soft spoken Spiderman could really take on Al-Qaida. Still, heroes of this new sort are entirely palatable in a world in which public displays of aggression and masculinity of the Schwarzenegger sort are still equated with misogyny and barbarism.
Perhaps it is the profound void created by the missing virile man in popular culture, combined with other forces, that has prompted the recent resurgence of more testosterone filled heroes. At the beginning of 2008 television viewers found themselves tuning in once again to the American Gladiators, hosted in part by Hulk Hogan. Later this year, a remake of the classic television show Knight Rider will air, bringing audiences both renegade vigilantisms and American automotive muscle. The most shocking of this nostalgic resurgence has been the reprise of Sylvester Stallone’s character John Rambo in the film Rambo (2008). While I was initially skeptical of the Stallone’s ability to resurrect the geriatric warrior character, the film proves to be a defining moment in the series and American masculinity.
The film begins with several scenes of the Burmese army brutalizing civilians and voice over news reports speaking of decades of civil war and violence. The next scenes, which are far more serene, feature an older and far more bulky John Rambo hunting for snakes in the jungle. After capturing a snake with his bare hands, he heads home by boat, pausing only a moment to shoot a fish from the deck with his compound bow. Once docked, Rambo sells his cobra to a snake show, and retires to his forge where he hammers a new propeller for his boat. The film screen oozes testosterone. Later, a group of missionaries approach Rambo seeking a boat to take them up river to Burma; he advises them against taking a trip to the war torn country but accepts the job when a pretty blonde makes the point that it worth risking one’s life to help another person. Halfway up the river, the group is stopped by a group of pirates and Rambo kills them all with a pistol. The group is dropped at their final destination and Rambo returns to his home. Unfortunately, some of the missionaries are taken hostage during a village raid from ruthless soldiers who brutally kill everyone except those select few women and young boys whom they save to rape. When a mercenary group is hired to retrieve the missionaries, Rambo immediately agrees to be the boat driver. Of course, Rambo eventually leads the attack that frees the missionaries. And after exchanging several glances with the freed female missionary, the scene switches to one of John Rambo in his green Vietnam era military issue jacket standing in front of his father’s mailbox in Arizona. Rambo, the war-ravaged veteran, takes the long walk down the driveway and the credits begin to roll. With the original “Rambo: First Blood” theme playing, the ending is incredibly satisfying for the Rambo fan.
In many ways, this is the quintessential action film of the eighties revived for one final breath. Stallone, though not the bare-chested, headband-wearing hero of the earlier films, has the forearms of Popeye and the grizzled face one would expect of a war-ravaged hero. Moreover, he has finally come to the realization--largely through a dream sequence montage--that he is a born warrior who kills others because that is what he does, not because he is killing for a cause or a country. In this new found knowledge of himself, John Rambo is finally at peace inside, which allows him to move more quickly than his opponents and kill more swiftly and efficiently than usual. In saving some Burmese civilians from a cruel game of Russian Roulette with land mines, Rambo kills several soldiers with only his bow. Even the major villains are killed with grace, as one has his windpipe crushed and the other is swiftly disemboweled with a knife.
True to the action film genre, the predictable plot is assisted more by visual depictions than detailed dialogue between characters. In fact, there is only enough dialogue in the film to justify the plot and literally nothing more. The special effects in the film are of an amazingly high quality for an action film, on a par in quality and quantity with Saving Private Ryan. At the same time, the unusually cruel torture and murder of civilians is not accompanied by excessive blood or lingering depictions, with violence against children only hinted at. There is only one major explosion in the film, when Rambo uses a claymore to booby trap a WWII era bomb that has been dropped but not detonated in the Burmese jungle. The mini-mushroom cloud and fallout are impressive.
But what does all of this mean? The first film in the Rambo series, First Blood (1983), was produced in a time not long after the Vietnam War when America and Americans were still learning to cope in various ways. Vietnam veteran John Rambo’s failed effort to reassimilate in American culture ended in the destruction of an entire town. Yet by the end of this most recent film, having now come to terms with himself (and a sleeping through a flashback that uses the phrase “full-circle”) Rambo is ready to return home. Except, instead of seeking old military buddies as he did in the first film, Rambo searches for the father that knew him as he used to be. If the moral of First Blood is that one can never go home, the moral of this latest film is that no matter how screwed up we become, we can always go home and it will be the home of our dreams--a family farm in the mountains.
With this ending, director/ writer Stallone repeats in an action film format what others have been singing and living for several years now. With John Bon Jovi singing a song like “Who Says You Can’t go Home” and webpages dedicated to maintaining connections between high school classmates, we are all clinging to some new post modern delusion whereby nostalgic simulacra compensate us for our shortcomings. We are all just an hour's flight and one gallon of organic milk away from the way it used to be--it just took Rambo a little bit longer to sell out than his baby boomer counterparts.
Nate Garrelts is Assistant Professor of English at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan.