The 80s was about action movies. Lethal Weapon; Beverly Hills Cop; anything with Arnold Schwarzenegger (he even killed people in Twins!)… It didn’t matter what the story was, as long as the story involved a guy and lots of guns. Rambo fit the 80s like a bayonet. He might have tried for a poignant back-story in First Blood, but as the decade wore on, he knew what audiences wanted of him: headband, knife, “don’t push me!”, guns. Sylvester Stallone had once harboured ambitions to be the next Brando, but the 80s didn’t ask for Brando, it asked for Rambo. In a decade without war, audiences wanted blood.
So why is Rambo back? And what’s he up to this time? 2008 finds Rambo in Thailand, catching snakes for a living. He is, as ever: monosyllabic, wounded, a thug. He still wears his headband like a crown of thorns. A group of missionaries come to ask if Rambo will help them get into Burma. He agrees because a girl missionary (Julie Benz) asks him nicely. But the missionaries are captured. A paedophile Burmese Army guy locks them in bamboo cages and tortures them for his amusement (Rambo had warned them it would end like this). Reluctantly (but not too reluctantly) Rambo picks up his machete and comes to the rescue. How bloody is this rescue? Like being whacked in the face by a baseball bat, wrapped in dynamite.
Stallone. Even his name sounds like a gun, like a Helmut Newton ad, like something sexy and violent and… Italian. Like something Mussolini would have loved. He speaks and it’s like hearing a battleship being compacted. His vowels are like lava. At 61 he looks like he did at 30, only thicker. He looks like he’s strapped what he earned in Rambo I – III to his body, to stop his ex-wives from getting it. He looks like a legend; the way Charles Bronson only looked more like Charles Bronson the older he got. His hair is death-defying. You could shoot him in the face and the bullet would bruise. His performance as Rambo is acting the way Bill Shatner “acted” Captain Kirk… He is Rambo. What the hell character is there anyway? He’s 61 and he’s the best soldier in the world… He’s Sylvester Stallone’s ego.
The action scenes in Rambo are so violent they make war seem tame. I don’t think I’ve ever seen more heads explode. People are stabbed, beheaded, immolated and/or eviscerated with such frequency, it’s almost disquieting to see a body whole. As the missionary with the most lines (second only to the “weasel” missionary who learns about life by caving in a guy’s skull) Julie Benz acts the role of “token female” with dignity, and a minimum of tears. As “the woman”, she’s only there to look at Rambo in a way that says “killing is wrong”, but she looks that way well, and even her floppy hat doesn’t dampen her latent sex appeal (no sex though: Rambo isn’t the type who needs a love interest – unless it’s a rocket-launcher). The “weasel” missionary (Paul Schulze) is appropriately weaselly. We all know he’ll find out killing is good, but he mouths his moral platitudes with piety, as every action movie weasel should.
Will audiences respond to Rambo in 2008? I shouldn’t think so. He’s an 80s icon. Something about that decade… no ’Nam, no Iraq, just a Cold War to keep us busy, and ten thousand action flicks. Arnie’s into politics now, Mel’s a Nazi, Axel Foley’s embroiled with a Spice Girl… Action is dead. Even Bruce Willis can’t revive it. Rambo brings nostalgia to 2008, for a time when shooting a bad-guy didn’t require a reason, when big explosions were enough. It was a more innocent age… We thought Velcro was futuristic. One man and a headband. If you grew up on The A-Team, you won’t mind that he’s back.