Unspeakable awesome. That's the only way to describe the new Rambo.
Over the weekend, I walked around telling anybody who would listen that Rambo is the greatest movie ever made. I said it without hesitation, without qualification, and for damn sure without shame.
But now that some of the initial elation has worn off, I have to amend that statement. It's probably not the greatest movie ever made. It's only the absolute no-contest best action movie since Terminator 2.
The lukewarm and/or condescending reviews this landmark in no-nonsense action cinema has received from mainstream critics mystifies me. I don't know what's up with these people. It doesn't seem like they saw the same movie I did. Maybe it's just that they grew up in some parallel universe where justice always reigns and hatred doesn't congeal in the bone marrow, so they're missing that hard chunk of black diamond that the rest of us carry around in our hearts that makes us scream for violent retribution against an unfair world. But for people like me, Rambo is 100% emotion. It angries up the blood in the most beautiful, life-affirming way.
Rambo is not a complicated film, but it is a powerful one, if you can allow yourself to experience it on a purely emotional level. George Lucas once said that engaging an audience emotionally was easy: Just strangle a kitten on camera. (Too bad he didn't follow his own advice. A few kitten-stranglings might have injected some life into the prequels.) Sylvester Stallone agrees, so the whole first half of Rambo is just one metaphorical kitten being strangled after another. Then the second half is Rambo killing the fucking shit out of those dirty kitten-stranglers. Simple. Basic. Primordial.
The plot: Rambo now lives in self-imposed exile in Thailand, running a riverboat service and catching deadly cobras for snake shows. He fucking hates everybody and has lost all faith in both himself and the world. Then some Christian do-gooders come to town, asking him for a ride into Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar). I don't know if you know this, since Britney's custody battles seem to take up a lot of space in the papers, but there's been a bloody civil war going on over there for over 60 years, the longest in history. It's basically a genocide, with the Burmese government using profits earned from crystal meth trafficking to systematically eradicate a tribe of independence-seeking rebels, the Karen. So these Christians want to bring food and medical supplies to the Karen. Rambo knows that passive resistance won't do shit against a methed-up army of killers trained to see their enemies as subhumans worthy of extinction, but he lets himself get talked into it by the foxy blonde of the group. I don't see a lot of sexual tension going on here. I think he's just reacting to the earnest idealism he sees in her, as opposed to the self-aggrandizing "My morals are better than yours" dick-swinging of the other missionaries. Community service as masturbation.
A lot of people in the theater were laughing at this part. I think that's part of Stallone's plan. He lets you chuckle at the over-baked dialogue that blatantly poses the philosophical question: Is it enough to merely do good, or must you also destroy evil? This question is posed in as blunt a manner as possible, as befits a Rambo movie. It's not ironic. It's not post-modern. And it's definitely not cynical. As he proved in Rocky Balboa, Stallone doesn't have time for cynics who keep themselves insulated from both the darkest and brightest aspects of human nature by a buffer zone of cosmopolitan irony. Stallone isn't talking to them, because they're not listening anyway.
So he lets them laugh at the beginning of the movie. Ha ha, isn't this corny, the way this weird-looking old man discusses age-old ethical quandaries in the rain. Thank God I'm young, middle-class, and white so I don't have to actually give a fuck about anything.
But nobody's laughing once the killing starts. At about the 20 minute mark, there's a massacre that shuts everybody the fuck up. It is absolutely punishing. Body parts blown off. Women raped and executed. Babies bayoneted and thrown into burning huts. It is the hardest action scene I have ever witnessed, and it hurts. This isn't fun action, with exploding arrowheads and pithy one-liners. This is man's inhumanity to man. This is war, and Stallone shoves it right in your face. It's like he's saying to the skeptics, "Why aren't you laughing now? Isn't it funny? C'mon, you fucking hipster, laugh this shit off. I dare you. Laugh."
Lots of people have a problem with the fact that Stallone is showing this shit the way it really happens. They think it's wrong for him to portray real-life atrocities in his cheesy action movie. They'd rather have him fight the Russian mafia or Eurotrash mercenaries or even not-explicitly-Muslim-but-probably-Arab terrorists. Because that's safe. It's just a campy good time at the movies. They don't have to suffer the indignity of being forced to think about stuff while sharing space with the unwashed masses.
It's like when South Park introduced Timmy, the retarded kid. He was the singer in a band, and his spastic verbal ejaculations were both hilarious and catchy. The audience loved it and he himself had a blast. But nonetheless, the townspeople protested, saying that Timmy was being exploited. But it had nothing to do with protecting Timmy. It was just that the liberal townspeople would rather have retarded people locked away where polite folks wouldn't have to feel guilty about the fact that they make them uncomfortable.
That's like Rambo with this Burma situation. Critics may bitch that Stallone is co-opting a real and ongoing tragedy, but the fact of the matter is that this movie will raise more awareness of what's going on over there than a dozen newspaper articles and documentaries. So how do you think the actual Karens feel about it? Do you think they feel exploited by Stallone, or do you think they're just glad (like Timmy) that someone is finally listening? Rambo clearly isn't a message film (it's too unpretentious for that), but Stallone knows that Rambo is a mighty worldwide icon, and he has chosen to train this symbolic power on a situation that desperately needs it.
This no-holds-barred approach also performs a vital storytelling role. The more evil Stallone makes the bad guys, the more righteous his eventual payback. It's simple physics. The farther you pull back the bowstring, the farther the arrow goes. Well, since he's Rambo, Stallone pulls that motherfucker back until it damn near snaps, and when he lets it go, that arrow flies several miles and stabs right through some inhuman cocksucker's face. And the people in the audience who aren't dead inside cheer and cheer.
I cannot describe the emotional catharsis of the last act of this movie, when Rambo leads a group of mercenaries into the woods to rescue the Christians. I could try, but I'd fail. I'm not that good a writer. Rambo is like the Roman Coliseum, only nobody really gets hurt and justice prevails in the end. And it prevails in the messiest, most jaw-dropping way imaginable.
I don't know any other way to say it, but while watching this movie, I felt more loved than I'd felt in months. When it comes to loving me, there's this movie and then there's my mother. And quite frankly, this movie knows me better. It's never been a secret what action movie fans want, but for some reason, Hollywood likes to pretend that it's a big mystery. They think we want smirky prettyboys swinging around on cables, bicycle-kicking generic henchmen. They think we want techno music and villains who bleed dust. They think we want our violence to have all the viscera and gravitas of a pinball machine.
But Stallone knows better. He listened to our pleas and gave us the action movie we've always wanted. When people get shot with a .50 caliber jeep-mounted machine gun, they don't just fall down, clutching their torsos. They break apart. Pieces fly off in clouds of blood. Just like in real life. It's not pretty, but my God, is it awesome. It is an unholy wail of rage, and if you've got the bloodlust in you, the uncivilized caveman fury, then it is absolutely exhilarating. There was a moment at the end, when Rambo is about to waste the main bad guy, and he stands up into frame in slow motion like a fucking mountain rising through the earth's crust, and I found myself releasing a roar of triumph. It was a goddamn battle cry, and I didn't plan it. It just bubbled up out of my warrior place, my don't-fuck-with-me place. After 236 individual onscreen deaths (half good guys, half bad), I felt punch drunk, blood simple, shell shocked, and kill crazy. I felt alive, invincible, and unashamed. And if that ain't loving me, then God didn't make the little green apples.
I've never seen a movie like Rambo. I've never seen a movie that combines the entertainingly cheesy with the legitimately hardcore in such separate-but-equal measures. It's a feel-good movie for people who don't usually feel so goddamn good.
Maybe some of you can't relate. Maybe you have nothing but goodness in your hearts and can't understand how watching an hour and a half of heads exploding can be an expression of joy. If that's the case—honestly and without sarcasm—I'm happy for you. You're lucky. Most of the time, this rage that people like me carry around is a curse. Unchecked, it locks us in a shell of resentment and prevents us from evolving. But properly vented, it can be a powerful motivating force—and a fucking rush. People like me spend our whole lives looking for an opportunity to use the power of our rage for something positive (as Rambo would say, "Live for nothing or die for something."), but most of us never find it, and our anger eats us up inside like stomach acid with no food to dissolve. Because we know that evil isn't just a concept. It's made flesh every day by the actions of misguided men and women, and there isn't much we can do about it. But Rambo can.
And that's the secret. That's why Rambo has remained a hero in the Third World to this day, while we Americans grew soft and weak, reimagining our heroes as video game avatars who fight simply because it looks cool. Rambo is going to be a fucking phenomenon in the Third World, especially amongst the kind of persecuted peoples that those liberal critics are so eager to protect from big, bad Sly's exploitation. Oppressed people from all over the globe are going to love it, because the poor and disenfranchised know about that hate inside, the one that needs to be vented. They know better than you or I that there is no justice in this world. But there is Rambo. And sometimes, for an hour and a half at a time, that's enough.