Saturday, October 26, 2019

Rambo: Last Blood and the evolution of Rambo as a vehicle for propaganda

Erika and I watched Rambo: Last Blood today. We kind of enjoyed it.

Allow me to explain that.

Agreed: the only actual good film of the five - five! - Rambo movies is First Blood. Filmed in BC, directed by a Canadian, and featuring an amusing, VERY brief early appearance by Bruce Greenwood (!), the film is anti-authoritarian, aware of the dangers of the abuse of power, and sympathetic to the plight of soldiers, to the extent that the climax of the film occurs not during one of the shoot'em ups, but when Rambo breaks down crying near the film's end. Best of all, it is all these things without ever seeming to act as a propaganda vehicle for any particular political movement or cause. We take Brian Dennehy and his bad cops as fairly realistic examples of the potential for small town cops to be violent hicks, without ever seeming to need to generalize that all cops are bad, or even that these particular cops are all bad (even Dennehy seems well-meaning at various times). We sympathize with soldiers, but we are aware that soldiers can do and have done - say, in Vietnam - some horrifying things, which they may be scarred by. We also realize that the film is somewhat critical of the American failure to take care of its veterans, but we probably don't want to form our own anti-government survivalist movement and move to a shack in the country to start weapons training for the inevitable conflict. The film is pretty much just a solid drama with no objectionable political subtext or intent.

Rambo: First Blood Part II is the first obvious film in the series to have a real propaganda edge to it, but as I was just Rambo-splaining to my wife, Erika, the film is kind of curious in how it approaches what it is propagandizing. It is dubious that any forces in America at the time of its making actually wanted, for example, to return to Vietnam to rescue missing prisoners of war, or that indeed anyone involved in the making of the film (or consuming of it) actually believed a large number of such prisoners existed, so it's not like the film was explicitly propagandizing such a cause, in the way, say, True Lies is explicitly propagandizing Islamophobia. It's actually a somewhat curious piece of American bullshit, because while it does have a bit of that right wing, flag-waving, patriotism-stokin', enemy-hatin' racist fever at its heart - it's maybe THE film of the 1980's that has the most in common with a Trump rally, like The Dark Knight is in its own way THE action film of generation Gitmo - its influence is kind of generalized, without obvious real-world sociopolitical intention. Wave the flag and attack, well, someone. For some reason. Even if the one in this movie is kinda far-fetched.

Rambo III, meanwhile - as I recall it, anyhow, having seen it first run, and not having revisited it since - is the one with the richest and most weaponized propaganda value, appearing to argue for US support of anti-Russian jihadis in Afghanistan, who are portrayed as heroes and allies. Since the CIA was (apparently) funding (through Pakistan) the training of Mujahadeen, including (I believe it has been established) Osama bin Laden, the film is especially interesting post-9/11. It would be really interesting to think about blowback, about the way old allies become enemies, and the shameless opportunism of US foreign policy, while watching this film with the benefit of hindsight. The film may well have been made with US government aid; it's every bit as potent a piece of propaganda as Triumph of the Will, except with a soldier, not Hitler, as its hero.

I'm actually kind of keen to revisit it, given the above.

Then came just plain and simple Rambo, the film structurally most similar to Rambo: First Blood pt Ii, involving a rescue mission, this time into Myanmar. I suspect that Myanmar was chosen as its location - or were they calling it Burma? - not because of any political objectives or ambitions on the part of the US government in that region, but simply because not many people in North America have strong feelings about Myanmar one way or the other. It was a way to put Rambo at the heart of a bloody political conflict and (doubtlessly) misrepresent it freely to suit the purposes of the story, precisely because most people don't follow what's going on in Myanmar that closely. The Burmese bad guys are like the aliens in the Alien franchise or the zombies in anything: an excuse to have heroes fighting, a pretext for onscreen violence, an enemy to kill. The film is, in a way, the purest action film of the lot, the one least morally suspect, for all its brutal violence; as for the rest - "it's just a movie, don't take it so seriously," as they always say, but this time it kind of rings true. People with a deeper investment in Myanmar may feel differently; and hell, maybe there WAS some US military/ government involvement in Myanmar that the film was somehow trying to justify or drum up tacit support for? I don't really read it that way, but I dunno. (This isn't to say it isn't, possibly, racist or otherwise offensive; apologies to Burma, but I still find it kind of ridiculously entertaining, for how over-the-top its kills are, even though I presume it has absolutely nothing of value to offer by way of insights into the actual conflicts in the region).

So the series, to recap:
1) Begins with an anti-authoritarian drama
2) Develops into vague propaganda
3) Becomes very clear propaganda, with a possibility of direct real-world implications
4) Appears to try to use a propaganda-like structure of the previous two films in the service of a somewhat apolitical action film.

Where would the last chapter land? I was curious.

Answer: pretty close to installment 3, actually, as having very visible/ weaponized propaganda content. As a friend (hi, Ken! ) pointed out the other day, there's obviously a connection between this film and the mood in Trump's America vis-a-vis Mexico, with anti-Mexican sentiment so high in the film that at one point, a character says she wants to go to Mexico, and Rambo's first response, offered with no explanation or cause, is "why do you want to do that?" This is then followed up a Mexican character - the sole sympathetic one - characterizing ALL OF MEXICO as "a dangerous place." The film makes the director's first feature, Get the Gringo, which is also full of images of sleazy, evil, dangerous Mexicans, seem quite fair and evenhandedby comparison, since there are also some virtuous Mexicans among its characters (compared to the single sole decent Mexican in the new Rambo film, whose decency has required her, apparently, to leave her country; she's the one who describes it as "dangerous."

The propaganda content is not the most interesting part of the film, however, and does seem to come second, as a purpose for the film, to the main goal of providing excuses for Rambo to kill people, as in the previous film. The most interesting thing about the film, in fact, is how godawful the screenplay is, and how - once Rambo breaks out his knife and starts menacing people with it - little that ultimately matters. Despite two screenwriters being given credit (one of whom is Sylvester Stallone; I wonder if his screenwriting credit was given him because he mostly improvised his lines, or something?), the English-speaking characters in this film, including Stallone, seem to be making up everything they say on the spot, with an eye towards advancing the action of the film; with a combination of cliches - which Erika likened to Hallmark cards - and dully literal plot advancements, often offered with an air of grandiose macho posturing, the film feels like it could have been written in crayon...

But even as you roll your eyes at the ham-fisted tough talk, you will also be aware that it doesn't really matter much to being able to enjoy the film, in the lowbrow, a-critical way that it is intended to be enjoyed. After all, no one who has come to this movie is expecting good writing; if they wanted something well-written, they wouldn't be seeing a Rambo film at all. No: we have assembled to see Stallone growl at people and kill them, to stab people in the neck, to create cool 'Nam-style booby traps, to shoot people with arrows, to beat people to death with a hammer, and, with the aid of a giant knife, to rip out a still-beating human heart and show it to its owner (all of which Rambo does in the film, note).

And as atrociously-written as it is, it's very well made, in terms if its images. If you can play past its anti-Mexican, politically suspect/ racist elements, it clips along at a fast pace, is nicely photographed and edited - maybe a bit less so than Get the Gringo, which is written with wit and style, compared to the new Rambo film, and is also a bit showier with its camera-craft and set designs.

In an odd way, it was even kind of comforting to see that the propaganda elements had crept back in; I kind of felt nostalgiaic for the days of Rambo II and III when watching it. You don't get many blunt-weapon style Hollywood propaganda films these days. In that regard, Rambo: Last Blood is kind of an old-school throwback of a movie.

My Mom, had she lived to watch it, would have been screaming "kill him!" at the screen, when Rambo finally squared off against the main villain.

She was fun to watch movies like this with, actually.

Erika and I kind of enjoyed it, too.

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