Monday, April 07, 2008

Rambo Ends the Burmese Civil War

this is the long version of a review of stallone's latest "rambo" film that i wrote for the post- and had to be published in a much more abridged version

Rambo Ends the Burmese Civil War
The fourth installment of the series is the smartest stupid movie ever

For a while, American film studios had stumbled into a period of producing thoughtful and entertaining thrillers about international politics like “Syriana,” “The Constant Gardener,” and “Children of Men.” Those precious years has slipped behind us, our theatres now clogged with such pretentious fair as “Lions and Lambs,” “The Kite Runner,” and “Redacted.” In this dark time, one film stands alone as a beacon of light: “Rambo,” the fourth installment of the infamous Sylvester Stallone films that began with 1982’s “First Blood.” “Rambo” continues the series’ legacy of faux-political action films whose exploitative violence problematizes their good intentions. In “First Blood,” Rambo comes home from the Vietnam War haunted by post-traumatic stress disorder and unable to resume a normal civilian life. When some redneck cops try to start trouble with him, a mini war breaks out between a man who destroyed his humanity for his country and his unappreciative fellow Americans. Naturally, this thoughtful message gets buried deep beneath a pile of bodies.

This time around, Rambo has “gone native,” living in solitude in Thailand when he is approached by Christian missionaries who want to hire Rambo to ferry them up river to Burma where they deliver medicine and Bibles to the Karen people, who, as everyone on this campus knows, have been brutally oppressed by the Burmese government for nearly 60 years. The film’s brilliance is expressed in an exchange between Rambo and the arrogant head missionary who says that they are going to Burma “change peoples lives,” to which Rambo responds:

“Are you bringing weapons?”

“Of course not.”

“Then you’re not changing anything.”

What “Rambo” reminds us of is that, as Mao put it, “Political power comes from the barrel of a gun,” not from the well-wishing of NGO’s. “Rambo” should be commended for its borderline-parodical portrayal of these liberal Christian missionaries whose talk of pacifism and “making a difference” really does ring hollow next to the film’s excessive violence. When the Burmese army (of course) captures the missionaries, it is up to Rambo and a weirdly-multicultural team of mercenaries to go rescue them and strike a blow for the Karen people in the Burmese civil conflict along the way, like some vigilante United Nations task force.

“Rambo” is by far the most violent film in the series. The battle scenes are an overwhelming spectacle. Fire and computer-generated blood are everywhere. Children are dismembered. Men are eaten alive by animals. Bodies are rearranged most creative ways imaginable. With their quick cuts and boundless grotesquery, these scenes are halfway between Sergei Eisenstein and Hieronymus Bosch. Sure, it is pure violence offered up for uncritical consumption as entertainment, and it is not even good filmmaking. But, these scenes are nonetheless captivating, especially when, after the nearly avant-garde montages of horror end, they are capped off with genre clich├ęs (swelling music, close-ups of emotionally fraught faces heroically blackened with blood and grime) that feel strangely out of place, as though the whole film were some kind of perverse, high-concept parody.

Don’t get me wrong: “Rambo” is a stupid and exploitative film. Women exist only to be rescued (if they’re white) or to be gang raped (if they’re not). The plot is not really about the Burmese civil war at all, but about the white people who get entangled in it, and the Burmese themselves are portrayed not so much as people but as masses of brown flesh to be butchered in the most spectacular way possible—or as butchers themselves. The only significant Burmese character is the brooding, silent (or at least un-subtitled) Burmese army officer who acts as ringmaster of the genocide. With burning villages reflecting in his aviator sunglasses, he is a serviceable villain, but his portrayal as a pederast is the film’s least tasteful gesture.

Nonetheless, there are penetrating moments of truth scattered amidst the blood and rubble. When Rambo says to a mercenary, “Live for nothing or die for something,” he names precisely what is prohibited by the self-designated forces of “progress” today. Today one is free to do anything but die for a cause, and to believe in anything except that which you might have to kill for, or else one is labeled an “extremist.” Meanwhile, the ongoing dirty work of politics is farmed out to the armies of other countries, or done with advanced weapons technology that keep our beautiful souls at a safe distance. Perhaps the only way to get Rambo’s valuable message across in theatres today, when soft-headed liberals have monopolized “serious” films, is to disguise it in a dumb action flick.

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