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Rambo Without a Cause : An Unsatisfied Action Fan's Post-Mortem

July 03, 1988|PAT H. BROESKE

So "Rambo's" being buried at the box office by wimpy types like Tom Hanks and Roger Rabbit. And industry analysts are trying to figure out why.

Hey, it's no big question mark for us action fans (and Rambo fanatics). From the moment we got an early look at the film's poster, we knew there were problems.

Instead of brandishing a humongous, furious gun, Our Hero was shown in a passive stance. Weaponless . And wearing a shirt!

There's something very wrong with that picture.

As for the moving picture, "Rambo: First Blood Part III": It's nothing Ingmar or Federico would put their names on, but it's terrifically executed wall-to-wall action, complete with chases and explosions and a super-audacious scene that finds Rambo, a.k.a. Sylvester Stallone, cauterizing his own wound. A number of critics gave it a begrudging thumbs-up. I admit, I do, too.

But if a lot is right with this movie, there's also a lot wrong.

Flash back to that "Rambo III" poster image of a passive John Rambo: That stoic stance is echoed in the film itself when Rambo is plopped smack dab into a faraway place (Afghanistan) and a war (between Afghans and invading Russkies) that never gets his blood to boiling.

He's just passin' through, so to speak, to rescue his kidnaped pal, Col. Sam Trautman. He may sympathize with the Afghans (the film doesn't flinch from detailing their terrible suffering), but their war is never his war.

Now flash back a few years ago . . . to "Rambo II" and its revisionist "this time we get to win"-in-Vietnam story line. Explosive stuff, even without special effects. Yo! We action-fans ate it up.

"II" brought the action genre to new heights with its epic story of betrayal and production values as big as its star.

OK, so that love story between Rambo and the Vietnamese girl was cornier than Kansas in you-know-when. But rabid Rambo-ites bought it--because it was kinda neat thinking that this sad soldier might find a little happiness.

Much more potent: "II's" notion that a bare-chested one-man army could liberate American MIAs still being held captive in 'Nam.

A pipe dream, there's no denying--but so what? That pipe dream was one of the great attractions of "II." And how could we not root for this pipe dream's hero? Especially given his betrayal by his own government.

That betrayal is never better illustrated than in the dramatic, from-the-air sequence that shows Rambo shouting and waving at a hovering rescue helicopter. Then suddenly, the copter pulls away--leaving him stranded! (That's heavy symbolism for us Rambo-maniacs!)

And after that he was tortured--a replay of his suffering as a POW in the harrowing flashback scenes from 1982's "First Blood." No wonder we were firmly on Rambo's side during "II's" finale, when he burst into the U.S. military complex, letting loose primal screams and a fusillade of bullets. Then Rambo emptied his guns into the guts of the military's computer system: The ultimate victory of Man over the System. Whew! And you thought "Moby Dick" was rife with symbolism!

The all-out audacity of "II" climaxed with soldier Sly's impassioned plea for America to love its Vietnam vets as much as they loved the country they had fought and died for. He took a lot of heat for going out on that limb. But he also got across a heartfelt point.

The trouble with "III" is that it plays it too safe. It's a by-the-numbers epic without a real point of view. Or heart.

Sure, we empathize with the doggedly brave Afghan warriors and their war-bloodied country. But "III" never gets us emotionally torn up over that conflict, which never goes beyond being a set-piece for some rip-roaring battle scenes.

And hey, there's not getting around the fact that Col. Trautman's kidnaping is just a device to get Rambo onto a battlefield. And that Afghan boy who becomes Rambo's semi-sidekick? Like the movie's other Afghan characters, he's a prop, not a person we care about. Too bad Sly didn't try to mine some genuine poignancy from the relationship. We like to see Big John showing some depth and dimension. We'd like a reason to care.

When "Rambo III" opens, we find that its main man has found a kind of inner peace, since his exploits in "II." (Living with Thai monks has a habit of doing that to a guy.) When Trautman first asks him to accept an Afghan mission, Rambo turns it down, saying, "My war is over."

We don't buy that for a minute.

Sly, that ain't the way a character of Rambo's now-mythic qualities should play it. A guy like Rambo can never be at peace; there's always a war raging inside him. It's his fate. If he were dropped into a Western setting and called upon to save Mexican villagers, he'd be dubbed "The Magnificent One." In a post-apocalyptic setting with wars waged over fuel, he'd be "The Road Rambo."

At first he may be reluctant to go back to the battlefield. But once there, the Big Guy not only saves the little guys, he also feels for their plight. And sticks around to the bitter end. Not until all the dust has settled does he ride out of town. And then, like it or not, he heads toward the next battle. That's the destiny of a heroic warrior character. With "III," Sly's got Rambo bucking destiny.

We get a hint of what "III" could have made us feel when the end credits roll by and Sly drops in that '60s song, "He Ain't Heavy (He's My Brother)." It's soppy, but it also expresses a sense of caring, as if Sly's finally delivering his speech on behalf of the cause of Afghan freedom.

But by the time the song plays, it's too little too late. Like John Rambo passing through Afghanistan, we're just passin' through this movie. Our hearts and minds just aren't in it.

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