1985: When ‘Rambo’ tightened his grip on the American psyche

  • >> Wesley Morris, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-05-30 12:58:52 BdST

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Thirty-five Memorial Days ago, Sylvester Stallone was atop the box office pile, in “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” smooth, rippling and outrageously oily. The movie opened alongside a flaccid 14th Bond film (“A View to a Kill”) and a confusing Richard Pryor comedy (“Brewster’s Millions”); it crushed both. This was a great Top 10 week. You had the country’s two most important comedians, Pryor and Eddie Murphy, at the back half and the beginning of their careers, movies with Cher, Madonna and Grace Jones; and Harrison Ford aligning his stardom with excellent, nonfranchise filmmaking.

But this was the week Stallone tightened his grip on the country’s psyche. His original stint as John Rambo, “First Blood,” opened in 1982 and was a more sizable hit than you’d expect for a movie about a Vietnam vet facing all kinds of persecution on American soil. If Rambo had arrived in the 1970s, the decade’s emotional and moral hangover from war and presidential scandal might have landed him on some city’s police force or in the anti-war movement; and the movie would’ve been broodingly psychological. “First Blood” pits Rambo against the law. He wins yet he loses (long story). The movie has something angrily existential at its core. The sequel, which George Cosmatos directed, vanquishes any trace of interiority and tripled the original’s domestic gross.

At this point, Stallone had made a third “Rocky” smash. He’d become so much man that the shooting and running and grunting and surviving he was about to do needed a built-in disclaimer. So here comes Murdock, a scheming military bureaucrat and Rambo’s new nemesis (Charles Napier) who dares question Stallone’s fitness for more.

“Are you sure he’s still not unbalanced from the war?” Murdock asks, in his five-star Kentucky accent. “We can’t afford to have anyone involved who might crack under pressure in that hell.”

Now, the average screenwriter might have just had Rambo answer that question with a body count. But the average screenwriter didn’t bang out “Part II.” Stallone did — with James Cameron. They make the mission suspiciously modest: go back to Vietnam for reconnaissance on American POWs. Don’t free ‘em, don’t go starting another war. Just. Take. Pictures. I love that there’s conceivably a version of this movie where Stallone is Horst Faas.

Rambo’s advocate, the Green Beret-ed, hopelessly devoted Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), sets Napier straight. “Let me just say that Rambo is the best combat vet I’ve ever seen. A pure fighting machine with only a desire to win a war that someone else lost. And if winning means he has to die, he’ll die. No fear, no regrets.”

Not only has Trautman just laid out the plot, he’s done the poster copy and the trailer narration, too. He’s not done, either: “What you choose to call hell he calls home.” People paid to see Stallone as an underdog. They paid a lot more to see him as a god. Rambo started out as a fascinating character, and like Rocky Balboa, was engulfed by Stallone. In the opening minutes, he wanders around the fancy control room that Murdock oversees, sneering at all the blurping screens. His arms are straight at his sides and his chest puffed out for the entire scene. You don’t know whether the Army made him or Mattel.

We know the government’s going to re-stab him in the back. His patriotism constitutes an abusive marriage he won’t leave. But what’s Stallone supposed to be acting in “Part II”? The first time it was principle. Now it’s attitude. The movie transmutes his seething into action. His bulging, veiny body is, on the one hand, a rictus of rage.

On the other — oh, who am I trying to fool? This is the sort of movie that jumps right from a close-up of a whirring jet engine to an even tighter shot of Stallone’s arms mid-flex. The camera slides from his shoulder down to his hand and forearm sharpening a knife blade.

He was at peak he-man. In six months, we’d see him in the winter training sequence from “Rocky IV,” performing the most ludicrous feat of physical labour ever filmed. Stallone wound up with 1985’s second and third most popular movies. It’s funny to think about that. Loosely, the Rambo films are national tragedies that the country devoured as sexy jingoism, just as it had Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” which was the year’s biggest album. Stallone’s physique, the stunt work, the limitless carnage — they turned the blockbuster into a pornographic political event and Stallone into a permanent delusion of American supremacy. Last year, President Donald Trump tweeted a picture of his head on one of Rocky’s bodies. Images from some of these “reopen the country” protests are straight from the posters for “Rambo.”

Stallone wasn’t the only action star in this Memorial Day cookout. Chuck Norris was down at No. 6 with “Code of Silence,” a hit in its fourth week and as violent as “Rambo.” But the scale is smaller, cops-versus-drug-syndicate stuff. Norris is a Chicago detective trying, along with the rest of the force, to bring down warring Colombian and Italian crime outfits. It’s a tight, involving thriller that doesn’t lose its mind until the last 10 minutes.

Norris doesn’t get a back story, but there’s nothing explicitly Chicago-cop about him. And he’s not the kind of star who would make sense in just anything. The strange pleasure of Norris’ martial arts, Tex-Mex and James Braddock movies is how they seemed engineered to make the most of his averageness. Exciting as it is, “Code of Silence” just makes you wonder what this man is doing in this city on this case.

Still, Norris was more with the program than James Bond. The ’80s action movie didn’t put the 007 brand out of business. It just embarrassed the films’ relative decorum. In “View to a Kill,” Bond is trying to stop Christopher Walken from drugging horses and blowing up Silicon Valley (Walken’s bleached hair made him a dead ringer for the decade’s top bad-guy star, Rutger Hauer). There was no place for tuxedos and dressage and the usual risible double entendres. (One young horse rider identifies herself as Jenny Flex.)

It’s not that the action here doesn’t work. The ski-slope pre-credit sequence ought to be scooped and coned, and the climactic mine-shaft explosion looks like it cost a lot of money and geology. But the finale involves a blimp. Why? And in his seventh stint as Bond, Roger Moore had aged from vital to bewitchingly indecipherable. Grace Jones is the most alive person in the movie. A poster puts her and Moore back to back and actually wonders whether Bond has finally met his match. There’s no contest. At some point, she jumps off the Eiffel Tower and glides into Walken’s speedboat. Imagine Hollywood with this woman’s stardom breathing down Stallone’s neck. Imagine the political pornography of her.

American movies were too uptight to get into that kind of alternative reality. So Jones remained exotic. Instead, conservative ideals of law and order drove a cluster of ’80 action movies, a phenomenon vividly explored in “Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan,” J Hoberman’s critical look at the decade’s moral depredations. Law enforcement and its military stand-ins had the movies’ undivided empathy and unmitigated lust. Dirty Harry’s clenched street purges and Norris’ dungaree justice had been eroticized. Stallone’s lawmen — in “Cobra” (1986) and “Tango & Cash” (1989) — seem like strip-o-grams. We’d been made detective-sexual — the dirtier, the hotter, the nuttier, the better. Even when we laughed at them, the way “Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment” (in its eighth week out) wanted us to, we were meant to be aware that city streets were still safer patrolled by idiot cops, and the series’ star, Steve Guttenberg, was almost accidentally hunky.

In “Witness,” which was in 10th place, the Amish are treated with more care and concern than the enclaves in other American action thrillers. The movie was written by Earl Wallace, Pamela Wallace and William Kelley, and directed by Peter Weir, and has Harrison Ford as a Philadelphia detective named John Book. What a movie. What a name for a cop. Book is hiding out in rural Pennsylvania with the family of the little murder witness (Lukas Haas) in his charge. Everybody’s waiting for the killers to track them down, which makes the film a kind of Western. It was made with patience and wonder (Maurice Jarre’s synth-and-string score sounds like a night beneath the stars) and an eye toward all kinds of suspense — will John get found? Will he and the boy’s mother (Kelly McGillis) get it on? Will he get the hang of those cow udders?

This movie was in its fourth month — its fourth month! Weeks had passed before it got near the top of the chart. Ford had never been better. His Teflon sarcasm had eased into a vulnerable warmth. He was ready to stop reacting and start acting (and he was already a master reactor). “Witness” could have been a farce or a straight-ahead drama. Yet it turns quiet and observant for a long stretch, and people went for it. This movie is one of those cases in which everything just went magically right. (It got eight Oscar nominations and won for editing and original screenplay.) It’s an exceptional version of a kind of movie that used to come out almost once a month. If it came out at all in 2020, it’d be streaming in eight parts, meaning the cows wouldn’t be the only things getting milked.

The thing about the country’s action-hero obsession was that it tended to be a white-male domain. After the blaxploitation era, a black actor was either the perp or the relatively silent partner. (In “Witness,” Danny Glover is one of the killers; Brent Jennings is Ford’s sidekick.) So Murphy was shocking in “Beverly Hills Cop.” He was the cop! By Memorial Day, the movie was still a phenomenon at No. 4, in part because he was black but also because he was cool, self-aware and barely legal to drink. Stallone had been a star for almost 10 years. Norris, Moore and Ford weren’t young. When “Beverly Hills Cop” opened in December 1984, Murphy was 23. This is why he was an instant, enormous star. He was the first day of spring — and not a macho man. The movie keeps him in a sweatshirt and jeans while the LA cops, namely Judge Reinhold and John Ashton, wear suits and ties. The other characters are straight, and he was thrillingly sideways.

Stallone was the year’s most consequential star. Murphy was the year’s most exciting. You might, however, spare a thought for the shortage of women on the list that week doing anything new. It’s full of side dishes (Lonette McKee in “Brewster's Millions”) and damsels. Tanya Roberts screaming and dangling in the Bond movie is a real low. But Molly Hagan, on the run from gangsters in “Code of Silence,” appears to be method-acting her way through danger with a naturalism I’ve never seen. She’s intensely imperilled. Meanwhile, in the Rambo movie, Julia Nickson, as a sexy Vietnamese agent, really holds her own (and her own artillery) with Stallone. She and Grace Jones could have taken the American shoot-’em-up someplace fascinating.

Nonetheless, only a few women got top billing. At No. 9, down at Rambo’s toes, was the mistaken-identity comedy “Desperately Seeking Susan,” written by Leora Barish and directed by Susan Seidelman. It’s a hit about an unhappy New Jersey housewife (Rosanna Arquette) who’s so obsessed with a series of classified ads that she tries to meet the woman they’re about, then backs into a pole and develops amnesia. The woman is Madonna, and the movie arrived at the dawn of her world domination (the album “Like a Virgin” was 6 months old), and it would be enough to conclude that this is the longest Madonna impersonation until Lady Gaga. But the movie still charms. Madonna was never as natural an actor as she is here, essentially playing herself.

Back then, people called small, original, regional comedies like this “offbeat,” which meant the men at a studio didn’t test the life out of them. This isn’t a great movie. It never finds a consistent comedic rhythm. That’s not the same, of course, as it’s not being funny or feeling true. It’s both. I can still practically smell every location — in Atlantic City and Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Battery Park. The fragrance is wonderful — eau de sidewalk.

Cher was closing out a third month in “Mask,” playing the queen of an LA biker family and single mother of Rocky Dennis, a charismatic teenager (Eric Stoltz) with a cranial deformity. Right around the corner were her mighty 1987 and ’88 — a platinum comeback album, three movies, one of which, “Moonstruck,” would win her that best actress Oscar. “Mask” is an Oedipal Movie of the Week, one where the kid does all the parenting because the mother is a mess who’s Doing Her Best. The part would be impossible for any star to get precisely right, so Cher bulldozes through it — drunk, high, righteous, exasperated. It should be too much, but Peter Bogdanovich is the director, working from a gentle script by Anna Hamilton Phelan. He wants to spare us the usual melodrama and opens the movie out into a life-size relationship picture with great parts for Sam Elliott, Estelle Getty, Kelly Jo Minter and, especially, a blind Laura Dern as Rocky’s first kiss. But it’s Stoltz’s movie. Once tragedy strikes (there are two funerals in about 15 minutes), Cher does get to treat her dining room worse than Rambo treats the Viet Cong.

When “Mask” was over, I did fantasize about what kind of professional magic she and Stallone could have made together. Would their confidence have clashed or cohered? Would their hair? Together, they could have fought alongside the mujahedeen in “Rambo III.”

It’s been hazardous fun misunderstanding Rambo all these years. What he stood for was almost instantly less important than how steroidally American he’s made us feel — never mind that Stallone has astonishingly sad eyes; that all America did was break Rambo’s heart. (And that’s still being romantic about it). The credits roll after “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” with a ballad written and bench-pressed by Stallone’s brother Frank, and the mind does wander, to a future sequel, perhaps. John Rambo was born in 1947. This would be his 73rd year. And maybe he’d excel in the current, viral straits, leading a protest at some state capital (just last fall he was exterminating Mexican drug cartels in “Rambo: Last Blood”). Or maybe he’d eventually find himself in a veterans home, felled, alas, by these decades of trauma, on the cusp of having his heart broken again, possibly forever.

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