June 03, 1985 12:00 PM

Despite the promiscuous violence of Rambo, the pivotal scene isn’t one of the film’s many battles or killings. When John Rambo, the unstable veteran that Sylvester Stallone created in the original First Blood, returns to Vietnam on a top-secret mission to search for prisoners of war, he finds a camp that is a hellhole. Between trees hangs a bearded, skeletal prisoner strung up as though he’s been crucified. With a flick of his ever-ready, frequently caressed 15-inch knife (the most lovingly photographed of the many phallic symbols in the movie), Stallone cuts down this Jesus-in-the-jungle. The point is: Jesus may save, but Rambo saves Jesus. It’s that kind of brazen deification of the macho ethic that makes Rambo more insidious and dangerous than a mere Rocky Goes to the Killing Fields. This film equates violence with manliness to a degree that might make even Brian De Palma blush. In fact, director George C. (Of Unknown Origins) Cosmatos invents a new success ethic in this situation: You’re only as masculine as your last murder. And because the sparse script by Stallone and James Cameron unfolds with none of the plot or imagination that brightened Cameron’s solo effort, The Terminator, masculine mythmaking provides just about the only diversion in Rambo. After Stallone is double-crossed by an American government official who doesn’t expect him to find any prisoners, he explodes in an orgy of spitting gunfire and spent bullets—complete with an orgasmic cry of relief. Before he walks off, Stallone proclaims that all veterans just want “for our country to love us as much as we love it.” This is ill-timed moralizing. Stallone might have found the audience more receptive to that sentiment if his character hadn’t just run amok. Violence isn’t simply a purifying act for this guy; it also succeeds in making him articulate. Until his climactic burst of brutality, he hasn’t spoken more than two sentences. Then suddenly, he’s a grandstanding spokesman for soldiers everywhere. As Stallone departs, the rescued Christ figure bestows on him a nod of thanks. The gesture provides what is apparently the real message of the movie: Even God owes one to Sly. (R)

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