`Rambo': machismo, malice, and mayhem

You've probably seen the coming attractions for ``Rambo: First Blood Part II'' half a dozen times by now. If not, just close your eyes and picture two rapid-fire minutes of guns, helicopters, and Sylvester Stallone's skin-popping muscles. For once, the advertisement sums up the movie pretty well. As promised, ``Rambo'' has little on its dull, narrow mind except weapons, machismo, and bulging biceps.

Off-screen, though, it's being touted as a high-class item. Press agents have been nudging scribblers like me to see it as a sociological feat -- one of a small, gutsy band of films that dare to break a long silence and probe the Vietnam war's troubled aftermath.

Southeast Asia is indeed edging into the movies lately. While combat was still raging there, even war pictures steered away from it, preferring to dwell on less controversial conflicts. Hollywood is catching up, but on its own terms -- the terms of sentimentality, as in ``The Killing Fields,'' and gross vulgarity, as in ``Missing in Action'' and ``Rambo.''

Add these films up (allowing for the sincerity that redeems ``The Killing Fields''), and I don't see much new insight regarding the Vietnam tragedy. I see only a simple message: Time softens most experiences, and enough years have passed for the carnage in Southeast Asia to become movie fodder just like all the other wars that have been used and abused since cinema was invented.

If that sounds captious, lay it to the 93 minutes I spent in the presence of ``Rambo,'' a foolish film by any standard. True, it gives a quick nod to political debate, as a Good Soldier and a Bad Soldier argue the wisdom of rescuing GIs still missing in action. And the last scene makes an important point, appealing for more compassion toward the men who risked their lives in a thankless and unpopular war. But these moments don't make up for the barrage of treachery, malice, and mayhem -- every speck of it gratuitous -- that follows.

Our hero is in jail at the beginning, due to the escapades of his earlier movie. He gets sprung by the government, which needs him for a dangerous job. His mission: to sneak into Vietnam, look for MIAs, take photographs of them, and bring these back to headquarters.

Rambo isn't the type of guy to settle for snapshots, though. He'll rescue any MIAs he finds, and do it alone if he has to. So while the Army folks are checking their computers and high-tech gear, he straps knives to his legs and clips bullets into his gun, ready for a one-man replay of the war.

But wouldn't you know, it's one of those weeks when everything goes wrong. First his parachute snags when he jumps out of the plane. Then his Vietnamese helpers sell him out. Then the Bad Soldier strands him in the jungle, even though the Good Soldier is just inches away.

This gets Rambo down for a while. But misfortune rarely haunts a Hollywood hero for long, and soon fortune smiles on him again. For instance, a Russian enemy flies his helicopter so low that Rambo can jump into it, kill everyone, and make a getaway. Another handy thing is his extremely good aim. He doesn't miss one shot in the whole movie. Better yet, the bad guys don't hit anything in the whole movie, with one exception -- which is, unfortunately, Rambo's new girl friend.

All this is just as stupid as it sounds, and wildly offensive in its eager violence. ``Rambo'' is also a shamelessly racist movie, turning legitimate issues -- including the MIA question -- into excuses for venomous ethnic portraits. Stallone, a Great White Hero, stands valiantly between the Yellow Peril and the Red Menace, each as loony and sadistic as the screenplay can paint it. The mayhem that Rambo commits isn't warfare, since there is no war going on, or murder, since the victims are seen as subhuman. It's extermination, and we're meant to cheer as he sullenly stamps the vermin into the ground.

George P. Cosmatos, the director of ``Rambo,'' fills it with awkward close-ups and plodding performances that add neither credibility nor realism. In place of style he offers spectacle and nasty details, without fretting over common sense -- blanketing the MIA bunks with rats and tarantulas, for instance, that would have killed off the sickly captives long before the movie began.

A vicious touch like this doesn't make sense, even on its own terms. But it gives a quick jolt, and that's what the movie is really after. Its concern with political and humanitarian issues is a front, judging from nearly all the evidence on the screen. At heart, this is no brave look at problems that must be faced. It's an exploitation film as slick, superficial, and -- in its cold, crude physicality -- as pornographic as they come.

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