Next May 25, John Rambo will open in wide release across a troubled planet, 20 years to the day after the opening of the last Rambo sequel, Rambo III. Like last year's Rocky Balboa, the eponymous final installment in the Rambo franchise was written and directed by Sylvester Stallone in an attempt to recapture some of the early magic of his most famous roles, and thus rescue a career that was born in the glory of Rocky but soon became shorthand for the end of mild retardation as an impediment to success in the dramatic arts. Anyone who ever endured Rhinestone or Tango & Cash in a snowed-in three-channel motel knows that Stallone deserves all four of his Razzie awards for Worst Actor (he's been nominated a record 12 times). When he's not playing Rocky, he really is that bad.
One of Stallone's Razzies recognized his performance in Rambo III, the explosion-filled crap-fest apotheosis of the 80s action genre. Back then he was teaming up with heroic Mujahideen in Afghanistan to rescue his old friend Colonel Trautman, held hostage by a cartoon villain Soviet officer named Zaysen. The movie was the most expensive film ever made at the time ($63 million; 1988); it was also the most ridiculously violent. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the movie has 221 acts of violence resulting in 108 onscreen deaths, most of them KIA's racked up by Rambo's heavy-caliber machine guns, explosive-tipped arrows, and eighteen-inch survival knife. It also has some of the best/worst action dialogue ever written. Zaysen: "Who are you?" Rambo: "Your worst nightmare." And who can forget this classic exchange: Zaysen: "Who do you think this man is? The Lord?" Trautman: "No. God would have mercy. He won't."
Rambo III has two other claims to movie fame. Stallone signed on to the Rambo sequels in the depths of Reagan's Cold War, and the story-lines and scripts were prepared against a news backdrop of creeping Sandanistas in Central America and bigger payload SS-20s in Central Europe. But all that started shifting between the second and third Rambo sequels, and Rambo III was released into the immediate wake of Gorbachev's famous 1988 charm assault in Washington, which sent Gorby-mania through the roof and set the stage for the End of the Cold War. Hollywood's scarface Russian villains suddenly looked ridiculous and passe. Rambo III and its bloated budget twisted in the box office winds, red-faced and saddled with the distinction of having the worst timed release in movie history. It was the last unabashedly idiotic Cold War flick ever made.
What's an action-hero moron to do when the commies become pitiful eastern Europeans, the Vietnam POW myth finally draws its last malarial breathe, and the freedom fighters of the Mujahideen morph into the dreaded bin Laden-harboring Taliban?
Rambo did what any psycho vet with bad knees and a little money would do. He moved to Thailand.
An unofficial preview for John Rambo has been on YouTube since Cannes, where Stallone personally lugged a reel of the three and a half minute clip he edited himself. It starts with a shot of Rambo fishing with a bow and (non-explosive) arrow at dawn. Stallone is 62 now and looks it -- fat, melted-ass-looking face; torso still massive but no longer poster-worthy. Cut to Rambo declining an offer to take a clueless group of NGO-type do-gooders upriver to Burma, aka Myanmar.
"Burma's a war zone," Rambo informs them.
"It's more like genocide!" says a fresh-faced NGO kid, referring to the real-life Karen people, who've been waging a low-grade insurgency against the Burmese junta for years.
"You bring any weapons?" asks Rambo. "Then you ain't changin' nothin'."