A friend and I got to talking the other day, about Sylvester Stallone's recent "comebacks." We noted that while Clint Eastwood is growing old gracefully, Stallone is somewhat desperate in attempting to capture old glories by reviving the characters he once played. But unlike Eastwood, who did, in fact, return to an old haunt, too, namely the western, Stallone does not ply the same intelligent route but merely reenacts to the point of self-parody. Eastwood, on the other hand, redefined and reimagined the western in Unforgiven, somewhat reversing his usual role as the macho hero/anti-hero.
I told my friend: "Clint is like fine wine; he gets better with age. Sly is like bad beer; tastes terrible when it's old."
That may sound harsh, especially to die-hard fans like this writer of the book, In The Eye Of The Tiger - Survival Principles From Sylvester Stallone's Life And Films, whose admiration somehow translated itself into a crystal-ball gaze of penetrating insights into Stallone's Art Of War. No doubt, the writer is sincere in his idolisation of the actor, but it's also important to note what the Rocky and Rambo franchises meant in the larger and more focused context of ideology and politics.
As far as Rocky is concerned, the films' racial undercurrents have been well-documented in articles like this one by Michael Gallantz, or the recent scathing review of Rocky Balboa by The Guardian. While the Gallantz article pointedly observes that Rocky is basically anti-affirmative action and that its hidden racism is "vicious and systematic," the Guardian review by Joe Queenan notes that "there is no cliche African-American athletes despise more than being told that their talent is God-given, rather than the result of their own hard work and perseverance, the first Rocky said exactly what White America wanted to hear: They're gifted but we work harder."
Queenan also poignantly laments that a statue of Stallone had been temporarily placed on the Art Museum steps in Philadelphia (those steps made famous by Rocky), but nowhere in the City Of Brotherly Love is there a similar tribute to the real working-class hero, Joe Frazier.
Meanwhile, we now have scores of fans enjoying the return of one-man-killing-machine John Rambo in what is known in these parts as Rambo 4. This time, Rambo battles yet another Enemy Flavour Of The Times, the Burmese (or Myanmar, in non-fantastical movie terms) junta. But you know, Rambo's got to keep up with what's currently hot, so you have ten times the violence of the earlier films. But what really does Rambo represent? The ultimate self-help guru of contemporary times?
You need delve no deeper than Robert Kolker's excellent film analysis book, A Cinema Of Loneliness (Oxford University Press, 3rd edition 2000) to find the answers. The Reaganesque ideals of the series are laid bare, as is the embodiment and satisfaction of the right-wing fantasy of the hero who will put things right at no cost but to himself. Writes Kolker:
"Rambo is everyone's toy soldier, placed in fantasies of war, beyond harm even when captured and tortured, the apotheosis of the virile posing that Susan Sontag pointed to as a mark of fascist aesthetics. He is the perfect human machine, a cyborg, making new ideological history in which, because of his efforts, 'We get to win this time.'"
The enemies in the earlier films - the Vietnamese and the Russians - are representations and recreations of WWII Japanese and Nazis, respectively, observes Kolker. And in the final moments of First Blood, Rambo's psychological imbalance and emotional damages were blamed not on the war or American intervention, but on the "evil" other.
What's scarier is that, according to the writer, after a Middle East hostage crisis in 1985, then President Reagan said: "After seeing Rambo last night, I'll know what to do next time."