“I’m reminded of a recent, very popular movie. And in the spirit of Rambo, let me tell you: we’re gonna win this time.” The year was 1985, the speaker was President Ronald Reagan, the war “we [were] gonna win this time” was the invasion of Cambodia, and the movie was Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985). In 1985, Sylvester Stallone was not simply the biggest movie star in America, (boasting the #2 and #3 box office champions of the year), nor was he simply a symbol of America (as discussed exhaustively here). Long before cinematic catchphrases like “Mission Accomplished!” and “We’re gonna smoke ‘im out of his hole!” were expected – nay, encouraged – from Commanders in Chief, Sylvester Stallone was a small component of American foreign policy!
To interviewers, Stallone often has rued Reagan’s comment for “politicizing” Rambo, professing shock – shock! – that his movie about a war-scarred Vietnam vet who heads back to ‘Nam to retrieve forgotten POW’s would be perceived as political. Rambo: First Blood Part II as a polemic? Bah! You’d needta be some sorta liberal socialist to see politics in such lines as “Sir, do we get to win this time?”
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, why is Rambo so right-wing?’” said Stallone to Sean Hannity in 2008. “First of all, Rambo is kind of politically agnostic […] Rambo lives in a very neutral environment, but the one thing that he does believe in – and I dunno how you believe in this – at this point in his life he believes that war is natural, peace is an accident. You can start a war in literally five seconds; to make peace takes hundreds of years.” Later in the interview, he went on to explain how he hoped that Rambo (2008) would shed light on the Burmese Civil War, and inspire the international community to intervene. So, in other words, Rambo is apolitical, except when he’s political.
In 2010, during the release of The Expendables, Stallone took an even more disingenuous stance on The O’Reilly Factor. This time, the charges against him were a little more abstract: L.A. Times critic Steven Zeitchik derided the film’s “apple-pie-patriotism” as being symptomatic of a toxic political climate (the helpful caption: “Too Patriotic?”). With tongue firmly in cheek, Bill O’Reilly asked, “Correct me if I’m wrong… this is an action movie, correct? Guys, macho guys like you, killing bad guys. That’s pretty much what it is.” In his best “aw shucks” tone, Stallone agreed. The general tone of the interview skewed heavily towards “There’s no political dimension to The Expendables because there isn’t!” with a side order of “Pauline Kael said Dirty Harry was fascist but it made a lot of money anyway so nyah!” (And, with typical class, O’Reilly felt the need to specify that Kael was “a woman critic”).
It’s during interviews like these when I find myself liking Stallone the least. If you agree with his politics, then Rambo is a symbol for America’s warrior spirit, and a beacon for our underappreciated servicemen. If you disagree, chill the fuck out, man! It’s just a fun movie where things go boom. Yes, Stallone makes action movies, but he also makes political movies, and it’s time for him to man up and start taking responsibility.
Also out in 1985: Rocky IV, which you’ve already seen a million times on TBS so I don’t really need to summarize. For the sake of form: when Soviet superfighter Ivan Drago (America’s sweetheart, Dolph Lundgren) emerges as the world’s most fearsome boxer, Rocky’s ex-opponent/current-trainer Apollo Creed (the immortal Carl Weathers) decides it’s time to punch his Aryan ass back to Russia. Things go about as you’d expect for a long-retired boxer who couldn’t even beat an unknown Philly longshot: Apollo gets beaten to death in the second round.
Now, having already validated his existence in the first two films before reclaiming his caged, vaguely tiger-like fury in the third, the only thing left for Rocky to do is 1) avenge Apollo Creed, and 2) end the Cold War, roughly in that order. So Rocky agrees to fight Drago, but victory won’t come easily. While Rocky retreats to a cabin in the Russian wilderness and trains the old-fashioned way, Drago trains in a laboratory, pumped with electricity and performance-enhancing drugs, more machine than man. Outrage of outrages, Drago has even been taking steroids. Our man Rocky would never stoop to such tactics. He’s an honest fighter. He’d never… oh, I dunno… be arrested at an airport for smuggling 48 vials of banned human growth hormones into Australia, or anything of that nature.
Rocky IV is obviously a hilarious piece of Cold War ridiculousness, but for all its right-wing excess, I would argue that it has a tiny bit of political nuance. When Apollo challenges Drago to a fight, he barely bothers to train, assuming the Russian will be easily defeated by his inherently superior American fighting technique. When the match rolls around, Apollo enters the ring in full Uncle Sam uniform, joined this time by a lavish production number featuring James Brown singing “Living in America.” That Apollo’s cockiness leads to his bloody death teaches Rocky/America a valuable lesson: there is no such thing as manifest destiny. If Rocky/America is to stand up to the challenge of Drago/Communism (or for that matter, fascism, terrorism, and any other theoretically un-American concept), he/it will to shed itself of his/its American entitlement. He/it will need to work hard – so hard that even the underhanded tactics of Drago/(insert enemy here) will crumble under his/its weight.
Although the movie does end with an entire stadium full of Russkies chanting “Rocky! Rocky!” before our hero literally drapes himself in the American flag. So, y’know, Stallone isn’t Gore Vidal or anything.