Monday, July 7, 2008

Sly Stallone is my hero.

Our goal for this weekend was to celebrate the founding of our country in the best way we know: watching a Rambo flick.

Unfortunately, Netflix (and possibly the Burmese government) was working very hard to thwart our long Happy Birthday, America weekend plans. The DVD we'd received in the magical red envelope would not play. We were disappointed, but decided that perhaps Netflix would send us a new one. We dropped it in the mail, reported a problem, and waited.

Now, there was an actual reason why we wanted to watch Rambo 2008 other than the freakshow attraction of a 61 year old man on a steady diet of steroids. (Here's an illustration of what happens. The first one is from 1983).

For part of our honeymoon in February of this year, we returned to Mae Hong Son, Thailand, where I lived and taught in a refugee camp for two years. The refugees I was working with were Karenni and were fleeing from a conflict with the Burmese army in their homeland, Karenni State. On our honeymoon, we spent some time with British Scott and American Sarah, friends of mine who had also taught in the refugee camps, who had met each other there and had fallen in love and gotten married.

In any case, the new Rambo movie came up in conversation and Scott and Sarah recommended watching it. It turns out that before making this movie, Stallone contacted the two smartest people he knows, the UN and Soldier of Fortune Magazine, and asked them which conflict in the world was the most brutal. Both answered Burma.

I'd like to think that Stallone made the decision to make his next movie about Burma because he wanted to bring attention to a conflict that is under-reported and not because brutal conflict = brutal movie with lots of gratuitous violence.

Scott and Sarah said we should watch it because it was interesting to see how the latest Hollywood blockbuster about Burma (and specifically about the conflict in Karen State -- the state just to the south of Karenni State) would portray the conflict. This is not to say that there are many Hollywood blockbusters about Burma (how many have actually seen Beyond Rangoon?)

Our second copy of Rambo 2008, arrived and, again, it would not play. Eric guessed that the Burmese military government had gotten their hands on all the copies of the DVD and somehow stripped the data so that no one could find out what was going on in Burma. They did not count on the technological know-how of the average American household -- or the amount of resources we pour into home entertainment. We ponied up the $5 and ordered it "on demand."

Watching this movie I felt a little bit like I was eating at a restaurant that has only a mediocre chocolate cake on the dessert menu. Yeah, the chocolate cake is good because I really wanted dessert, but, really, in this day and age, can't we have more options? Or if you're only going to have one thing on the dessert menu, can't it be really, really good and decadent? Why did you hire Sly Stallone as your pastry chef?

Written and directed by Stallone himself, the 91 minutes (which according to my calculations amounts to about 3 pages of witty dialog) tested the movie-maker's very limits.

We pick up with our anti-hero on the Thai-Burma border where he working as a snake catcher. A group of American missionaries arrive, asking for his help getting across the border and into Karen State where they hope to bring some relief in the form of bibles and medical care to the suffering Christan ethnic minorities. So far, the premise is pretty good. Missionaries venture across the border with some regularity.

But then things starts to fall apart. (All right, the thing fell apart long before it ever even started, but here's where I started to get nitpicky.)

"You know this river better than anyone," one of the missionaries begs. Missionaries usually have Karen contacts and groups that help them across the border. But Rambo is not Karen and you cannot have a Rambo movie without Rambo, so I'll play along.

John Rambo and the missionary butt heads from their first meeting. It is man of God versus man o' war. Rambo thinks that venturing over the border sans weapons is a suicide mission. The conversation opens the door to a classic Rambo one-liner:

Missionary Michael Burnett: It’s thinking like that that keeps the world from changing.
Rambo: F#$& the world.

Lured by some persuasive words about life and meaning and doing the right thing from obligatory blond, Sarah, Rambo eventually agrees to take them up the river.

When they are attacked by river pirates, it becomes apparent that Christian Sarah's chastity is going to be both the carrot and the stick in this plot. In fact, it's the ogling eyes of the pirates that makes Rambo explode, executing all of the bad guys in one fell swoop.

When the missionaries respond with shock, Rambo explains himself in yet another great one-line: “When you’re pushed, killing's as easy as breathing.”

Michael says, "I'm going to have to report you." Which, of course, made us wonder who exactly he was going to report Rambo to for killing a boatfull of river pirates. The Thai authorities? The Burmese? When killing's as easy as breathing, missionaries are such downers.

Arriving safely at an idyllic Karen village, the missionaries leave Rambo's boat and he returns to his snake hunting. As they are helping with dental care, handing out bibles and dressing amputees, the village is attacked in the first of several very graphic scenes. Babies and children are thrown into fires, women are raped, homes are burnt, and villagers are shot, beaten, dismembered and decapitating. Finally, the missionaries are captured. Here is where the Burmese military is portrayed as being inaccurately stupid.

The Burmese military junta has been in power for nearly 60 years. They have been killing ethnic minorities in their country for decades. The international community has allowed them to get away with this because the Burmese army is smart. They do not capture white missionaries. The know that this would create an international incident. The consequences for white people illegally entering the country tend to be possibly arrest and likely deportation for the white person and utter devastation for every Burmese and ethnic minority that they came in contact with. But Rambo needed white people to save and the plot had to move forward, so I was willing to play along.

Of course, having been won over by the blond, Rambo feels compelled to get involved in the rescue. He agrees to ferry a group of mercenaries sent to save the Christians to the spot where he dropped them off. The mercenary leader doesn't take too kindly to the "boat man" and puts Rambo in his place when he tries to join them on their mission.

Rambo follows them anyway and takes out a group of Burmese soldiers as they force a group of Karen villagers to run through a mine covered paddy field for entertainment. Joining the group gives Rambo another opening for another great line: "There’s not one of us that’s doesn’t want to be someplace else. Live for nothing or die for something. Your call."

The next violent climax is the rescue mission. The team of mercenaries move through the dark rainy night, taking out Burmese soldiers, and freeing a few Karen and the missionaries, except for the one who was already fed to the pigs. As this scene unfolds, the Burmese soldiers are all seated in a large hall being entertained by scantily-clad women (are they supposed to be Karen? Burmese?) reluctantly doing a traditional dance. As the killing outside continues, the soldiers inside work themselves into a methamphetamine and alcohol fueled frenzy. Outside, one of the officers walks towards Sarah's cell, clearly intending to have his way with her. Inside, the soldiers begin to taunt, mock, and pour liquor over the dancers. They start to tear at their clothes. Rambo moves towards Sarah's cell. Of course, just when before an article of her clothing can be torn from her, he kills Sarah's would-be attacker. The women inside the hall are, in the meantime, being gang-raped.

Ironically, this scene pretty much sums up part of what is going on on the international level. In the movie, it is the white woman's chastity that is held sacred. The Karen women are being raped, as they are in real life, but that is not a concern for the international community. The genocide in Burma continues, but because the world's superpowers have little interest in Burma or because China looms ever-present in the background of Burmese politics and economics, few other countries are willing to get involved.

The Burmese government is going to have to mess up big time for foreign governments to start to get involved beyond the most basic sanctions. And the Burmese government is not going to mess up because they know that John Rambo will roll in if they do.

Back in the movie, the group is found out by the Burmese army who sets out after them. Rambo takes out a good number of them with just his wits and a claymore, but they seem to come in never ending waves. There is a final, violent showdown in which the bad guys are blown apart (literally) by some absurd armor piercing bullets that Rambo is firing. The Karen rebels show up after Rambo has taken care of most of the heavy lifting, but, still, they do make an appearance.

Like, I said before, the movie was mediocre chocolate cake. At least there is a movie out there at all and Stallone even made an effort to sprinkle some dialog about the situation in Burma in the early parts of the movie (although the Karen National Union army is rather obliquely referred to as the generic "Karen Freedom Fighters) and to use Karen, Thai, and Burmese actors and extras and to speak a little Burmese himself. Sure this movie didn't and isn't going to have any real lasting effect on the situation in Burma, but I can't help but quietly applaud Stallone for at least trying. At least someone is.

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