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No Country for Old He-Men

Sylvester Stallone returns with a bang.

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Sylvester Stallone directing Rambo in Thailand.  

For Rambo, the long-unawaited resurrection of the muscle-bound warrior (the film, like Rocky Balboa, is sans Roman numeral to signal its born-again purity), Sylvester Stallone scoured the globe for a politically uncontroversial murderous regime whose soldiers could be turned into flying hamburger (heavy on the ketchup) for viewers’ delectation. He found one in Burma, a land of sadistic jackals who mow down women (or use them as sex slaves), conscript boys (or use them as sex slaves), and wear mirrored sunglasses (standard equipment for genocidal sex-slavers). John Rambo resides now in Thailand, downriver from Burma but pointedly indifferent to its carnage. He has become an automaton, at one with the natural world but emotionally dead. When a godly group of medical do-gooders implores him to take them across the Burmese border, he disparages their labors. “Fuck the world,” he says, definitively. “Maybe you’ve lost your faith in people, but you still must care about something,” says the party’s blonde (Julie Benz), whose speeches and blondeness manage to penetrate Rambo’s hitherto impregnable defenses. He does not care about much, but he knows in his heart he’s a warrior, that war is inside him, that war is where he lives and what he does, and that what he does is what he is and does … and is.

What Stallone cares about is grosses, but that has become rather poignant. A two-trick pony whose increasingly hilarious self-inflation finally turned him into a camp icon (his impossible-to-please father thought his physique in the first Rocky looked puny—and did he show Dad), Stallone wants, after a decade and a half at the bottom of the Hollywood food chain, to go out on his own terms, head high, forearms bulging. If bringing back Rocky and Rambo opens him up to more ridicule from the likes of me, it’s also the kind of challenge at which he excels. Idiotic as Rocky Balboa was, the punches landed, and Rambo works on its own debased terms, too. The arrows hit their targets. The bullets connect. The knives find their viscera. The grenades produce showers of pinwheeling limbs. You’ve never seen gore like this in a mainstream movie—in any movie. CGI has made it possible for machine guns to open heads like pomegranates and split bodies in two where they stand.

The 61-year-old Stallone would deserve a measure of respect for pulling Rambo off, appalling as it is, but this Fangoria-worthy circus of horrors also features footage of actual Burmese atrocities. He wants to get real with it. He just endorsed John McCain, too, probably because McCain was a prisoner of war in Vietnam and Rambo rescued prisoners of war in Vietnam and it’s the least one warrior can do for another. Stallone, of course, sat out the Vietnam War, opting to hang with rich girls in Switzerland. For all his heroic posturing, that’s where he really lives and what he really does, and what he does is what he is.

André Téchiné’s The Witnesses is excitingly convoluted. It begins as a romantic quadrangle with unruly emotions and hints of violence to come—think Almodóvar by way of Hitchcock. Rich-girl Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart), who writes books for children, has a baby she doesn’t much care for and an open marriage to Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), a macho vice cop of Arab descent. Her unprepossessing gay doctor friend, Adrien (Michel Blanc), picks up Manu (Johan Libéreau), a handsome young man from the country who doesn’t want to sleep with him but likes Adrien’s attention and the trips to Sarah’s gorgeous beach house. Then the homophobic Mehdi saves Manu from drowning and emerges with a hard-on. Mehdi and Manu get it on, Adrien becomes unhinged, Sarah struggles to write a grown-up novel, and there are subplots involving Manu’s opera-singer sister (Julie Depardieu) and Mehdi’s menacing crackdown on Manu’s hooker friends. Just when it comes to a melodramatic boil, Adrien notices spots on Manu’s chest …

It’s 1984, you see, and what follows is literally a coitus interruptus. Manu declines, Mehdi goes nuts with longing, Adrien throws himself into AIDS research, Sarah appropriates Manu’s story for her first grown-up book … Téchiné seems to relish how the narrative sputters and the characters turn inward, and in his circumlocutory way he makes the AIDS trauma new again. It was an interruption—a brutal end to a hard-won sexual freedom. The characters in The Witnesses form an unexpected microcosm.

There are ellipses in The Witnesses, events filled in by the narrator that leave us scratching our heads: Téchiné left out that? The ending isn’t much of an ending. But in an interview, Téchiné quotes Fritz Lang: “Death is not an ending.” He also has a character in the movie say, of a work of art, “The hub keeps shifting, like in life.” It’s no mean feat to shift the hub and leave us more intrigued than annoyed.


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