Friday, April 17, 2009

Live For Nothing. Die For Sly.

Punched-in faces!
Slaughtered missionaries!
Fully clothed Stallone!

A few weeks ago, I made my night blood-filled and beautiful by renting Stallone's latest incarnation as John Rambo. Eight thousand or so deaths later, I was basking in the after effects of over-the-top (yet socially minded) violence when my unbridled enjoyment hit a bump. I became, dare I say it, slightly offended. Here goes:

The story, for those still unbaptized by the oceans of blood spewed from cinematic flying limbs, follows Stallone's Rambo through the no man's land of modern Myanmar. After a few unintelligible grunts, the world's bad ass-iest veteran attempts to rescue a band of well-intentioned but poorly prepared missionaries who have been captured by the less-than-honorable military after a surviving a massacre that makes Men Behind the Sun look like Sesame Street. Chief among the do-gooders is Sarah, played by the reigning princess of Lions Gate, Julie Benz. Ten days into their imprisonment, Rambo arrives with a motley crew of expat mercenaries to blow things up and save the Americans.\n\nHere's where something went mildly wrong for me: Sarah is curled up in a bamboo cage as an oily guard leers at her with clearly carnal intentions. Meanwhile, a group of captive Burmese women are forced to dance in front of an arena filled with hungry soldiers. As Stallone & Co. dispose of the outpost guards, the partying soldiers climb on stage to tear at the sobbing women. Rambo saves the whimpering Sarah just in time to preserve her sense of virtue; the same can't be said for the local ladies. 

Stallone doesn't linger on the rapes, but it's fairly clear what happens to the then-abandoned women. Sarah, on the hand, gets plenty of close-ups furrowing her blond brows as her humbly wooden crucifix dangles below.\n\nWhy does this bother me so much? As a lifelong female fan of genre cinema, I've grown accustomed to movies that include the mistreatment of women. It's like accepting that the tallest film goers will always sit in front me at a theater or that American figure skating pairs will never come close to beating the Russians in serious competition. I giggled at the nudity in Jason X and My Bloody Valentine 3D. I respect I Spit On Your Grave for putting a flawed but feminist twist on a male genre. Rape doesn't upset me when it's treated with weight. But there's something unsettling in watching the porcelain skinned Christian survive unscathed while five or more Southeast Asian women are attacked and most likely left for dead in the background.

Really, the Burmese military are not nice guys. They blow up children and make games out of gunning down locals. They probably commit their share of sexual abuse every day. Yet when a pretty Presbyterian is kidnapped, she's spared the old in-out for ten full days, just enough time for the strapping Stallone to swoop in on a selective rescue mission.

So what am I saying? Did I want to see Darla raped? Of course not. But there was something insulting in seeing her get away while the others are left to their fates. On the other hand, that may have been Rambo's  own commentary on the rescue of first-world hostages in third-world countries. Stallone made an excellent film, with incredible action and an admirable boldness in tackling Myanmar's oft ignored violent regime. I imagine the decision to include implied sexual violence was not easy, but was probably made to demonstrate the monstrousness of the soldiers. Sparing Sarah could have been seen as tactful in a film that could easily border on exploitation. For me though, it lingered there as feeling...well...racially unfair.

Am I right in having hangups about this issue, or am I overreacting to a minor subplot in a glorified (and glorious; I really did love it) B movie?  Plenty of films--genre in particular--do worse things, especially to women of color. I'm genuinely curious to hear if anyone else finds this offensive, or if I'm dancing on the border of militant feminist territory without a passport. 

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