Rambo and the Terminator: the cold war warriors are back | Film

We live inside the fantasies of old white men. In 2019, with the world in the grip of nostalgic strongmen, it makes sense that cinema would offer us the twin returns of Rambo and the Terminator, musclebound relics of the cold war 1980s. And so in the same stretch of autumn, Sylvester Stallone’s murderous everyman John Rambo has faced down the Mexican cartels in Rambo: Last Blood, with Arnold Schwarzenegger set to save humanity from cyborgs in Terminator: Dark Fate.

It might pass for melancholy – two hugely wealthy actors in their 70s, bodies defiantly racked and pumped, Vladimir and Estragon on protein shakes, grimly refusing to retire. Then again, why would they? A crowd can still be pulled. Their influence runs deep into the present (the entire modern gym industry owes a piece of itself to the Übermensch self-improvement first championed by Schwarzenegger). But for their new movies, the present is not the point, the young are not the audience. The target demographic stretches from those who were teenaged in the 80s to the stars’ generational peer group.

If reference to Donald Trump is obvious, the connections are many. The personal brands of all three men overlapped for decades in the grey zones of showbusiness. While Stallone stopped just short of an endorsement for the president, the association between the two New Yorkers – born a month apart in 1946 – has been long and friendly. Schwarzenegger, a year younger, enjoyed a similar affinity, embracing Trump at a primary debate in 2015 before taking over his role as host of The Celebrity Apprentice. (A later falling-out involved both politics and ratings.)

But Trump is just one among a global order of authoritarians whose personas are rooted in old action movies. In Italy and Brazil, the wild populism of Matteo Salvini and Jair Bolsonaro brought predictable comparisons. (“‘Rambo’ Bolsonaro Trained To Kill!” is the title of one YouTube tribute.) Surreally, last year’s Singapore summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un involved a faux blockbuster trailer created by the US National Security Council, featuring Stallone visiting the Trump White House. The actor, it was reported, is a favourite of North Korea’s leader. Vladimir Putin’s hometown St Petersburg has hosted an exhibition of Stallone’s art, after a fondness for photoshoots of shirtless gunplay had already established a shared aesthetic.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator: Dark Fate

Saving humanity from cyborgs … Arnold Schwarzenegger in
Terminator: Dark Fate Photograph: Allstar/20th Century Fox/Paramount Pictures

That bonhomie is where things get strange. While the Trump presidency has been defined by deep relaxation about the behaviour of Russia, the heyday of Stallone and Schwarzenegger came in a far more hawkish context. The public face of the 80s cold war was a deathmatch, Ronald Reagan’s talk of a Soviet “evil empire” inspiring Stallone to scale down superpowers into action figures and crank up the anti-communism. In Rocky IV, slablike heavyweight Ivan Drago (played by Dolph Lundgren) stood in for the Politburo. And then there was Rambo, a character Stallone first played in 1982 in a film about a jobless Vietnam vet hounded in smalltown America. By 1985, he remade him as an avatar of US martial honour, freeing lost prisoners of war from Vietnamese sadists, their Soviet masters and treacherous American bureaucrats. The Vietnam war was granted a rousing counterfactual postscript, more gory than most horror films.

With the body count securing a commercial smash, Rambo famously met with approval at the top. In the midst of the Beirut hostage crisis, Reagan was heard to say: “Boy, after seeing Rambo last night, I know what to do the next time this happens.”

Schwarzenegger’s arc was more complex. Audibly non-native, his US breakthrough came as the bad guy, Terminator, the villain of the original film. Those Mitteleuropean vowels doubled as Russian for audiences trained to see Soviets as drones. Yet off camera, he cheerled for America with the zeal of the new citizen he was. He loved his adopted country, he said, as the home of the free market. If Stallone handled the brute nationalism, Schwarzenegger flagwaved for the rest of the Reaganite idyll – neoliberal economics, widespread tax cuts.

At a time when superhero movies were camp irrelevances, these were the characters that defined America, poster boys of cold war dominance, movie stars as walking propaganda. In 1988, a third Rambo film saw Stallone join forces with the mujahideen in Soviet occupied Afghanistan. In the same year, Schwarzenegger played a Russian police captain (“Ivan Danko”) seconded to Chicago in cop movie Red Heat. It was the first US film to ever shoot in Red Square, a tiny omen of seismic change. A year later, the Berlin Wall fell. A hundred miles away in Dresden, KGB officer Vladimir Putin called his superiors. “Moscow is silent,” he was told. The cold war had been won and lost.

But the spoils of victory can be uncertain. For Stallone, life without anticommunism became a wilderness of regrettable comedies, defanged action movies and vanishing box office receipts. Schwarzenegger had a better 90s, beginning the decade with a vastly popular Terminator sequel, Judgment Day (1991), in which he was reprogrammed to befriend America. For him too, however, changing times finally prevailed. In 2003, Stallone made a cameo in Spy Kids 3D: Game Over then disappeared. The same year, Schwarzenegger segued from promoting the third Terminator movie, Rise of the Machines, into a successful campaign to become governor of California, accepted into the mainstream of professional US politics.

How a pair of ageing he-men who effectively retired 16 years ago ended up back in cold war costume is a story that begins with Iraq and Afghanistan. You might think the last thing US audiences wanted was more mayhem overseas. In fact, Stallone intuited that they were wholly ready for a comforting vision of American violence as just and viciously efficient. A fourth Rambo movie arrived in 2008, its hero deployed far from Afghanistan to eviscerate junta troops in Myanmar. But the old MO remained – an inhuman foreign foe and all the fake blood in the shop.

Then came the crash of 2008. Two years later, Stallone released The Expendables, the first of a three-film series in which he starred at the centre of a medley of superannuated action heroes. If 20 years as cold war victors had failed to provide a happier ending than Iraq and Lehman Brothers, these were movies by men from a past waiting to be rebooted – good guys from the old world. It was Make America Great Again before Trump. The films grossed more than $800m.

Stallone in Rambo: First Blood Part II.

Musclebound relic … Sylvester Stallone in
Rambo: First Blood Part II. Photograph: Ronald Grant

Even Schwarzenegger joined him. He may not have planned to return to movies, but his time as California governor ended with his Bush-era conservatism about to plunge from fashion in Republican circles. Under Trump, tax cuts for the rich endured – but all the attention went to Rambo-ish displays of nativist rage. Schwarzengger rebranded as a moderate. Now, while his once monstrous Terminator prepares to defend humankind again, the actor publicly stands with Greta Thunberg. In rightwing online forums, he is notably less popular than Stallone.

History has a way with a plot twist. Thirty years after his sombre phone call in Dresden, Putin could now plausibly claim victory in the post-cold war. Leaders of a fractured west treat him as a role model, none more so than the US president. But elsewhere, old stories repeat themselves. For his most recent Rambo, Stallone turned to a more primal US fear – Mexico, the site of Trump’s most vivid terror, migrant “caravans” trekking north from countries such as El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala. Here too, the long aftershock of the American 80s lives on.

Rambo: Last Blood is on general release; Terminator: Dark Fate is out on 25 October.

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