The venerable action hero John Rambo is plotting a return to the silver screen, and he is taking his talent for mayhem and vengeance to Mexico. While fans may find the film entertaining, it’s unlikely to present a nuanced look at the country’s organized crime problems.
Reports first emerged in early May that Sylvester Stallone was planning to begin work on a new “Rambo” film in September. In this fifth installment of the series, set to be released in 2019, the fictional former special forces soldier will track down a friend’s daughter who was abducted by a drug cartel in Mexico.
After visiting destruction on rural Washington state, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Burma, the coming film will mark Rambo’s first foray into Latin America. The movie also signals a new interest in criminal groups; in prior iterations, the titular hero’s chief adversaries have been authoritarian government forces.
Rambo’s Mexico project follows years of increased interest in Mexican organized crime in Hollywood, which has come against the backdrop of a larger spate of entertainment products based on narco culture themes.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Narco Culture
For more than a decade after the 2000 release of the groundbreaking film “Traffic,” US-produced cinematic treatments of the challenges of drug-fueled insecurity in Latin America were relatively sparse. But in recent years, US studios have brought films like “Savages” and “Sicario” to theaters around the globe, and Netflix has capitalized on TV series like “Narcos” and “El Chapo.”
This flurry serves as a sign that what has long been a topic of utmost urgency for Mexico is now also registering in the United States’ pop culture mainstream.
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Increased popular focus on an issue of paramount public interest can be an engine for change, as was the case following the 1983 broadcast of “The Day After,” a TV movie depicting a disastrous nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. The public reaction to its airing gave new life to the nuclear abolition movement and helped push the US government toward a series of new disarmament agreements later that decade.
It is therefore conceivable that a popular movie about Mexican insecurity could inspire US viewers to reconsider their government’s emphasis on overly militarized cooperation with Mexico, to explore ways to reduce domestic demand for drugs, and to support efforts to reduce the availability of US arms fueling much of the violence across the border.
However, the “Rambo” series is known more for its explosive action sequences than for thought-provoking contemplation of multifacted issues, meaning the latest iteration may fall into the same traps that have ensnared other recent films centering on Mexican organized crime.
If the series’ prior installations are any guide, Rambo’s enemies will be a parade of sadistic and grotesque monsters, who tell viewers nothing of substance about the challenges in Mexico — and whom the aging action star will dispatch with cinematic flair.
Rather than challenging old narratives and stereotypes, the upcoming Rambo film will likely serve as the culmination of a years-long progression in which popular portrayals of Mexico have grown steadily more simplistic.
“Traffic” offered a complex meditation on the tensions and conflicting interests inherent to the US approach to the drug war. The film’s most affecting scenes explored how the incoherence of US policy fed a jumble of tortured incentives for the nation’s ostensible allies in Mexico. Almost two decades after its release, the movie remains as relevant today as it was in 2000.
SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles
The more recent “Savages” and “Sicario” represented a departure from this style. Both movies present far more superficial narratives and build them around characters who tend not to resemble the real-life people in government or in illegal groups whose actions drive the criminal landscape. The new “Rambo” will presumably represent a further step toward caricature.
Hollywood and other branches of popular culture shouldn’t be tasked with promoting sensible public policy; elected governments and their bureaucracies are the entities charged with addressing issues of public concern.
But popular culture both feeds and reflects impulses that help determine official priorities. And it does not seem a coincidence that Rambo’s return to Mexico coincides with a nadir in Washington’s approach to its southern neighbor.
The administration of US President Donald Trump has taken to demonizing Mexican nationals, embracing divisive symbolism like the border wall, and undoing some of the fitful, belated recent progress in exploring alternatives to a blanket drug prohibition. It has also shown little sign of seriousness in alleviating the opioid crisis that is roiling both nations.
Rambo’s fight with a still-unknown drug cartel is shaping up to be an appropriate emblem for this moment in history.
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