As I eased into my seat to watch Sylvester Stallone crack some skulls in Rambo -- the first Rambo movie in twenty years -- I'll admit to feeling a bit giddy. A blast of 1980s excess is exactly what the slumping action genre needs right now, if you ask me. To paraphrase the old John Candy SCTV character -- I wanted to see everything get blowed up real good. So you can imagine my surprise when the film opened with a montage of real-life footage documenting atrocities in Burma. And this is serious stuff -- we're talking slaughtered women and children here. Quickly, my excitement turned to discomfort and disgust. But just as I was preparing to mount my high horse and cry "Exploitation!," I started to get excited again. Because I knew that Rambo was going to get the bastards responsible.
It's an uneasy reaction, but that's what Rambo does! Whether he's standing up to authority in First Blood, symbolically winning the Vietnam War for America in Part II, or saving Afghanistan from the Soviets (ah, how times have changed!) in Rambo III, Rambo's job is to take the action that no one else will. And it can be pretty exhilarating to watch. In interviews, Stallone (who also wrote and directed Rambo) has said he hopes the new film will force people to take note of the civil war raging in Burma. But let's be honest here -- the guy's using an immeasurably tragic situation to make his action movie more effective. And distasteful as it may be -- it works. The film opens with Rambo puttering around the swamps of Thailand, only opening his mouth to grunt wacky catchphrases like "F*** the world." A group of missionaries tries to recruit him for protection against pirates on an aid mission to Burma. (As Seinfeld's J. Peterman says "You most likely know it as Myanmar, but it will always be Burma to me.") The missionaries are led by Michael (Paul Schulze, Father Phil on The Sopranos) and Sarah (Julie Benz, Rita on Dexter) -- characters who are every bit as exciting as their names. Rambo's not interested, but is eventually worn down by Sarah, for reasons not made entirely clear. (Although the fact that the dude's been living with snakes and pigs for years and Benz is a foxy lady probably has something to do with it.) So Rambo takes them down river, fights off some decidedly non-Jack Sparrowesque pirates, drops them off at their destination and returns home to Snaketown. But when the missionaries are later kidnapped by Burmese soldiers, their pastor visits Rambo in his tent (a hilariously unlikely scene) and recruits him (again!) to lead a team of mercenaries on a rescue mission.
Rambo's merry band of mercenaries, played by, among others, Matthew Marsden, Reynaldo Gallegos, and Graham McTavish (whose agent probably pitches him as "the poor man's Jason Statham") are unfortunately every bit as bland as the missionaries. If you're going to team people up with the stoic Rambo -- they've got to have some personality! Stallone should have studied Schwarzenegger's awesome crew of hardasses in Predator. No one here leaves an impression, but luckily these dudes spend more time shooting people than talking. And as Stallone depicts them, the Burmese aren't people you could talk with anyhow. They're less civil than the cobras.
How bad are these Burmese dudes? Stallone pulls out all the stops. They mow down innocent civilians while cackling. They rape women left and right. There's a jaw-dropping subplot about a captain who molests young boys. And at one point -- I kid you not -- a small child is bayoneted, lifted into the air, and thrown into a roaring fire. Yeah. That happens. Fair and balanced this is not. If all that seems like overkill, just you wait. This thing might as well have been called Rambo: Overkill.
The climax of this film is probably the most violent sequence I've seen since the opening of Saving Private Ryan -- a film whose style Stallone tries to emulate through the use of drained colors and excessive shaki-cam. That Rambo received an 'R' rating while something like Ang Lee's Lust, Caution received an NC-17 confirms again how absolutely silly the MPAA is. The last half hour of Rambo is just people exploding. Rambo shoots you with a gun, you explode. Rambo hits you with an arrow, you explode. Rambo gives you a wedgie, you explode. And those who don't explode probably wish that they had -- it's certainly better than having your larynx slowly ripped out by a 61-year-old man in a bandana! (Just wait until you see that scene! Yowza!) It's insane carnage, and -- pardon the pun -- it's a blast. It's hardcore, it's unflinching, it's hard to tell who's killing who, and it doesn't really matter. This is the sort of balls-out action sequence violence junkies will watch and re-watch.
The simple title (believe it or not, this is this first Rambo movie to be called Rambo!) suggests the same back-to-basics approach that worked beautifully for the surprisingly excellent Rocky Balboa, Stallone's previous attempt at re-inventing a thought-dead franchise. But in my humble opinion, Stallone doesn't have near as much to prove here. Rambo was never as lovable a character as Rocky, and re-watching the Rambo movies this week, I realized none of them are particularly great. Fun sure, but nothing more. He's not trying to match the power of the Best Picture-winning Rocky here, he's trying to match the entertainment level of some solidly enjoyable shoot 'em up action flicks. And on those grounds, Rambo is a complete success.