Cynically using the decades-long Burmese civil war as a
backdrop for grisly and unremitting violence, muscle-headed action flick Rambo
comes off as a sad and empty attempt to be politically relevant. Coming almost
two decades after the last series entry, and on the heels of the successful
commercial and critical reception of 2006’s Rocky
Balboa, which located fresh narrative terrain and provided a perfect
emotive bookend to multi-hyphenate Sylvester Stallone’s other signature
franchise, this sloppy, nihilistic effort feels especially sour and out of step
with modern convention.
veteran John Rambo’s story some 20 years later, Stallone posits the character
as psychologically unable to return home, now living a solitary, monastic
lifestyle in southeast Asia. That would be fine, except that this element is
pure window dressing — an excuse for a parade of brutality (including bayoneted
kids) that does nothing except showcase several dozen different ways to take a
The film opens in northern
where Rambo ekes out a subsistence catching poisonous snakes for cash
and running a longboat along the
brings him to the attention of a group of
missionaries headed up by Sarah Miller (Julie Benz) and Michael Burnett (Paul
Schulze). Sarah, Michael and their group want to go to
to lend moral support to the Karen tribe, an ethnic Christian minority at war
with the internationally isolated ruling military junta. Rambo at first spurns
their request for transport, but eventually relents. Along the way, there’s a
confrontation with Burmese river pirates, and Rambo is forced to abandon his
newfound pacifism in defense of his passengers.
Weeks later Rambo learns that the missionaries are now being
held captive by a particularly sadistic unit of the Burmese military, obviously
outside of diplomatic reach. He’s hired by the missionaries’ leader to ferry a
team of mercenary soldiers, including gruff director Lewis (Graham McTavish)
and sniper Schoolboy (Matthew Marsden), to the point he last saw the group.
Naturally, Rambo’s conscience kicks in, along with old killer instincts, and
the limbs, heads and throats of many a swarthy Burmese soldier pay the price.
Rambo opens with real-life images from the quelled
pro-democracy demonstrations in late September of last year, protests which
were met with brutal force. Whether by function of budget constraint or edit, the
rest of the film seems pared down to relatively straightforward action set
piece entanglements, an ill-advised strategy which casts further doubt on the
movie’s wishes to be taken as anything more than a barely linked series of
lopped arms and exploded chests.
The character of Rambo, a Reagan-era re-branding of the
forward-leaning, wounded ego vigilantism that was left over from the United
States’ Vietnam debacle, was always going to be more of a relic of time and
place than Rocky, and thus harder to update. The movie’s script, a shared
credit by Stallone and Art Monterastelli, has nothing interesting to say about
that, though, and plumbs its lead character’s psyche solely by way of one
nightmare montage featuring black-and-white footage from the first three films.
There’s an uncomfortable subtext to be found, too, in the uninterrupted
debasement and abuse of local women, while the same sort of violence against Sarah
is only intimated.
Unanchored to anything of substantive emotional value, the film’s action is suitably explosive and over-the-top —
at one point Rambo rigs an unexploded World War II shell to take out several
hundred yards of jungle — but it reaches such a level of cartoonish extreme so
as to seem almost desperate in its attempt to woo an audience who know the Rambo
films only as late-night cable TV entries.
Shot on location in and around
the movie certainly makes good use of its natural surroundings, at least during
daylight exteriors. A night-time, rain-soaked rescue operation, though — a
centerpiece of the movie’s second act — seems designed chiefly to cheat the
fact that a similar sequence in the light of day would have been much more
costly. Stallone’s staging here is messy and confusing, and cinematographer
Glen MacPherson (16 Blocks, One Missed Call) loses a battle to shadow. The
result is much more irritating than thrilling. Brian Tyler’s very
literal-minded musical compositions, meanwhile, are in perfectly ridiculous
lockstep with the movie’s demonstrative finale. For the full, original, and slightly longer review, from Screen International, click here.