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Rambo   D+

Lionsgate / The Weinstein Company

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Sylvester Stallone
Writer: Sylvester Stallone
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Paul Schulze, Matthew Marsden, Graham Mctavish, Rey Gallegos, Tim Kang, Jake La Botz.

Review by Rob Vaux

I suppose this is what we get for encouraging the man. Emboldened by the success of Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallone has resurrected his other iconic character with much more distressing results. Rambo, the fourth entry in his ludicrous paean to American reactionism, holds at its heart the desire to say something important... which has always been the series' biggest failing. Sure, the dialogue stinks, the characters are cardboard thin, and the entire enterprise smacks of woeful self-indulgence. But the Rambo movies always knew how to blow things up real good, and after 30 years of filmmaking, Stallone (who serves as writer and director here as well as star) can work that simplistic mojo in his sleep. If only we could separate it from the series' appalling political subtext.

Frankly, as Rambo movies go, this ranks as one of the better ones. It has a good handle on how the title character should operate and the action scenes all carry an earthy late-January charge. The Thailand setting conveys the right touch of savage beauty, and allows us to slip back into the requisite mindset whether we want to or not. Rambo lives a comparatively quiet life on the Salween River these days, catching poisonous snakes for the local sideshow and mumbling vaguely ominous threats to anyone who looks at him cross-eyed. It's not high art, but credit Rambo for at least reminding us of the man's ugly side... which gets uglier when a band of Christian missionaries show up asking for a guide into nearby Burma (Myamnar). As emphasized by the film's auteur, Burma remains "one of the world's true hellholes," its government engaged in atrocities unseen since the days of Pol Pot. The Americans want to bring aid to oppressed Karen villages without being machine-gunned by the local military yo-yos. Rambo reluctantly agrees to lead them safely upriver -- pausing along the way to shoot a bunch of pirates who want to ravage the group's only woman (Julie Benz) -- then hurries back to attend to those psychotic-brood-and-spear-fishing chores he's been neglecting. Only wouldn't you know it? Those military yo-yos machine-gun the missionaries anyway and drag a handful of survivors off to fates worse than death.

To quote another '80s mainstay, Who you gonna call?

Stallone always worked most effectively as a living cartoon, and when you lower your brain activity to that level, Rambo holds a share of modest thrills. The script is dismal (particularly in the early stages), and the conversations between Stallone and Benz will make you weep with shame just for listening. But nobody goes to these movies to hear people talk, and though it pains me to say it, things improve considerably once we dispense with the coy foreplay and start butchering bad guys like hogs. Throw Rambo in the jungle with 4,000 soldiers chasing him, and the adrenal gland certainly gets to twitching (helped out by copious amounts of patented Lionsgate CGI viscera). Though over 60 and showing every day of it, Stallone still makes a convincing physical presence, which pays dividends during the "firehose everyone with bullets" stage of the proceedings. As long as the audience never expects more than direct stimulus response, Rambo could most definitely be worse.

The trouble is that while the audience may wish to remain in such a state, Stallone doesn't. He reportedly turned down more far-fetched scripts involving drug dealers and jewel heists because he felt that Rambo needed to stay in the realm of the political. He has a point, but with material this two-dimensional, "important" statements have a way of teetering into the grotesque. Cruel racial stereotypes repeatedly rear their ugly heads as evil yellow men commit acts of unspeakable brutality and drool over Benz's blonde Aryan beauty. The missionaries' pacifism is treated as naïve poppycock (with a truly nasty coda in the finale), and while Stallone takes pains to demonstrate the horrors that the Burmese military is inflicting as we speak, the underlying roots of that issue receive only the barest attention.

Instead, Rambo falls back once again on the tragic, ridiculous myth that all we need to do is kill a few bad guys and everything will be fine. America may never be weaned off of such folly, but that doesn't make its expression here any less bearable. Exploitation requires a certain superficiality in order to work: delve any deeper and its knee-jerk button-pushing makes a sick mockery of the topics it wishes to discuss. I grant that there is no shortage of truly evil people in the world. Many of them wear uniforms and most of them richly deserve to have someone like John Rambo come knocking on their door. But out here in reality, that doesn't solve the problems they represent; it usually makes them much, much worse. Rambo uses black-and-white guilty pleasures while presuming to address an issue that defies such simplicity. If you're going to drag the big guy out of mothballs after 20 years, you'd hope he would have learned something in the interim. We clearly haven't, of course, which I suppose makes Rambo just as topical as ever. God help us.

Review published 01.25.2008.

Also read: Q&A: Sylvester Stallone.

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