Sly Stallone once again essays the grizzled, tortured war veteran who in this film has become surly, monosyllabic, and aimless, a heavy-drinking loner barely getting by in Thailand by catching snakes as a sideshow attraction. He’s approached by goody-goody Christian missionaries Julie Benz and Paul Schulze to take them up river to Myanmar (formerly Burma). He’s seriously reluctant to do so (‘Why bother?’ seems to be his primary reason), but Benz puts the charm to him and he seriously reluctantly agrees. Schulze (best known for playing an A-hole on TV’s “24”), meanwhile, disapproves of Rambo’s violent tendencies, and thinks it’s a bad idea to have him guide them. And of course, as soon as Rambo’s services are completed, our Bible-bashing do-gooder idiots get themselves captured by local militant extremists. So, the notoriously battle-scarred veteran must guide a team of mercenaries (led by the likeably macho Graham McTavish) to where the Flanders clan (sorry, couldn’t resist!) are being held. In other words, cue the machine guns, explosions, and flailing bodies. It’s arse-kickin’ time, old-school!
Be warned, this is going to be a pretty long review, with many semi-tangents that are nonetheless crucial to understanding this film, its place in the series, its place in today’s world, and of course, my personal reaction to it. Strap yourself in, go to the potty first, ‘coz this is gonna be quite a long one.
So, everyone’s favourite Reagan-Era relic is back in this seriously belated 2008 series entry from director-writer-star Stallone, and I’m not so sure it’s a welcome or necessary return. I just don’t know if the post-9/11, really needs this. For a while afterwards, I didn’t even know what the hell I thought of it, or what it was trying to say about war in our much more complicated world (Was it trying to say something relevant to today?). I’m not really a Rambo fan, although “First Blood” is highly underrated in some quarters (and markedly different to the subsequent sequels in terms of its politics), and I was at least willing to give this one ago. The original, you might remember (but probably won’t remember, more likely you’ll remember the jingoistic “Rambo: First Blood Part II”, wherein Rambo tries to win the Vietnam War all on his own, forgetting that 1. The war was over, and 2. It had already been won singlehandedly by John Wayne in the repugnant “The Green Berets”), seemed to be an angry statement against treatment of returning American GI’s, if not an anti-war sentiment (probably more the former than the latter). It also dealt with the notion of soldiers as machines of war, programmed to kill, so that violence becomes their answer for everything. It’s all Rambo knows, all he’s been trained for. And he’s mad as hell, and he ain’t gonna take it anymore. That was the first film. The first two sequels, however, seemed to be typical, Reagan era, rah-rah films with Rambo as a one-man army against various foreign baddies. The third even had him essentially training Al Queda, though at the time, we didn’t really know that.
Now comes the latest “Rambo”, and if anything, it seems like a combination of the two types of “Rambo”, although at least Rambo’s not taking on the freaking Taliban, or something, Sly has at least some idea of taste and sensitivity. On the one hand, we have the fascinating character of Rambo himself, who in this film has logically turned into a tortured soul who no longer wants to kill, but it’s what he does and all he knows, and so he feels as if he’s the only man for the job. He’s an instrument of war, a killing machine. He takes no pleasure in what he does (and I’m not even 100% certain that the audience is supposed to either, though I wouldn’t argue that this is Stallone’s “Wild Bunch” or anything), in fact, he’s one psychologically messed-up dude who probably takes no pleasure in anything. Sly plays this character arc very comfortably, and thankfully, without a whole lot of dialogue.
Then there’s the plot, which whilst not at all culturally sensitive, is not brainless, either. Sly’s take on the situation in Myanmar (Burma) might not be to the liking of some anti-war, anti-violence liberals, though the line ‘Live for nothing, die for everything’ didn’t strike me as simplistically pro-war as many Republican American viewers might interpret it as. I don’t think the guy who starred in “First Blood” is that simple, given the politics in that film, it would be naive to think that Sly’s a warmonger, and as I’ve said, our world has changed and become more complicated. My own views on war are more complicated now, too). Sly may indeed portray the Government as brutal and sadistic, but to suggest that all Governments are benevolent, liberal-minded and pacifistic, would be stupid and wrong. No one likes ethnic stereotypes, sweeping generalisations, or racist representations, but this kind of stuff does happen, there are truly corrupt regimes out there, whether we like it or not. For Sly to make a film involving such things does not automatically make him or this film racist or abhorrent. So, thematically and in terms of the central character, we have at the very least, a fascinating and thought-provoking film. Even if I disagree with the ideas and politics at work here, I could not in good conscience, call this a brainless or uninteresting film.
Then we get to the ‘entertainment’ aspect of the film, and it’s no less complex. By ‘entertainment’, I should make it perfectly clear that I’m talking about the action, the violence, as this is what people seek as entertainment in a “Rambo” film, even in the first film. Stallone deserves credit at least, for employing techniques to somewhat lessen the graphic nature of the film’s violence. This is through a rare effective usage of shaky-cam technique (usually the last thing I want in an action film), and also careful editing. He therefore does not linger over the carnage in the way one might expect from such a film. But...this is still one of the most violent films I have EVER seen in my life. I’ve seen a lot of violent films, but holy crap! Lots of gory shots to the head, decapitations, and mucho gunfire and explosions. If this is your thing, you’re gonna love what’s on display here, this is an extremely intense experience. Heck, even a child of 80s action flicks such as I, cannot say I wasn’t in some unashamedly (well, nearly) sicko way, being entertained by the action and blood-shed, though some of it is so shocking, that I’m not so sure that what I was feeling was enjoyment, so much as shock and awe. But what did I make of the mixture of old-school bloodshed, and complex (Not conservative exactly, but decidedly un-Liberal) politics, in this post 9/11, culturally sensitive era? Mostly, I’m still unsure, and not in a cop-out way. I cannot lie, I was not really bored and the film has been very well-made for the most part. I wish the supporting characters were given even a hint of depth, and it hurt my appreciation of the film quite a bit, but overall, this film is what it is, and does what it does, and it’s not bad.
A lot of people are going to hate the film with a passion, and whilst I actually understand that response, I did not particularly hate it myself, and did not find it a simplistic, hateful, senselessly violent piece of trash. I just don’t think it should’ve ever been made today. Watch it and decide for yourself, but try not to go into it with the expectation of hating it before it even starts. It deserves more than that, even though it is definitely not a masterpiece. The screenplay is by Stallone and Art Monterastelli (the crummy horror flick “Buried Alive”, with Tobin Bell).