Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
Much like its protagonist, Rambo is a lean, mean action film that takes no prisoners.
Why Sylvester Stallone decided to return for another installment of the series after so much time has passed is unknown, but I can only guess that the war in Iraq – as well as the focus of this new film, the genocide in Burma – figured heavily into the equation. Regardless, the 61-year-old actor/co-writer/director has delivered the best Rambo yet. If that sentence sounds absurd to you, believe me when I tell you it does for me too.
My recollections of the previous movies were not impressive, and I expected that this one was going to be even worse. I walked in expecting over-the-top violence and slurred Stallone dialogue, and the movie delivered…over-the-top violence and slurred Stallone dialogue. This movie is exactly what I thought it was going to be…so why does it work this time? Maybe it’s because it has been so long since we’ve seen a film like this, or maybe it’s because Stallone, in his golden years, has become such an assured director that we can truly appreciate the confidence and control he has over his subject matter. This kind of film isn’t for everyone, but it is what is and it works, plain and simple.
We first see John Rambo (Stallone) on his fishing boat, and he’s fishing as only John Rambo would: with a bow and arrow. He’s living in Thailand, and makes money catching snakes for a bizarre sideshow act. This seems pretty mundane for a guy like John, but the work satisfies him, especially since he doesn’t have to deal much with people. His quiet existence is disrupted by a group of Christian aid workers who ask him to guide them up the river to Burma so they can help deliver medicine. When John informs them that they are looking to travel into a war zone, the well-meaning aid worker responds “genocide is not war.” At first he doesn’t want any part of it, not because he’s afraid, but rather because he feels their efforts are meaningless. However with a little bit of coaxing from a female aid worker (and due to the fact that there wouldn’t be a film otherwise), he decides to give them the ride.
From there it doesn’t take long for the film’s first violent encounter, as a group of Burmese pirates stop their boat as it’s trying to make its way upstream. Instead of allowing them to rape the women on board, John shoots all of them dead, much to the dismay of one of the aid workers. “There’s no good reason to kill,” he says. John disagrees. Rambo drops the workers off, but it is inevitable that something horrible will occur that forces him to return to save them.
Rambo is centered on the barest bones of a plot, and even though that boat ride upstream may contains shades of Apocalypse Now, that’s where any similarities to classic cinema end. Stallone knows this better than anyone, so he makes no attempt to be subtle or pretentious in any way. He knows what his audience is expecting and he delivers it, blood, guts and all. A word about the film’s violence. The scenes of genocide seem very authentic, as the sadistic militants line up hundreds of innocent villagers and force them to run into a river that they have filled with mines. Those who survive this initial game are quickly shot to death. Stallone shoots these scenes, grotesque imagery and all, with an urgency that’s rarely seen in action films. The result is sobering. Once Rambo and the mercenaries are in Burma, the violence is ratcheted up several notches. As the bullets fly, they not only kill their intended targets, but completely annihilate them. We see limbs flying all over the place, and blood splatters on the camera several times. Is this over the top? Maybe, but without being an expert I would gather that the destruction caused by these high powered rifles is probably pretty close to what we experience in the film. Stallone wants to show us the true effects of war and violence and he doesn’t hold back. Once again some people will be turned off by this, and if this sounds disturbing I recommend staying away from the film. Others like myself will appreciate the effect the movie has. Rambo comes in, and Rambo kicks ass. This movie is so exact and efficient that the ninety minute running time feels more like thirty. When was the last time you could say that about a movie?
John Rambo has become a much more convincing character with age. He’s seen enough death and destruction to know that there is no joy in killing, and no real winner in war. Stallone shows us a man whose soul has been torn out, but whose reflexes and morality maintain intact. He’s a cynical, grizzled Vietnam veteran who sees very little hope when it comes to the idea of world peace. Maybe in our current times he reflects the general outlook of mankind more than we would like to admit.