A film review by Craig J. Koban

RAMBO jjj

2008, R, 89 mins.

John Rambo: Sylvester Stallone / Sarah: Julie Benz / Schoolboy:  Matthew Marsden / Lewis: Graham McTavish

Directed by Sylvester Stallone / Written by Stallone and Art Monterastelli from a character created by David Morrell

RAMBO is a blood soaked, testosterone induced, fist clenched, and guns blazing love ballad to wanton carnage.  If it is not the most savagely violent action film that I have seen, then I certainly donít know what is.  There are times when the violence is so explicit that the screen looks like a Jackson Pollock work-in-progress painting with brain matter and gore used as the medium.  Out of all of the four films centered on the former Vietnam veteran and POW, Jonathan James Rambo, this installment is clearly the most visceral and unimaginably intense.

The film builds up on its fairly loose and perfunctory storyline and culminates in a final 30 minutes of unprecedented, gory mayhem.  The in-your-face brutality presented in RAMBO will definitely leave the squeamish fleeing for the theatre exits; for the rest of the die-hard Rambo-holics that thirst for such gruesome excesses, this film delivers...in a big way.

I think that this is the only way to go into a Rambo film.  Certain movies have developed a feverous anticipation before their respective releases, whereas others have fostered a certain level of disdainful, mocking incredulity.  During the last few months, RAMBO has been one of those films in the latter category.  Stunned disbelief or endless handshaking had fallen over the casual film-going public when word leaked of Stallone making yet another step back in this war machineís shoes.

To be fair and honest...I was one of them.

Yet, I think you need to simply view these films under certain lenses.  Rambo has always been of a lone, disenfranchised drifter, emotional abandoned by a country that he loves, who engages in blood-drenched exploitations into a realm where he feels righteous enough to massacre any and all targets, all for the sake of his own personal cause.  The character, especially in the mid 1980's, became a rugged pop icon; a reflection into the fierce level of patriotism that the US had during the height of Cold War, Reagan-era America.  He was a most atypical hero in the sense that he became a manifestation of all of childhood fantasies, a GI Joe come to life, albeit with decidedly more ruthless and barbaric tendencies.  Even the characterís name has become so ubiquitous with conjuring up images of a person demonstrating supreme heroism via extreme violence.

1982's very effective FIRST BLOOD (based on a modest, early 1970's novel by Canadian writer David Morrell) introduced us to Rambo as a man that returned home from his tour of duty to a nation that despised his kind.  The second entry, RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, showcased the anti-hero returning to Vietnam to reclaim some of his wounded pride by rescuing some forgotten POWs, alongside wasting an incalculable number of Vietcong and Russia militia.  Then came RAMBO III in 1988, which - as inexplicable as it seems now - had the character team up with the Mujahedeen rebels of Afghanistan (who eventually morphed into...you know who) in their efforts to fend off Russian invaders.  That film was ironically dedicated to the brave freedom fighters of the country, but 9/11 has certainly tainted the filmís reputation.

Now comes RAMBO, which shows - much like the last film about another Stallone icon, ROCKY BALBOA - the aging hero approaching the autumn of his life.  It has been twenty years since Rambo had helped the future Taliban rebels battle against Russia and the former muscle-bound soldier has retired, so to speak, and lives the simple life in Northern Thailand in a small and unassuming village that borders Burma.  He makes money by - what else - capturing deadly and poisonous snakes for local entertainers.  Yes, Rambo has traded in his famous hunting knife and M-16 for a fishing rod, but in the background lurks the darker ramifications of a brutalistic civil war that has raged at the Thai-Burmese border for over a decade.  With every new day there seems to be more medics and peace workers that try to cross through Ramboís village to civilian refugee centers who have been victims of civil war atrocities, but many never make it out alive.

Alas, just when Rambo seems to be enjoying some peace in his life, things get turned upside down for him, which spirals towards an inevitable date with destiny...and a mass killing spree (a key cornerstone to the whole franchise).  A group of kindly and determined Christian aid workers meet up with him at his village and would like to make their way up river from Thailand to Burma...and they want...yup...Rambo as their guide.  The group is comprised of the typical stock, cardboard characters, like hot-headed Michael (Paul Schulze), and the God-loving babe of the group, Sarah (Julie Benz, who is kind of thanklessly decent here).  Like all monosyllabic, introverted, and world weary former perpetrators of death and destruction, Rambo shuns away the request.  Yet, Sarah is, after all, a pretty face who is able to wear down the granite tough and macho emotional facade that Rambo has and makes him rethink his stance.  Wisely, Stallone does not make the mistake of providing for some romantic interest between the two.  This film has no time for romance.

Predictably, Rambo agrees to be the groups' guide up river, but the trip is bit bumpy.  A bunch of nasty pirates  wish to take Sarah aboard for the purposes of being a sex slave, but Rambo makes mince meat of them, to which Michael voices his displeasure (funny, but if a group of gun-touting lunatics were threatening your life, would you care if Rambo wiped them out so effortlessly?).  Nevertheless, the missionaries get to their destination and Rambo is informed that his services will no longer be needed.

Big mistake.

Of course, the village that the missionaries reach is viscously attacked by the Burmese militia, which is ruled over by a vile little slug of man that commits atrocities against man (and children, as shown in one deplorable little instance) that you know - you just know - will be avenged by Rambo for all of our enjoyment.  Sarah and some of the missionaries are taken as prisoners to the militiaís camp and their likelihood of escape looks weak at best.  Meanwhile, as Rambo returns home he is greeted by the pastor that has worked with the missionaries and he reveals how he has grown concerned that he has not heard from them in days.  Like all good pastors, he has a special emergency fund that is used to hire mercenaries (the Churchís collection plate must have been huge that week) and he wishes Rambo to help guide the grunts into the hellish militia camp and free the hostages.  Rambo agrees, after a laughably wretched voice-over, machete-making montage where he reinforces, to himself, that killing is in his blood and that he knows what he is, so why fight it?

Indeed.

Okay, so the character development is pathetically hooky and the small bits of personal reflection the title character makes is ham infested, but I think that those elements donít distract from what RAMBO is really concerned with, which is being a pulse-pounding juggernaut of animalistic action scenes that are tiresomely mounted and executed without any desire in the world to look back and let moral, level heads prevail.  The final third of the film is a shockingly well sustained series of virtuoso set pieces where we see Rambo and company proceed to slice and dice their way through every member of that deplorable Burmese army.  At least Rambo professes to admit in the film that his only real skill in life is to engage in homicidal rampages and wicked, stomach-churning acts of retribution.  Truth be told, never in the history of the action film has there been a figure that has enacted revenge more gruesomely and methodically than Rambo.

Stallone, to his credit, sticks to the seriesí aesthetic sensibilities.  Very much unlike the recent DIE HARD film (whose PG-13 sanitation of the material was regrettably  disingenuous to the seriesí level of R-rated violence), Stallone here goes for absolute broke in RAMBO and pours himself into every single second of R-rated, war-torn debauchery that his creation can muster.  RAMBO is easily the most intense and visceral of the bunch (it also may be Stalloneís most technically sound hour as an action director), and it is also the most gratuitously violent of the lot.  The sheer amount of human slaughter in the film is astounding: we see beheadings, stabbings, exploding bodies, jugulars being ripped out with bare hands, multiple women getting raped, hanging corpses, bodies being devoured into hundreds of pieces via armor piercing bullets, dying prisoners being eaten by salivating dogs, and - in the filmís climatic moment of vulgarism - a characterís stomach is sliced open with all of his vital organs spilling out, much to the omnivorous and sadistic cheers of the audience.  Make no mistake about it: RAMBO is war porn, a pseudo-snuff film of an unprecedented level that makes 300 look like Sesame Street.  It also goes on to prove the ongoing short sidedness of the MPAA, who will never give an adult rating to a film with hard core violence.  How RAMBO escaped a NC-17 is stupefying.

I think that part of the job of a critic is to report on (a) what they think a film is trying to do and (b) how well it achieved its aims.  RAMBO certainly is not high-brow cinema, and its exploration into a nasty and ominous universe of nihilistic and bestial violence sure will turn off many viewers.  Yet, the film works on its intended  levels as an incredible series of unrelentingly perverse and sustained action/stunt pieces.  The key to RAMBO - and all of its incarnations - is that Stallone perceptively knows who his target audience is and knows how to delivery on promises.  In an age with wimpy and soft-pedaled PG-13 action flicks, itís almost kind of sickly refreshingly to see a film with such a predilection towards being an orgy of bloodcurdling death and destruction.   And at the heart of the film is the 61-year-old Stallone - writer, director, and actor - who still manages to efficiently sell the premise of a super-humanly aggressive man of action that can still take on, and keep up with, men half his age.  RAMBO may be torturous to sit through and is contemptibly horrific with its imagery, but there is no denying that, in the long run, the film is a consummate exercise in guerilla war action filmmaking that never negates on its intentions.

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