Mark Reviews Movies


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Sylvester Stallone

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Graham McTavish, Paul Schulze, Matthew Marsden, Rey Gallegos, Tim Kang, Jake LaBotz, Maung Maung Khin, Ken Howard

MPAA Rating:  (for strong graphic bloody violence, sexual assaults, grisly images and language)

Running Time: 1:33

Release Date: 1/25/08

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Review by Mark Dujsik

John Rambo's journey should have been over at the end of First Blood. The novel and the film's original ending has Rambo killing himself, and honestly, it's the only ending to that story of a mentally unbalanced Vietnam veteran who has to face his demons in the way he does that makes any sense. It would have also saved us the first two sequels, which turned him into a generic action hero sent off on covert missions filled to the brim with clichéd story arcs. The first film's tone of sad disillusionment reflected in its relative gritty realism was lost to jingoistic hurrahing reflected by the sequels' unlikely violence and body counts.

Reenter Sylvester Stallone 20 years after Rambo III to direct and, once again, co-write and star as the highly trained soldier for hire in Rambo. Stallone pulled his other legendary persona out of retirement two years ago and gave us the best installment in the Rocky series since the original film. I can safely say the same thing about the latest (and hopefully last) entry in the Rambo series, but there are a few conditions to that statement. It has the gritty realism of the first film and a sadder mood for our hero but still continues Rambo as a soldier for hire involved in a standard plot.

After his mission in Afghanistan 20 years ago, Rambo (Stallone) has been operating a boat in Thailand, bringing snakes to a local snake show. He's quiet and disillusioned on a more universal level than before (Considering what happened after the Soviets left Afghanistan—in addition to countless other events in 20 years—it's hard not to understand why). So when a group of Christian missionaries led by Michael Burnett (Paul Schulze) asks Rambo for a ride into Burma, which, as the news broadcast prologue tells us, has the longest running civil war in the world, he outright refuses.

Burnett and his group want to bring aid to the Karen people, whom Burnett says are suffering genocide and not just warring, and when another of the group Sarah (Julie Benz) tries to talk to Rambo, he simply tells her, "Go home." After a point/counterpoint debate, though, Sarah convinces him, and the next day he drops the missionaries off in Burma. The town they're in is raided, and Julie, Michael, and a few others are captured and taken to a military camp. The church's pastor (Ken Howard) enlists Rambo, being the only person who knows where he dropped them off, to take a group of mercenaries he's hired to recover his flock.

The exposition is drawn out and problematic. First off, getting reacquainted with Rambo isn't a challenging or rewarding prospect, especially after what happened in the shift in his character from the second movie onward. There's a flashback sequence to remind us of his greatest kills and to remind him of his true nature, but there hasn't been anything more to Rambo since his first international adventure. The idea that he's a mystery tries to compensate, but it's to little effect. The dialogue between Rambo and Michael and Rambo and Sarah is stilted and forcibly one-dimensional.

Sarah holds the ideal that change in the world is possible, while Rambo is far from convinced. It goes back and forth as such until Rambo's inevitable change of heart. A confrontation with Burmese pirates is unnecessary except to remind us that Rambo is a killing machine and to show that Michael is against killing under any circumstances, even if it's to save their own lives (Sarah's comment that people are being killed "like that" every day only adds further insult). There's also no attempt to help us understand the actual situation in Burma beyond the fact that some people (We'll call them the Burmese military for lack of any effort to explain the political state) are committing atrocities.

Those atrocities are shown in gruesome detail. The military forces set up a demented race in which they throw mines into a swamp and force prisoners to run through it. The raid on the village at which the missionaries arrive is horrifying—men, women, and children are viciously slaughtered by mortar shells, rifles, and machetes. As a director, Stallone doesn't shy away from a realistic portrayal of violence, although a more specific setup to the situation at hand would result in more than a generalized sense of outrage.

The rescue mission at the military camp is a sequence of stealth kills the likes of which we've become quite accustomed to in Rambo's other outings, but in the midst of the action, Stallone contrasts the rescue of the missionaries against the reality of continuing cruelty against the native people in the camp. It's an unexpected moment of perception. There's only one overtly ridiculous moment, in which Rambo sets a mine in a WWII bomb and outruns an incredibly large shockwave (What the hell kind of bomb was that again?). The final showdown is a veritable, brutal orgy of blood, limbs, and guts, and again, Stallone isn't afraid to show what a 20mm gun will do to a body.

How the movie got away with an R rating is something for which the MPAA will have to account when their ratings board's time is up. It's certainly not an entertaining picture of massive violence, but it's hard not to at least appreciate Stallone's insistence on relative realism. Rambo just doesn't have the proper setup to justify it.

Copyright © 2008 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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