Sylvester Stallone’s latest attempt at career resuscitation comes to us in the form of “Rambo,” the fourth installment of the action series. The last time we saw John Rambo, he was busy helping the Taliban overthrow the Soviets. That sure worked out great. This time, Stallone takes us to the less incendiary geopolitical hotspot of Burma, where the ruling military junta has been waging a brutal 60 year civil conflict against the Karen ethnic group.
As the movie opens, we catch up to Rambo who now makes a living rustling snakes for a village sideshow in western Thailand. He’s sunk so low that when a missionary group led by the condescending Michael (Paul Schulze, ‘Journeyman’) asks for a ride up-river to Burma so that they can bring aid to the suffering, Rambo rejects him, scolding him for believing that he can make a difference. But after some pleading by pretty missionary Sarah (Julie Benz, ‘Dexter’), he grudgingly accepts. That’s the setup. The rest of the movie is a bloodbath followed by a rescue/chase flick, which essentially amounts to an even bigger bloodbath.
At the ripe old age of 61, Stallone is still as physical an actor as he ever was; likely due in part to his very public advocacy of recreational HGH use. Despite his gargantuan size and inevitably arthritic knees, Sly still moves pretty well, gamely running, gunning and diving with the best of them. Unfortunately, it looks like Sly has overdone it a bit. He seems to have taken his apprehension over maintaining his testosterone levels (his words, not mine) a little too seriously and has really juiced himself up. Stallone had always occupied that second tier of muscle-bound action stars just below Schwarzenegger (more lean-and-mean than big-and-bulky), but now he barely looks human. His neck has disappeared and his wrists, forearms and elbows have become like one big side of beef. Frankly, Stallone now more closely resembles something you’d see hanging from a hook in a butcher’s freezer than a man.
Speaking of chopped meat, aficionados of rendered flesh will eat this movie up (if you’ll excuse the pun). I consider myself a seasoned gore-hound, having seen the worst that Italy, Japan and Korea have to offer with barely a batted eyelash, but the level of violence and gore in “Rambo” is truly eye-popping. In fact, about the only act of violence that isn’t committed in this film is the popping out of eyes. Stallone spares no effort in amping up the blood spray, exploding bodies, dismembered limbs and decapitated heads. The assaults by the Burmese military are depicted with a savagery that even Mel Gibson in his worst ‘Religious Snuff Flick’ mood couldn’t dream up.
People are hacked to pieces, babies are tossed into burning buildings, children are mowed down in the street by heavy machinegun fire and entire crowds are incinerated with flame throwers. The final 30 minutes in particular is carnage of such legendary proportions that it makes the opening sequence of “Saving Private Ryan” seem like an afternoon in the sandbox with your kids. It surpasses the point of mind-numbing and crosses over into full-on parody. By the time Rambo had dispatched the evil Burmese commander, I was left in stitches. Unintentional guffaws aside, I must admit that the slaughter is depicted with an unexpected level of skill. This is a film that was obviously made on a fairly modest budget and was directed by someone who does not have much of a pedigree, but the melding of ketchup-filled dummies and CGI gore with real actors and detonating munitions is pretty much seamless.
The undercurrent of nihilism that permeates the film, stemming from Rambo’s descent to the lowest level of humanity, is effectively if somewhat tritely encapsulated in the treatment of the missionaries. Noble as their cause might be on the surface, Rambo can see through their petty idealism. It all comes full circle when the sponsoring Church’s pastor asks Rambo to lead a motley band of mercenaries he hired to rescue his flock and the point later gets driven home when the upstanding Michael bashes a man’s head in with a rock. “When you’re pushed, killin’s as easy as breathin’” Rambo sullenly admonishes him. And that pretty much sums up the direction in which the character of Rambo has developed. He finally realizes that he is the same type of murderous psychopath that his enemies are. For Rambo, the act of killing has become the only way for him to feel that he’s still alive and he seems to have finally come to terms with that fact. This is actually fairly heady, existential stuff and could have made for a pretty fascinating film in the hands of a more literate director.
What we have, though, is a Rambo film, with all the clumsy pseudo-political exploitative themes we’ve come to expect. Stallone can still grunt when he needs to and can flay a skull with the best of them, but there’s nothing new here. Frankly, were it not for the ludicrous level of violence and what little remaining cinematic currency the ‘Rambo’ name still carries, this film would have most likely gone straight to video. If you want to see a Rambo movie, this is your movie. If you want to see something else…well, why the hell are you going to see a Rambo movie, then?
Sylvester Stallone (director) / Art Monterastelli, Sylvester Stallone (screenplay)
CAST: Sylvester Stallone … John Rambo
Julie Benz … Sarah
Matthew Marsden … School Boy
Graham McTavish … Lewis
Reynaldo Gallegos … Diaz
Jake La Botz … Reese
Tim Kang … En-Joo