Sunday, February 24, 2008

Review - Rambo

Oh Sly, why did you have to go and make another
Rambo film? After scoring an unexpected hit with last year's Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallone has obviously decided that there's still more mileage to be squeezed from the cinematic icons of a bygone era, but this ghastly film – the fourth in the series – only succeeds in pissing away all of the goodwill his surprisingly tender boxing film built up. Twenty years after we last saw Vietnam veteran John Rambo in action, the starkly titled Rambo opens in pretty much the same way the previous one did – with John Rambo alone, disillusioned, and having renounced the violence of his past. He is now in Thailand, and he scrapes a living capturing deadly snakes which he later sells in the village. As ever, he's a surly and monosyllabic figure, and when a group of missionaries ask him to take them into Burma where they hope to provide much-needed humanitarian aid, he tells them they're wasting their time. They tell him they're trying to change the world – "Fuck the world" Rambo replies.

Of course, Rambo is eventually swayed by the pleas of pretty missionary Sarah (Julie Benz, useless), and he reluctantly takes them upriver; but when they are captured and imprisoned by Burmese troops, old John is forced to forge a machete, have a flurry of flashbacks to the earlier films, and join a rag-tag band of mercenaries (including cast-offs from
Casualty and Coronation Street) in a daring rescue mission. It's easy to forget now that 1982's First Blood, the picture which introduced John Rambo to the world, is a modest and surprisingly compelling affair, with only one fatality occurring as the drama played out on a recognisably human scale. It's a world away from the ludicrous action favoured in the lesser sequels – Rambo II and III – films that took on the proportions of a live-action cartoon, as the previously tortured Vietnam vet and his rippling torso single-handedly defeated whole armies. This fourth, completely redundant Rambo film is another one from the "ludicrous cartoon" side of the franchise; in fact, the film most closely resembles a video game, with heads exploding and bodies being mowed down by an unending supply of bullets everywhere you look, and the whole ugly business proceeds without any hint of weight or consequence.

Stallone's direction of these sequences is frequently choppy, making it hard to ascertain who exactly is doing what to whom, and often all we can see is one pulverised body after another. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of
Rambo – beyond the lame dialogue, stilted acting and shabby plotting – is the astonishing levels of violence. During the course of this 90-minute film, people get blown up, limbs get severed, heads get sliced off, throats get ripped out, one man gets eaten by pigs, women get raped and children get bayoneted. The film boasts a hit rate of 2.5 deaths per minutes, and we see every one of them in all their dubious glory. That's not the film's ugliest element, though; Stallone's incredibly offensive depiction of the picture's Asian contingent takes that honour. Aside from the cackling hordes we see indulging in the most violent massacres imaginable, Stallone also shows us that the chief villain is a sadistic pervert who preys on young boys, while the pivotal rescue sequence takes place as some hundred-strong group of Burmese soldiers indulge in a mass-rape of five terrified dancing girls. It's jaw-dropping in its tastelessness.

Stallone has stated in interviews that he wanted to expose audiences to the true horror of the atrocities being committed in Burma, and that's a fair enough intention, but you can't have it both ways, and the seriousness of
Rambo's subject matter is undermined by Stallone's handling of it. The film opens in a sombre fashion with news reports and documentary footage from the region, but soon Stallone is employing all of the usual overblown action movie tricks in his direction. We get people running away from fireballs, a burning village reflected in the sunglasses of a smirking baddie, and at one point Rambo seems to detonate a nuclear device in the middle of the jungle (although I'm not sure how) and then outruns the explosion; but when set against this context, such ludicrous and gory action feels inappropriate at best and pornographic at worst.

Rambo climaxes in a numbing orgy of violence, with even the missionary who earlier decried all forms of violence finding time to beat a man to death with a rock (this is what's known as a "character arc", you see). It's hard to know how Stallone could have gone so far wrong with this picture after hitting just the right note with Rocky Balboa, but I think it ultimately comes down to the fact that John Rambo simply doesn't inspire anything like the kind of affection that Rocky does. As Balboa, Stallone brought a sensitivity and charm to his underdog character, but here he's just a silent brute, grunting and glowering his way through a wretched picture. "You can drop the thousand-yard stare" one character tells him, "I've seen it all before and I'm not impressed"; I couldn't have put it better myself.