FILM REVIEW: Rambo 

Dark Times, Dark Hero: The '80s are back, this time with new and improved violence

Rambo
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Paul Schulze
Directed by Sylvester Stallone
Rated R

The world has changed considerably since the last time John Rambo stomped onto movie screens in 1988. His mortal enemy, Soviet Russia, has crumbled. He's been mercilessly spoofed in movies like Hot Shots Part Deux. Headbands and mullets are the stuff of comedy, not military action. But have audience tastes really changed that much in the intervening years? Have our action hero expectations come full circle?

Rambo — the fourth film in the First Blood franchise — is a loud, exciting, efficiently directed combat movie and the most concise of the series. Not that the Vietnam vet ever stopped to smell the roses, but this is the wrong place to look for narrative twists or witty dialogue. Rambo doesn't even have a catchphrase or a worthy speech to make. He's too busy blowing shit up.

The lofty speeches are reserved for a group of missionaries who are trying to bring medical aid and some good old-fashioned Bible schoolin' to Burmese peasants. They're led by Dr. Michael Burnett, portrayed by Paul Schulze (Father Phil in The Sopranos). He believes violence is not the solution to settling Burma's civil unrest. Burnett is accompanied by Sarah Miller (Julie Benz, who played Darla in Buffy). Miller believes "trying to save a life isn't wasting your life." Whether it's because of her platitudes or her naivety, Rambo agrees to take the do-gooders from Thailand to Burma. When the missionaries are attacked, Rambo comes to the rescue with a group of mercenaries. Dozens of unnamed bad guys are killed. And that's about it.

Judging by the few barely intelligible words that Sylvester Stallone does utter, the lack of a big speech might not be a bad thing. Nevertheless, he's very effective as the stone-cold Rambo, who isn't in the mood for a chat. In this movie, he's a bloody behemoth, crushing every obstacle in his path. His every bootstep makes a resounding crunch on the jungle floor. He causes so much destruction that in New York, he'd be videotaped and codenamed Cloverfield.

Instead, Stallone, who also co-writes and directs, has chosen to plonk his box office monster in Burma, far off the CNN radar, where a true-life war between military forces and Karen rebels has raged for six decades and life is cheaper than a pair of Crocs. Casablanca opened with newsreel-style footage, too, but here the ploy fails; after such graphic images of human suffering, any action flick would seem frivolous. Rambo compensates by upping the visceral violence. The movie's hardly begun before someone explodes in a burst of gore, and that's a mere prelude to the carnage to come. It's a fine screw-you to critics who complain about actioners that show violence without its consequences, but its nastiness prevents the film from working as a piece of entertainment. It's no date movie, unless your date's Dick Cheney.

In the '80s, such realistic depictions of war were just a wicked twinkle in the eyes of Stallone and his writer-director peers, busily trying to top each others' action set pieces. The First Blood films escalated from the story of a man against an unreasonable rural police chief to a man against a Russian tank division. Standing tall on a heap of possum-playing foreign extras, Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were more icons than actors, the bastard children of tough guys like John Wayne and Charleston Heston with Charles Bronson as midwife.

We needed those icons. The threat of nuclear war cast a gloom over our existence and the presence of those larger-than-life, muscle-bound Mr. Fix-Its was reassuring. Rambo became such a cozy figure that he got a spin-off cartoon and a toy line. The "support our troops" speeches of his movies may seem overblown now, but back then they were heartfelt. Novelist David Morell made sure there was some rhyme to the violence, but it was facile stuff all the same.

When the Soviet threat faded, we relaxed a little. It was time to lighten up, ask questions first, and shoot later. By then, screenwriter Shane Black had introduced wisecracking characters like Martin Riggs (played by Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon) and Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis in The Last Boy Scout). These guys were as psychopathic as Rambo, but they had vulnerable spots too. Will Smith and Nicolas Cage later personified friendly guys who just happened to be reluctant heroes.

Now the threat of a Soviet-sponsored armageddon has been replaced by a terrorist-led apocalypse. Our enemies aren't so easy to identify this time — in fact, they're more anonymous than all those Russian guards that Rambo used to blow away.

Plus we have a generation of youths experiencing war, and eager for some mindless on-screen action. No wonder Jason Bourne (a character created in the '80s) has raked in so much cash with his three movies; the character kills with ruthless efficiency and rarely emotes. Bruce Willis has returned for another Die Hard, with less quips this time. Even the devil-may-care James Bond got a gritty revamp, recast as more of a vengeful assassin than a dashing playboy spy.

So Rambo's back to symbolize our dark times, indestructible as ever. The theme hasn't changed. Warriors — real and fictional — are necessary, whether we approve of their bone-crunching tactics or not.


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