Rambo (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In the Rambo canon, where does this one fit? The tone is closer to First Blood but the body count is more Rambo III. No matter how one dices and slices this new Rambo, the first one in 20 years, it will likely please fans of the long-in-the-tooth series, provided they still go to see movies. Rambo probably has enough action to capture the attention of the next generation, but will they view Stallone as a dinosaur or as someone who can wreak carnage with the best of them? Rambo is as gory as films come while maintaining an R rating, and the carnage is too explicit to be considered cartoonish. The camera doesn't cut away when limbs are shot off or when unsuspecting peasants step on landmines.

It's impressive that Stallone is still authoritative as John Rambo, ex-Green Beret. The actor is 61 years old but Rambo (unlike Rocky) has a timeless quality to him. One never questions the credibility of this aged actor playing this action hero because Rambo, as befits his iconic status, doesn't appear to have changed much in the last 20 years. It's interesting to note the different directions in which Stallone has taken his two famous screen alter-egos. In Rocky Balboa, the title character is defined by his age. He's getting old and the years are weighing him down. In Rambo, age is irrelevant. John Rambo has come to terms with his killer instinct and how many years he has left is irrelevant.

As the film opens, we are provided with a thumbnail sketch of the situation in Burma, where most of the action will take place. Credit Stallone for not being topical by setting this in Iraq or some other Middle Eastern location where Rambo could battle terrorists. (Ironically, Rambo III put the character in Afghanistan battling alongside the "freedom fighters" who would eventually develop into terrorists.) Here, he's after the old stand-by of a corrupt army led by a sadistic colonel, whose evil and cruelty are highlighted in brutal scenes where innocent peasants are slaughtered by the dozens. Anyway, Rambo is minding his own business, grunting, catching snakes, grunting, hammering hot metal rods into weapons of mass destruction (in his hands, at least), and grunting some more. That's when Michael (Paul Schulze, the guy from Division that Jack Bauer shot in the head) and Sarah (Julie Benz, a popular TV actress) enter his life. They're Christian missionaries on their way up river from Thailand to Burma and they would like Rambo to be their guide. He takes some persuading but ultimately can't resist a pretty face. The film smartly avoids having these two dance around in a ballroom while Angela Lansbury sings in the background.

The river trip doesn't go without incident. Rambo has to wipe out a boat full of nasty pirates to keep them from raping Sarah and beheading her colleagues. Michael doesn't approve of Rambo's tactics and, once they reach their destination, he huffily informs their guide that his services will no longer be required. Of course, the missionaries are soon captured by the bad guys and in almost no time, Rambo is retracing his path upriver with a bunch of mercenaries in tow. Following a lot of running around in the jungle (where we keep expecting Marlon Brando to appear), we are treated to a few Rambo moments and the climax has a suitably high body count. The denouement is strange, though, being reminiscent of the ending to episodes of the old TV series The Incredible Hulk.

Is there a reason to be disappointed? Not by the plot, surely, which is in the good Rambo tradition of not making a lot of sense and not being at all bothered by that fact. Not by the acting, either. Stallone knows Rambo well enough that he could play him in his sleep and none of the other characters possesses much in the way of individuality. I think this is supposed to be a little like The Dirty Dozen, but the only mercenary to make an impression is the tough-talking Graham McTavish, who seems to be doing a Vinnie Jones impersonation. No, if there's a reason for mild dissatisfaction, it's that there aren't enough Rambo moments. Why are we in the theater in the first place? To see Stallone cut, shoot, and blow his way through enemies from start to finish. Unfortunately, there are a few too many scenes that feature Stallone running through the forest or staring daggers at people he doesn't like. One could argue that the climax makes up for it but, despite all the mayhem, it's not visceral or personal enough. Oh well, I suppose you can't have everything. We do get to see Rambo outrun the blast wave from a Claymore mine that has the explosive power of a small nuclear weapon.

Rambo does pretty much what one could reasonably expect it to do. It's not the best of the series (that would be #1) nor is it the worst (#2). It's a middling movie both in terms of the franchise and in terms of action movies in general. If what you want from a movie is a lot of Stallone looking morose and pensive before suddenly going apeshit and slaughtering a bunch of people, then Rambo is your kind of experience. And if you're looking for something elseā€¦ why the hell would you be considering going to see a Rambo movie in the first place?

Rambo (United States, 2008)

Director: Sylvester Stallone
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Paul Schulze, Graham McTavish, Matthew Marsden
Screenplay: Sylvester Stallone
Cinematography: Glen MacPherson
Music: Brian Tyler
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate
Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 2008-01-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1