Rambo (2008) / Action-War
aka Rambo 4
MPAA Rated: R for strong graphic bloody violence, sexual assaults, grisly images and language
Running time: 91 min
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Matthew Marsden, Graham McTavish, Rey Gallegos, Jake La Botz, Tim Kang, Maung Maung Khin, Paul Schulze,
Cameo: Ken Howard
Director: Sylvester Stallone
Screenplay: Art Monterastelli, Sylvester Stallone
2008 finds Vietnam Vet John Rambo (Stallone, Rocky Balboa) living his days in Thailand, near the Myanmar (aka Burma) border, as a boatman for hire amid hostile oppression at the hands of ruthless Burmese warlords continuing a decades-old civil war, who systematically kill the Christian peasants and take their children for their army. Despite his admonition to leave, Rambo ends up going upstream to take a group of Christian human rights missionaries to spread desperately-needed good deeds in a land he knows they will have no impact on. Despite a near-catastrophe, he gets them to their destination. However, a visit from one of the heads of their ministry informs John that he needs to return once more, this time with a group of hired mercenaries, as the group of missionaries have failed to return when expected. With only a handful of men, the trail doesn't look good, and they are expected to infiltrate a camp of at least 100 vicious Burmese thugs to rescue any missionaries they find, if any.
After three movies and at least a couple of decades to think about it, Stallone knows what people like about the Rambo films, and that's to see one guy completely decimate hundreds of men in the most viscerally graphic ways possible. No need for that initial Vietnam commentary, no fugitive-on-the-run angst, no room for dialogue or exposition -- just show us bad guys getting grenades stuffed down their throats and watch their heads explode for our pleasure. If you're expecting killing and bloodshed, you'll get your wish, and then some. I can't recall seeing this level of disemboweling, dismemberment and gore from anything outside of the horror genre, and only a few times within it.
Pungently gruesome films like Rambo trouble me. Not because I'm averse to violence, as I can cite many examples of films with graphic violence that I've enjoyed. It's also not the fact that many viewers will consider Rambo's incessant depictions of slaughter exciting, worthwhile entertainment because it ups this violence to the upmost proportions and still manages to hold on to its R rating. It's the fact that these same viewers actually equate wanton bloodshed with quality filmmaking. I will admit, even I found myself reacting to the film throughout for the level it escalated its depictions of deaths. When bodies are being ripped in half, literally, by bullets, it's hard not to laugh at the absurdity of it all, if you aren't retching from its brutality. For an example, you can see clips of just what I'm talking about here (warning: extremely graphic violence -- not for kids or impressionable adults).
I'm not opposed to violence depicted in films, and I won't argue that it isn't exciting when set up properly. I may not understand why people enjoy watching acts of extreme violence independent of context, but I know that they do, and nothing will change that. What I may never understand is the qualitative judgments on a film based solely on the envelope-pushing levels of sex, violence, or crudeness displayed within the film itself. Rambo is an exciting film if you like very violent, bloody carnage, but the notion that runs prevalent that this is a sign of good filmmaking just because of it is a trend that troubles me. At the time of this review's writing, 42,000 people bothered to rank Rambo on a scale of 1 to 10 on Rambo's IMDB page. Two-thirds of voters rank it in the 8-10 range -- a range that is not only ludicrous from the standpoint of all films in the history of cinema, but even ranking it in the action genre seems generous. If you disagree, consider this question: would you still think this a great film if the violence were toned down to PG-13 levels? I not only bet you wouldn't, but that you'd consider it one of the most boring action films you'd seen in recent memory.
The reason why I prefer stylishly bloody films like City of God and Apocalypto and dismiss ones like Rambo and 300 is that the former films hook me into stories that are interesting to follow and characters I've come to know and understand in more than a superficial fashion. The latter films have lots of style and interesting camera techniques, but I think the fact that I'm noticing these things throughout is evidence that I'm clearly not into the actual film if I'm watching murders and thinking, "Daaang, I like that cool slo-mo impaling!" or "Whoa! Look at that guy's head pop off! So cool!" The good films also have a momentum that doesn't pause when characters start moving their lips, and in fact, those moments add the necessary context to enhance the moments of violence to intensely harrowing levels. Minimize the violence or flashy camera work, and you'd still have good stories, even if you lose some of this intensity.
Rambo meets the bare minimum standards to be called a story, and the characters, while behaving in ways that are believable, are barely given much context to care about their high level of peril. Giving it some credit, Stallone does a pretty good job mounting the action scenes, and there are moments when the film looks like it's going to actually break out of predictable patterns to deliver something more than standard action fodder. A stop in the riverboat by Burmese pirates is well put together, and certainly would be disturbing with the proper context, but it doesn't generate the intensity such a scene should normally provide if we cared about the missionaries as people by that point other than being the excuse for Rambo to go ape-shit and rip out bad guy entrails later in the film. How many times must we go the pornographic route of seeing characters exhibit lots of friction at predictable intervals capped off with explosive money shots of heads busting wide open by bullets fired in rapid fashion?
Rambo is a film without much need to exist except to give fans of flying human organs something to watch until the next example comes out. If you excised the end credits, there's barely 80 minutes of material here, and that material is padded out by long riverboat rides where Rambo is silent watching the mercenaries intimidate one another (and him) for long durations. Stallone does a fine job in maintaining the setting and he does get good performances by the actors, but the script, what little there is, is just not enough to cover its meager run time with moments of genuine interest. Perhaps only 15 more minutes of set-up, if done properly, and we could actually feel exhilaration at seeing Rambo dispatch nondescript Burmese thugs for reasons other than the amount of blood and intestines that fly across the screen. As it stands now, it has effective moments and it's not poorly made from a production/directorial standpoint, but the skimping on story to revel in viscera makes Rambo come across all too often as just an excuse to fill the trough that feeds the gore-fetishists.
-- Follows First Blood, Rambo: First Blood Part II, and Rambo III.
©2008 Vince Leo