Director: Sylvester Stallone
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Matthew Marsden, Graham McTavish, Paul Shulze
Running time: 91 minutes
***½ (out of ****)
I don’t think I’ve ever been more inspired to hit the gym than right after viewing Rambo. Say what you want about the film but no one can accuse 61 year-old Sylvester Stallone of not physically preparing himself to resurrect the iconic character he created over twenty years ago. He’s so big in this movie it’s a miracle he was even able to run at all without falling over and there were times I thought he might. If I was exhausted just watching him and the other members of the cast tear through the jungles of Thailand I can’t even imagine how hard a movie this must have been to make for them or how physically grueling. Stallone should congratulate himself though because he’s done what he failed to do with 2006’s Rocky Balboa. He’s made our reunion with John Rambo actually mean something more than just a trip down memory lane.
While it’s unfair to compare the two films, it’s all but impossible not to. I found his attempt to resurrect Rocky to be a laughable misfire in which Stallone fell in love with his own nostalgia over the character. He figured just putting “The Italian Stallion” in the ring again was enough, asking audiences to ignore the fact that the screenplay didn’t contain anything or anyone else worth caring about. The fourth installment of Rambo is the exact opposite and easily the most satisfying directorial effort of Stallone’s career. And this is coming from someone who is not a fan of war films, this series or really Stallone in general. Truth be told, I wasn’t looking forward to seeing this at all. But Rambo knows what it has to do and just does it, executing its premise to near perfection and not overstaying its welcome. In this way it reminded me of last year’s Live Free or Die Hard, which is a high compliment.
Under usual circumstances it would seem almost beside the point to discuss the plot of a Rambo film other than it involves a lot of people being killed in the jungle, but this actually does have a fairly engaging storyline. It isn’t going to change the world or anything but it gets the job done and places Rambo in a situation that brings out the best in the character and plays on the series’ strengths. The screenplay at times does seem to be reaching for something more also. It doesn’t quite get there, but it comes closer than it has any right to. And yes, a lot of people are killed also.
Lonely, aging Vietnam Vet John Rambo (Stallone) is content spending his free time catching poisonous snakes for profit when Christian missionaries Michael (Paul Shulze) and Sarah (Dexter’s Julie Benz) approach him with the offer to take their group up river from Thailand to Burma. At first, Rambo resists due to what can best be called philosophical differences (and likely a desire not to see these people killed) but pretty Sarah lays on the charm and he reluctantly caves in. When the trip down river leads to potential disaster as they encounter a gang of pirates, Rambo rectifies the situation the only way he knows how and returns thinking he’s safely gotten the missionaries to their destination. But he finds out a little over a week later that The Burmese Army, whose sadistic officer kills villagers for sport, has captured them. Rambo is recruited to head downstream again with a rag tag group of mercenaries to rescue them from the P.O.W. camp. Bloodshed and many rounds of firing ensue.
Going into Rambo I was expecting a movie with a big budget blockbuster feel and somewhat of a campy attitude but in actuality it plays more like a gritty independent film or documentary. I was amazed at how well Stallone shot it as it’s almost as if we’re seeing the action through Rambo’s eyes as he navigates the men through the jungle. Despite the picture only running 90 minutes it feels like an epic war film, kind of a twisted up version of Apocalypse Now on steroids. Some may complain about Stallone taking 40 minutes to get down to the action but I enjoyed the fact that he took his time reintroducing us to the Rambo character and giving us some quiet moments with him. Nor does he take center stage and start blowing everyone away immediately like you’d expect. This could have easily ended up being a vanity project for the star but Stallone, rather unselfishly, gives his co-stars equal time and turns it into an exciting ensemble action thriller.
Graham McTavish and Matthew Marsden are particular standouts as the mercenaries, while the cleverness of casting Julie Benz as the female lead can’t be undersold. Since she’s an actress that oozes angelic sweetness seeing her character being dumped into genocidal hell and having to depend on a grumpier than ever Rambo to get out is classic and provides a great contrast. Rather than saying Stallone gives a great acting performance here it’s probably more accurate to say he gives a great performance in the B-movie tradition. The only time he falters as a director is when he doesn’t trust himself enough as an actor and relies on unnecessary flashbacks and voice-overs to convey Rambo’s angst. It was that similar miscalculation that caused me to laugh hysterically at the finale of Rocky Balboa. Luckily, here it’s kept to a minimum and isn’t as ill timed as it was in that film. He conveys more with a single facial expression than any distracting voice-over can.
Stallone was put in a no-win situation with the violence. If it’s as graphic as possible he’s accused of being a hypocrite and exploiting the injustices in Burma he’s claiming to shine a needed spotlight on. But if he cuts corners in depicting it to please the studio and bring in younger audiences then the movie becomes less authentic, short-changing a serious issue. My stance on it is that this is just entertainment and he shouldn’t be held to so high a standard, but having said that, I think he made the right call going all the way with it. And to Stallone’s credit, the violence, as graphic as it is, never seems cartoonish. Instead, it’s horrifying and shockingly realistic. There are about two or three sequences that are downright difficult watch they’re so brutal. It’s here where the film flirts with being something more than just a fun action vehicle. You could even argue at times it’s so serious there’s little fun to be had during many scenes. But that’s the way it should be. Stallone didn’t compromise and refused to turn this into a joke.
The restrained script wisely doesn’t shove the Burmese situation down our throats, but lets the violence do all the talking instead. And does it ever. Unfortunately though it serves as disturbing further proof that the MPAA finds it perfectly acceptable to have limbs flying around in action movies since the NC-17 rating is only reserved for artsy independent projects that dare to feature sex or nudity. But that’s a separate issue. This film can’t be blamed for the MPAA rating board’s stupidity.
I was surprised how affected I was by the ending and in a weird way, Rambo does become an inspirational figure of sorts, at least within the movie universe Stallone has so effectively created. The choice of the final scene is just perfect and the movie couldn’t have ended on a more appropriate note. It’s been so long since I’ve seen First Blood or any of the other films in the series it would be unfair for me to compare, but what matters most is that this movie stands on its own two feet as a winner regardless of what came before. It stays true to the character and its origins and is everything a fourth installment of a franchise like this should be. If Stallone wanted to keep going and make another I wouldn’t complain. Or he can stop here and end with the knowledge that Rambo went out on top.