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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Rambo (2008)

Directed by Sylvester Stallone
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Matthew Marsden, Graham McTavish, Reynaldo Gallegos
Written by Art Monterastelli and Sylvester Stallone
Produced by Kevin King, Sylvester Stallone, Kevin King Templeton and John Thompson
Music by Brian Tyler

First Blood is a great film. I watched it recently and it's amazing how much you forget the fact that Rambo, in that particular film, doesn't kill anyone. He injures a few people, but he hardly runs around slaughtering hundreds of bad guys. Then you watch Rambo First Blood Part II and the lamentable Rambo III where he fights off entire armies and you see the huge leap in direction the series took. You can compare First Blood to Taxi Driver; both films are about ex-Vietman vets who return home and are abandoned, finding nothing for them except disillusionment and scorn. They both have a gritty, low budget vibe. Compare that to the Rambo sequels, which are basically big, dumb cartoons.

And now we have the fourth Rambo film, confusingly titled Rambo (the original title, John Rambo, would have worked better). Initially it's an odd sight seeing Stallone as John Rambo not as the so-muscular-he-looks-like-a-knobbly bare-chested hero of parts II and III but as a moping, sour old veteran who looks like he's about ready to quit and retire to somewhere really remote like Bermuda. His face is a combination of 2008-Mickey Rourke and a melted wax candle. And once again we have John Rambo getting involved in a horrible war zone (Part II was Vietnam, III was Afghanistan, this time it's Burma and its civil unrest that's been going on for years and years). We are introduced with real footage of the atrocities in Burma, and some of the footage is deeply unsettling, as much for their content as it is that Stallone decided to include it in a Rambo film. His intentions are noble, I suppose; he wants to show the appalling violence that has been going on. It just seems a little strange to be including this sort of stuff in a film which, ultimately, wallows in the sort of gory violence that you'd expect to see in a Takashi Miike film.

Don't be fooled - though this is a rare, quiet moment, Rambo
is still thinking about eviscerating someone with a branch

We end up with a film of two halves. The first half we have Rambo as a bittered man who is thoroughly sick of the violence all around him. He's only reluctantly drawn back into action because he has a thing for a female missionary, Sarah Miller (Benz). We see the devastation of the village by an army led by a nasty NASTY general (the film points out how bad he really is by him having sex with young boys, shooting innocents in their hundreds and running a band of soldiers so ruthless that their chief enjoyment comes from raping women and making villagers run through mine-infested farmland and laying bets on which ones get blown up).

We get some truly horrific violence in the first half: people being shot down indiscriminately, mothers and children shot, limbs being hacked off. You forget this is a Rambo film, it could as easily have been a sequel to Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down. The film has that same sped-up, jarring, shaky camera technique pioneered by Spielberg for Ryan and, annoyingly, used by virtually all war films since. The second half of the film has Rambo tracking down the missing missionaries with a band of mercenaries. This was a sensible decision on Stallone's behalf. At 60-something, John Rambo is clearly too old to take out an entire army by himself. He still looks pretty fit and handles the action scenes well, but at least it's not the same old 1 vs 100 that we've seen in parts II and III.

The second half of the film treats us to some truly awe-inspiring scenes of carnage. After an age of mournful pessimism, Rambo's back to what he does best: killing the shit out of baddies. And boy, does he. Rambo is by far the most violent film of the series. It's like comparing the original 50's version of The Fly to Cronenberg's gloopy remake. The first three Rambos are subdued in their presentation of violence compared to this one. Stallone said that he wanted to make the violence real, to show how bodies are actually affected by bullets and explosions. And HOLY SHIT DOES HE EVER. Let's just say if you like the Saw movies for their grisly violence, you'll love this. We see bodies torns and chopped to pieces by 50 calibre bullets. Limbs go flying in showers of blood. You have enough exploding heads. Rambo does his fair share, gunning baddies into mincemeat with a mounted turret gun and decapitating and gutting people left and right. Rambo even rips a guy's throat out in one particularly wet scene. It's shot with quite a fair amount of style and the look and feel of the film is pretty gritty (again, like a jungle version of Private Ryan) so it's not as cartoonish as it could have been. But you're still left staring open-mouthed at some of the delirious gore that showers the screen. It's certainly one of the most gloriously violent action films ever made.

"I respectfully disagree with your position, sir."

Therein lies the problem. Rambo wants to be two things: a sobering reminder of the atrocities being committed in Burma, and at the same time an exciting action-cum-war film with enough gore to make George Romero stand up and cheer. Stallone does a decent enough job both in front of and behind the camera. Jerry Goldsmith's memorable main theme is reused here by composer Brian Tyler; this is a thoughtful touch for fans and quite respectful of the work done by the legendary composer.

So the fourth (though probably not last) Rambo film is definitely one for fans. People who have felt that the first three films wallowed too much in excessive violence (a criticism that I felt the first film did not deserve) will definitely want to steer clear of this one. It's the most unashamedly gory, violent and grisly of the lot. There are possibly more deaths in this film than the first three combined. You have to ask yourself how it was that the notoriously scissor-happy MPAA let this through pretty much unscathed. First Blood will always be the strongest film in the series, but at least Rambo ends things in a way that has him come full-circle. In general this is a better Rambo sequel than I think most have been expecting.

Unless you like films with strong dialogue, compelling characters and a thoughtful script.

Best bit
Rambo turns some baddies to mush with a jeep mounted gun

Iconic moment
the decapitation is both sickening and hilarious

Worst bit
most of the dialogue scenes in the first half which try to be deep (but aren't really)

Best line
"Fuck the world."

Best performance
it'd have to be Sylvester Stallone, if anyone - at least in terms of screen presence

obviously Sylvester Stallone, for acting, directing, writing and everything else

What would have made this better
make the main villain less overtly nasty (we get it, really), strengthen the opening scenes between Rambo and the missionaries

What would have made this worse
more ridiculous comic-book action like Rambo II and III

Companion film
First Blood

What to watch instead
if you can't handle the gore but want something stylistically similar, try Black Hawk Down

If you liked this...
you're a wee bit sick in the head (like me) and should watch Saving Private Ryan (you probably already have)

+ it's short, streamlined and doesn't muck about
+ a stunning amount of violence and gore
+ the action scenes are well directed and exciting
+ a good, satisfying ending
+ Jerry Goldsmith's theme is reused

- it'll be way too gory for some viewers
- it wants to thrill us with exploitative violence and hammer home a "violence is bad" message as well
- some dialogue is weak

Rating on the R Lee Ermy/Sgt Hartman level of hard-arsed war veterans:

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