Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Matthew Marsden, Graham McTavish, Paul Schulze
Director: Sylvester Stallone
I’m thankful that the Rambo franchise pretty much passed me by in the eighties. “First Blood” (1982), “Rambo: First Blood Part II” (1985) and “Rambo III” (1988) show a troubling trajectory on review sites like imdb.com and rottentomatoes.com, the first well reviewed the latter two less enthusiastically received.
I checked out the first movie as a means to get somewhat familiar with Sylvester Stallone’s titular character, John Rambo. He was a Vietnam vet who had been subjected to daily torture as a prisoner of war. After escaping captivity, he returned to the US to find the American public outwardly hostile to his part in a vilified war. He becomes a drifter and ends up in a small town called Hope in Washington State in order to try and track down an army friend. Local sheriff (Brian Dennehy) tells him to leave as he doesn’t like his look, Rambo refuses and goes a little bit mad, there’s a scuffle, a manhunt and, what is really a storm in a teacup, becomes a regional incident.
It was utter nonsense, hence I ignored the next two movies.
“Rambo” is seemingly set in present day, almost 20 years on from John’s last adventure (in Afghanistan, would you believe). He now lives in Thailand, near the Burmese border, enjoying a relatively peaceful retirement from slaughtering people. But, setting the backdrop for the story, are a series of scenes from Burma where the ruling junta murder, maim and rape villagers while kidnapping kids to join their violent army.
A team of religious missionaries track Rambo down and request his help in navigating them up the Salween River in order for them to deliver humanitarian help to a Burmese village. He initially refuses but one of them (Julie Benz) convinces him to change his mind through gentle female persuasion.
During the trip Rambo is forced to violently defend his passengers from pirates and up-tight missionary leader Michael Burnett (Paul Schulze) informs him that they won’t be requiring his help to get back and says he will report the incident. Rambo leaps in to action, throwing Burnett against the wall and yelling: “They would’ve raped her fifty times and cut your fucking heads off. Who are you? Who are any of you?” That was awesome.
Anyway, they – of course – go missing and the local pastor comes to Rambo to request his help transporting a team of mercenaries back down the river to find them. Rambo knows that the small armed team won’t be able to deal with the junta if they come up against them and in spite of being ordered to stay with the boat by angry former SAS man Lewis (Graham McTavish) Rambo can’t help but get involved in a battle to the death. Let the killing begin…
I had heard that Rambo had a hell of a body count and I wasn’t – if you excuse the seeming inappropriateness – disappointed. There’s no doubt that it’s all utterly ridiculous. Ignoring the tragic reality of what is actually happening in Burma at the moment, Stallone (who co-wrote and also directs) goes out of his way to paint the Burmese junta as being almost cartoonish in their evil – rapists, cold-blooded murderers, paedophiles and misogynists.
So, of course you’ll be cheering on the good guys even if the captured missionaries and the hired guns are both led by unlikeable and unreasonable characters. Rambo says little throughout (perhaps afraid that his 60 year old oddly tight-looking facial muscles might crack a little) but his silent, expressionless demeanour sets us up nicely for when he kicks off his orgy of violence with the cry “live for nothing or die for something”. There’s also a very tiny flicker of emotion in the Rambo-shaped shell revolving around Benz’s character, Sarah. That might be something they build on in the upcoming Rambo V.
There are a couple of fairly gruesome scenes in the first couple of acts of the film so when the bloodthirsty slaughter of the final twenty minutes kicks off you’re pretty well conditioned for it. Despite there being very little merit to the script, plot or acting and fairly bog-standard direction, Rambo ends up being just about curiously entertaining.