Bringing his second most famous character creation out of retirement two decades since his last orgy of violence, Sylvester Stallone doesn’t quite hit his target as accurately as he did with Rocky’s swan song in this fourth adventure of John Rambo.
Admittedly it’s a little difficult considering that the first two sequels never really justified their existence. Despite its admitted age, the original “First Blood” remains a great little vigilante film dealing with America’s post-Vietnam disillusionment and one man’s ultimately failed fight to reincorporate himself back into a society that treats him little better than a leper.
The sequels however were formulaic hogwash, dumping the realism and turning the tortured soul of its hero into a soldier of fortune who, in spite his abhorrence of violence, is able to mow down Viet Cong and Soviet soldiers by the hundreds with ease. On a pure popcorn level though, even today its hard not to enjoy the ridiculous ra-ra patriotism (ironic in the case of “Rambo III”) and goofy over-the-top violence of the pair which are admirable only for the entertainment value, not their craft.
Cue “Rambo”, a film which is hard to fit in the canon. On the one hand its closer to “First Blood” in its tone and emotion than the previous sequels – our heroes struggles seem less cartoonish and are played out with more urgency and weight. The Burmese countryside setting is portrayed as a grim, rough place filled with deadly mercenaries and soldiers who’d rather shoot, mutilate or rape first than ask questions. Rambo himself spends more time hunting and in pursuit of people than actually killing or blowing up things, whilst his personality remains solemn and introspective throughout.
On the other hand it recycles both the threadbare plotting and the mass extermination that both the second and third film were built upon. As usual, John Rambo is living in solace when someone (in this case naive Christian missionaries) asks for his help in yet another war ravaged country on the Asian subcontinent (this time it’s Burma). After an initial dismissal, he’s reluctantly pulled into helping when he learns they’re in trouble and so begins 45 minutes of explosive violence as he and a group of underwritten mercenaries (aka. cannon fodder) kill soldiers left and right, rescue the people, and then kill some more trying to get them to safety.
Ultra high body counts are a staple of this series and this “Rambo” doesn’t disappoint. The gore level pushes well past the R-rating in some cases, but the unremitting violence is certainly not as joyously self-indulgent in the carnage like the torture porn genre. It also doesn’t shy away from showing off what true civil wars entail – the initial village attack clearly illustrating this as limbs are macheted off and one screaming kid is yanked from his mother’s arms and thrown into a fire.
Whereas the last Rocky dealt significantly with the character’s age, Rambo never brings it up – the character seemingly having not changed one iota in the twenty years since we saw him last which is probably a good thing. His one-note brooding is in many ways part of his onscreen immortality, and deconstructing it would only serve to undermine that steadfast resolute attitude that makes him an action hero it’s easy to root for.
The 61-year-old Stallone is so familiar with the character that he very comfortably slips right back into the persona, a commanding presence amongst an otherwise utterly forgettable cast short of the lovely Julie Benz (TV’s “Dexter,” “Angel”) whose genuinely sweet charm overcomes the stilted and at times contradictory script dialogue and makes you understand why Rambo would help her. Whilst Stallone’s scripting leaves something to be desired, his direction is surprisingly solid and enjoyably retro – relying more on big punch visuals than modern MTV style editing that often ruins today’s action flicks.
Still the attempt to bring back a harder and darker sensibility to the series never quite gels. The character has moved beyond the tortured underdog of “First Blood”, but by losing that hedonistic comic book cartoon violence of the sequels that was so endemic of 80’s filmmaking its made the brutal killer he’s become into something less compelling and sadly not as entertaining or gripping – making for some tedious times between the unique brutality (his windpipe-ripping routine for instance) and the claymore mine explosion finale.
Much like last year’s send off for the “Die Hard” series, its a better made movie than its two predecessors and certainly feels more a part of its series than that film did, but it’ll also likely not get the same kind of replay value as the others have. In spite of the off-kilter tone, everything else about it is a “Rambo” sequel through and through, and those going in knowing what to expect will likely welcome this send-off.