Sylvester Stallone was once on top of the world; in the mid eighties he had two extremely popular franchises and was second only to Schwarzenegger for the title of “action-star of the decade.” Unfortunately for Stallone, he was also in some of the crappiest action movies ever made, aside from a few exceptions like Cliffhanger and Demolition Man he wasn’t in very many good movies that weren’t in the Rocky or Rambo series. As such he was headed for obscurity until two years ago when he tried to revitalize the Rocky series with good box office results. Now Stallone is trying to do the same with the Rambo series with the creatively titled Rambo.
Rocky Balboa was, if nothing else, a very nice try. However, it had one major advantage that Rambo doesn’t have; it was trying to bring back a series that one did have some degree of respectability, something the Rambo series has never had. Many people will point to the original Rambo film, First Blood, and call it a step above its sequels. I however may be in the minority in thinking the second and third installments were better than the original, which had the pretention to consider itself a character study. First Blood had all the poor acting, weak story, lame dialogue, and stupid politics of a standard 80s action film but didn’t actually have any of the action to back it up. The sequel is even worse on all of the above criteria, but it also had a high body count and some good explosions, so at least there was something to enjoy, and when it was merely trying to be an action movie a lot of its problems went from being real negatives and became campy quirks.
Because I enjoyed the high body count installments of the series, I looked forward to the sequel which looked like it would be even more ridiculous than its predecessors. The violent trailer that found its way to Youtube featured everything I wanted to see in a Rambo trailer: a decapitation, a man getting his stomach slit open, a man getting his throat ripped out, and a man getting his head blown open by a chain gun. This was a very nice thing to see after the shock of the sellout PG-13 rated Live Free or Die Hard. I had no expectations of enjoying this as a fine piece of cinema, but I did think it would be a wild “so bad its good” night at the cinema. Unfortunately the film did not live up to these very low expectations.
Its been twenty years since John Rambo’s last adventure, and he’s found his way to Thailand where he makes a living running a small boat and capturing snakes for a local freakshow. His life is suddenly interrupted when a group of missionaries approach him trying to charter his boat for a trip to Burma (which for some reason is never referred to by its modern name, Myanmar, in the film). Rambo is weary to go because Burma is a warzone and he’s seen enough killing for one lifetime. However he does eventually cave and give them a ride, as they plan to use an overland route to leave, Rambo decides to return to Thailand. Soon thereafter the missionaries find themselves kidnapped by the Burmese military. Rambo is soon given the task of guiding a group of mercenaries back to the drop-off point in Burma.
Setting the film in Burma was the first mistake Stallone made in Rambo. Firstly, it fails to bring Rambo into a new environment. The original Rambo movie was set in an American forest, the second was set in a jungle, and the third is a desert. Symmetry would suggest that the next Rambo film would take place in a new environment, possibly a cold or urban environment. Instead Stallone set this new installment back in another Southeast Asian jungle.
The other, larger problem with setting the film in Burma is that it put the film in the center of a brutal, real world conflict. This wouldn’t be a problem if Stallone simply ignored the full extent of the Burmese conflict, but he didn’t, the film is filled with images this action film has no right to show. The film opens with disturbing news footage of real atrocities occurring in the Burmese civil war, and then proceeds to show a shocking scene of innocent Burmese women being forced to run through a mine field before being killed by the military. Later we witness a village being massacred in full graphic detail, including not so subtle suggestions of rape and torture.
This is hardly the kind of fun violence I signed up for in this film; it’s disturbing and wholly unpleasant. In the context of a serious drama about the Burmese conflict such material could easily be justified, but that’s not what this is, it’s a Rambo movie; we go to these to enjoy mass murder, not be sickened by it. Any one of these scenes could have been tolerable in isolation, after all they need to establish that the bad guys are sick SOBs, but Stallone goes way to far here. Stallone claims he was trying to raise awareness of the Burmese Civil War, but couldn’t he have found a more appropriate way to do this than a Rambo movie? After all, the last time this series tried to endorse a regime it was in support of the Afghan Mujahedeen in their “holy war” against the evil soviets. This endorsement is absolutely hysterical in hindsight and one wonders why Stallone would risk making the same mistake twice.
However, the film also fails when it tries to be a proper mindless action film, simply because Sylvester Stallone turns out to be completely unqualified to direct action sequences. Unlike the Rocky series, Stallone never found himself directing any of the Rambo films, and the reason why is clear here. During the aforementioned village massacre for example, Stallone tries to pull a Saving Private Ryan and create a sense of chaos and intensity by using handheld camera work and speeding up the action. These kinds of tactics can work if they’re done by someone like Steven Spielberg, Paul Greengrass, or even Michael Bay who knows what they’re doing, unfortunately Stallone is not on that list. As a result the scenes are completely disorienting and kind of look like they’re being fast-forwarded. But really, regardless of how well it’s done, these methods shouldn’t be used in the first place in a film that was all about being an old-school action film. Also Stallone made the regrettable decision to use CGI blood instead of regular squibs, which would have been acceptable if it looked better but it didn’t, it was poorly done.
So what is there to like in Rambo, well the film is as gory as it promises to be and there are some real moments that will make you say “Daayuum!” Stallone does maintain a certain rough charisma even when he has to work with his own bad dialogue; it’s nice to see a real tough guy on screen in this day in age. Also there’s a British mercenary played by Graham McTavish who steals the show midway through with a lot of very amusing dialogue.
The moral of this story is that Rambo movies are at their best when they aren’t trying to be respectable. I really wanted to enjoy this as a nice fun action film, but Stallone found himself taking this character way too seriously. Even if he didn’t, his poor ability behind the camera still wouldn’t have made this work.
*1/2 out of four