January 27, 2008

Rambo 4 (01/27/08)

Lettergrade: D

I was excited to see Stallone's new Rambo picture not because I was fan of the previous movies in the series, but because I was really impressed by 2006's Rocky Balboa, a sensitive coda to a franchise that had rocketed into the stratosphere of ridiculousness by the end of the 80s. Of course, the Rambo movies became pretty goddamn ostentatious by the end of their initial run too, but let's lay that aside for the moment in the spirit of me trying to come up with a solid introduction here.

At best, when I bought the ticket for Rambo 4 I was hoping for an exciting action picture with the aging, HGH enhanced star going on another adrenaline-fueled adventure through the jungle... You know, nothing that reinvented the wheel or anything, but that was crowd-pleasing in the tradition of Over The Top, Tango & Cash and some of the other Stallone pictures of eld. Again, the recent Rocky Balboa had given me some idea that such expectations for a new Rambo movie were not terribly out of line. I must warn you, however, that the film in actuality is nothing like that at all.

Rambo 4 is essentially Rambo done Saving Private Ryan style, which is to say that it is intense, graphic, and extremely disturbing. In this one, Rambo, now living a quiet life as a fisherman in Thailand, is coerced into Burma by some missionaries and gets mixed up in a bloody civil war. Early on, the film spends a lot of time detailing the intensely horrific things that the Burmese militias are doing to their own people: Making them run through mine fields for sport, executing scores of men, women, and children at random, and destroying villages that don't pay the extortion fees. These scenes encapsulate the comedic zenith of the picture, and things just get more brutal and horrible from there on out.

In addition to continuing the story of where Rambo is at in his very dark life, the film's primary objective is to inform the viewer of the horrors and injustice of this region of the world. It certainly does that, but I must wonder if a bloody action picture is the really the best forum to do so. Indeed, Rambo 4 fails to work as a message picture due to its popcorny sheen, while simultaneously failing as a satisfying action movie - Rambo or otherwise - as a result of the subject material being so goddamn depressing.

Believe it or not, though, I had never actually seen any of the Rambo movies until a few weeks before this new one came out. I was surprised to find that First Blood, the first film in which Rambo appears, is pretty modest on the death and explosions, and is quite respectable as a low-key action flick about a Viet Nam veteran who is shunned and despised by the people of the United States after returning from the war. He gets arrested and roughed up by some cops in Oregon, a key mistake that pushes Rambo over the edge and causes him to injure a bunch of people and blow a lot of shit up to gain his revenge.

The second film, Rambo: First Blood part II, is what people think about when they think about Rambo. In that one, an insanely 'roided out Stallone mows down dozens upon dozens of enemy fighters in ridiculous ways. The plot is put into motion when Colonel Trautman, played again by the late Richard Crenna, gets Rambo out of prison to go on a reconnaissance mission in Nam. His task is to locate POW camps long thought deserted, and photograph them so the military can get funding to send in rescue teams. Of course, when Rambo sees his captive brethren, he can't fight the urge to free the men himself and logically decides to take on the entire Viet Cong single-handed.

Now the third film, mysteriously titled Rambo III, is where the PSA component of Rambo started to get in the way of the movies being entertaining. Trautman tries to recruit Rambo, now living in a monastery in Tibet, for a mission to go to Afganistan and help the freedom fighters defeat the invading Russian forces. It's sorta the flip side of the events depicted in last year's Charlie Wilson's War. Rambo declines to participate, initially, but when word gets out that Trautman has been captured, the decision is made to go in, free his old commander, and fuck the Russian army's shit up, Rambo style. Before the big showdown, however, he gets a good lesson on how the Russians have mutilated and abused the Afghan people. Although the images are upsetting (and I'm sure they were even more so at the time), their main crime is that they slow the movie way down before transitioning back into a choppy, unsatisfying action finale.

I feel unclean making this complaint, but I think its a valid one. Its hard for a story-line that deals with a serious world-problem to fit into a series that also includes this scene from First Blood part II: Rambo stands not 20 yards from a dude frantically firing a machine gun at him. Seemingly impervious to bullets, Rambo calmly takes out an explosive-tip arrow, and fires it right at the guy, causing him to completely explode in the most ridiculous (and fake) way. Movies like Hot Shots! Part Deux and the Weird Al classic UHF didn't have to work very hard to make this moment funny: All they had to do was recreate it as faithfully as possible.

The most compelling section of Rambo 4 is a phenomenally staged sequence wherein Rambo and his team coordinate a hostage rescue from the main militia camp during a fierce rain storm. This has the predictable result of pissing off the entire Burmese army, who chases him through the jungle and into another well-staged action sequence. If Rambo 4 as a whole had decided to modernize in this way - by reducing the ridiculous overly-macho action of the second and third movies, and focusing instead on chases and tension, as First Blood did - I would have been all for it.

Apart from these two standout scenes, however, the picture largely relies on its own willingness to be shockingly graphic in its violence and horror. Although movies that do this while dealing with world issues are generally are not to my liking, I have no problem with them, in theory. Something feels wrong, however, about using the scenario as an opportunity for another Rambo picture.

One last thing... In the first three pictures, Rambo had a big ass knife that he invariably used to work his way out of some tight jams at select points during the movie. Perhaps its telling that this time he fashions a crude machete in his work shop before setting out... a tool he uses to hack up and dispense with his opponents in a style that rivals that of Jason Voorhees.

In First Blood he had a little knife, and it was mostly used to cut ropes and treat wounds, etc. That movie had a total body count of 4 or 5. Rambo 4 has a body count of something like 260, according to an east coast professor who went through the trouble of trying to keep count. I'll remember First Blood for its poignant message of how messed up it is that the Viet Nam vets were treated as they were upon returning from the war. The main thing I'll remember about Rambo 4, however, is the urgent feeling of wanting to get the fuck out of the theater as quickly as possible.

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