We've all seen movies that make statements. About society, war, race, that kind of thing. Sylvester Stallone's Rambo begins with news footage of the situation in Burma, a voiceover re-enforcing the graphic images of death displayed on-screen, implying that Stallone wants his audience to be aware of the atrocities committed by Burmese soldiers. But thats not the real statement. Stallone's statement is violence. This time, its great fun on celluloid.
The opening frames of the movie itself paint a frightening picture. Burmese soldiers throw mines into paddy fields, forcing villagers to run towards them. As you can imagine, the consequences are bloody. In contrast to this, John Rambo is leading a relatively quiet existence as a boatman, catching snakes to be used in tournaments to supplement his income. Stallone keeps Rambo's dialogue to a minimum - again, a leading man/central character saying very little. Maybe Stallone expected a barrage of criticism if he allowed his character to get preachy. Keeping him solemn and taciturn, Rambo shows he's still got it by catching fish using a bow and arrow. Approached by a group of missionaries (representing Medicin Sans Frontiers?) seeking passage upriver, he is reluctant, considering their ideals unrealistic. Rambo knows full well of the atrocities committed by the soldiers, he just believes it futile to try and change the situation. The group’s leader, played by Julie Benz, convinces him to help.
Encountering violent rebels along the way, Rambo despatches them with cold precision. His hand forced, he does so without mercy, thinking only of saving his passengers. Now that he’s in it (again), he can’t turn back. Later, the group are captured, and Rambo tags along with the mercenaries hired to free them. The inclusion of the mercenaries, for me lends an air of unnecessary corniness to the film. Of course, the mercs are the most hackneyed bunch you’ve ever seen! Graham Mctavish, as the battle-weary Cockney SAS type, turns in a ridiculous performance as his character tries to wind Rambo up. These guys are straight out of a comic book. You think the characterisations couldn’t get any worse until Matthew Marsden (remember him?) pops up as ‘Schoolboy’, the nice guy Northern marksman who tries to break the ice between Rambo and the team. Marksman means sniper sequences, slick, boys-own style. My, those exploding heads look real.
The Burmese troops don’t come off very well either. Stallone paints them as evil bastards so he can obliterate them later. It begs the question: should I be cheering this on? After the fifth time of catching myself shouting “Yeah! Get em!” I realised it was ok. If Stallone wanted the violence over the top and cartoon-like, he got it. A mixture of CGI and squibs, the claret flies and the adrenaline pumps. I think Stallone realised the niche he had with this character, this film. Few movies like this get made these days, and if you don’t take it too seriously, there are some very well executed set pieces to enjoy.
This is the last gasp of a classic hero. Sure, the Rambo character is a little outdated, but if you stick him in a vaguely topical warzone setting, he performs. As with Rocky, the final shot ends the series with a bang. No need to update the character – he still does he thing as always. In my view, this is not a cynical movie – Stallone has earned his right to make this film. This is how a 60 year old veteran kicks ass. Indy take note!