Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Rambo / *** (R)

John Rambo: Sylvester Stallone
Sarah: Julie Benz
School Boy: Matthew Marsden
Lewis: Graham McTavish
Michael Burnett: Paul Schulze

Lionsgate presents a film directed by Sylvester Stallone. Written by Art Monterastelli and Stallone. Based on the character created by David Morrell. Running time: 93 min. Rated R (for strong graphic bloody violence, sexual assaults, grisly images and language).

“Remember the face of your father.” – Roland the gunslinger from Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” book series.

If ever there was a gunslinger, it is John Rambo. He is a man of few words and even fewer facial expressions, but give him a high caliber weapon and he can rock your world. That was true with his first film appearance in “First Blood,” although he certainly didn’t show the penchant for actually killing people at that time that he would in the subsequent films that took his name. In his fourth turn, some 20 years since number three, writer-director-star Sylvester Stallone takes the character’s role as a killing machine to new heights with a kill ratio nearly three times higher than any previous outing. The supporting characters have tripled their kill ratios. And I can’t decide whether this is the best Smith & Wesson commercial I’ve ever seen or the most disparaging.

Stallone shows he has a bone to pick this time around by centering the events amidst the genocidal atrocities being practiced in Burma. Living a detached, secluded life as a snake wrangler in Thailand, Rambo is asked by American Missionaries to provide boat passage into Burma so they can bring much needed aid to the poor villagers of that country who have been terrorized by pirates and warring military factions. When word comes back that a Burmese military force has attacked the village where Rambo took the missionaries, he is again enlisted to take mercenaries to the same village to rescue the missionaries. Little do the mercs know that without their stoic boatman, their mission hasn’t a hope of succeeding.

By keeping the story simple, Stallone very much remembers the face of Rambo’s father, author David Morrell, who crafted an uncomplicated story of a Vietnam vet who simply did not fit into a peaceful society that neither understood nor embraced him. In the two follow ups to “First Blood,” Rambo found himself the victim of other people’s greed and other people’s wars, and he had an emotional epiphany forced upon his character rather than allowing it to flow naturally from the story. In “Rambo,” the character’s greatest emotional revelation is that he is good at killing bad guys, and if an opportunity to do so should present itself, than he should embrace it.

This simple approach sets the stage for all out, wall-to-wall action. But what Stallone produces enters into a new breed of action. It has the structure of a typical action picture: here’s your reluctant hero, here’s your bad guys hurting good people, the hero saves the day by killing all the bad guys. But the execution is cut from another mold all together. I liken it to war movie violence versus action movie violence. It used to be all movies with action used action movie violence, something of a cartoonish nature that was easily discernable from real life violence. Then, after the Vietnam War became our country’s first televised military conflict, the violence in war movies became more realistic and less fun. “Rambo” is like an action movie that depicts modern war violence. It isn’t as fun, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The first two thirds of the film don’t stray too far from what you might expect from a Rambo rescue mission. Then in the final act the film becomes a total blood bath. The carnage displayed could make Quentin Tarantino look away. The final battle is like a symphony of guts and viscera, severed limbs and exploding heads, anguished pain and brutal instinct. It could be described as a collage of violence, but there is none of the beauty of violence that can be witness in films like “Shoot ‘Em Up” or “Kill Bill, Vol. 1.” It is a dirty, grimy, undignified presentation of violence as something used instinctually for survival under the most brutal of conditions.

John Mueller, who holds the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies at Ohio State University, put together a death chart for the Rambo pictures (seen here) that compiles kill stats from all four Rambo movies. He charts things like number of people killed by Rambo, number of people killed by Rambo with his shirt off, number of people killed per minute, and number of sex scenes. Looking at Mueller’s figures it is easy to see the great disparity in kill numbers between “Rambo” and its predecessors, but it does not suggest the grizzly, brutal nature of all those deaths. I think what Stallone is going for with his horrific overkill is to draw attention to the very real horrors of the genocide being practiced in Burma. He doesn’t spend any time on underlying political details, which is wise when considering how poorly the pulpit fit John Rambo in previous films. But relying on typical action movie violence might lead people to believe that Burma is merely a stage for a made-up story.

There are certainly people who will find the nature of the violence in “Rambo” unsettling. But Stallone wants you to leave the theater feeling something other than just entertained. Instead of telling you to be disgusted by the violence the Burmese government is committing against its people, Stallone shows you just how brutal any military-based violence can be. To some degree, the nature of the character of Rambo is at odds with the nature of the film’s very message. But along with his return to the Rocky character in 2006’s “Rocky Balboa”, “Rambo” is strong evidence that Sylvester Stallone is still a formidable filmmaker who can offer audiences something beyond their expectations.

A note on the clip. This should be a red band trailer, meaning the trailer itself is rated R. It was made when the film was called "John Rambo."


t-rocc said...

so not a word about Julie Benz in your review. my guess is she doesn't get much screen time, eh? i've just started watching Dexter and have developed a crush on her.

"Yum, Mr. Stallone."

Andrew D. Wells said...

She actually gets quite a bit of screen time, but everybody is really just a means to the violence, which pretty much over shadows all else.