Rambo (2008, Sylvester Stallone)
After a wait of almost 20 years, one of the most popular American action movie heroes (second to maybe only Bruce Willis’ John McClane) was ready to return to the silver screen. After several attempts at finding the right story, writer, director and star Sylvester Stallone once again got down and dirty against some of the world’s most ferocious enemies by interpreting the role of John Rambo one last time. As with the three previous instalments, the plot and, more specifically, the story’s location has a distinct topicality about it, sending John and a group of mercenaries off to Burma in a desperate rescue mission for a group of Christian Missionaries and doctors who wilfully chose to venture into the war torn country to come to the aid of poor civilians. In of itself the plot to this latest chapter in the franchise sounds good enough, but with so much time elapsed between episodes, would the character hold up to par with what action fans expect in this day and age. More importantly, would we at long last be awarded with something resembling a satisfying conclusion for this character we have come to love despite some of his more reprehensible qualities?
It seems as if at the start of every Rambo film the protagonist is living a completely different life. He has begun his adventures as a Vietnam War veteran wandering the small northern town of America, a labourer in prison and a construction worker for a Buddhist community. This time around the grizzled and lonesome man is a wild animal hunter and merchant in a damp Taiwanese market. It’s at this moment the group of missionaries approach him with the idea of travelling into Burma to help change some lives. Rambo, having seen the very worst in humanity more than once in his lifetime (3 times, in fact) and only reluctantly agrees. Even then, his acceptance comes after a few menacing warnings about what they might encounter in the devastated country. Plus, one of the missionaries if played by Julie Benz, so John can be forgiven for wanting to help her at least. As can be expected, things go terribly awry for the peace lovers, as the village they station comes under attack from the Burmese military. Innocents are slaughtered and survivors are kidnapped to be fed to the pigs, in some cases literally. Upon learning of their fate, Rambo, backed up by a small mercenary team, heads back to Burma in an attempt to once again do the right thing.
The Rambo series simply cannot go on indefinitely, not unless the studios decided to recast the titular character and rejuvenate him, but that, as you and I both know, would be blasphemy, and therefore it is reasonably safe to assume that this Rambo film is the very last time we will ever follow the haunted Vietnam vet on a wild and bloody adventure. I am also guided by the suspicion that Sylvester Stallone himself is acutely aware of this (he went on the make The Expendables and his next big action project looks to be not another Rambo movie but The Expendables II), so what I, as a fan of the franchise, was looking for was a sense of closure. How does one close up a series featuring one of the more troubled heroes in action film history. John Rambo is a deeply scarred man, with a past littered in death and shame. What his eyes and mind have seen is not for the faint of heart and the consequences of his actions, as well as those of the scum of this earth, have moulded the man’s outlook on life in a supremely depressing fashion. When asking the missionaries if they have equipped themselves with firearms before entering Burma, they retort that of course they have not. Rambo coldly and bluntly replies that they aren’t going to change anything. Despite John’s stubbornness, the presence of the missionaries does trigger something deep in the character’s mind and heart. There are people who want to do well and there are lives worth saving and fighting for. The people who are truly good may be far and few between, but they exist, regardless of whatever the most cold hearted cynic might have to say about the matter. What’s more, risking one’s life to save others, especially when one has the capacity to perform such a courageous act, is rarely a bad idea. Rambo just needed a little push from somebody else to realize this all important notion. The other push comes when the mercenaries hired for the rescue mission have second thoughts about infiltrating the deep Burmese jungles and facing off against hundreds of bloodthirsty soldiers. If the people who were paid to get the job done demonstrate reluctance, then by golly it’s time for the real good people to stand up. I wouldn’t argue that there is much more to Rambo’s emotional and psychological journey than that, but with a character who has suffered as much pain as himself, a concept as simple as ‘discovering the good in people’ can lead to a world of difference.
There is yet another element to our hero’s journey that requires closure, that being a return to his proper home. Not since the beginning of First Blood Part II has John been on American soil and even then it wasn’t for the right reasons. For so long now Rambo has been hypnotized by his sombre view on like and memories of the United States that a return home was always out of the question. When the Julie Benz character challenges him to see what has changed, another door to a possibly happier future opens up. If the protagonist can help the mercenaries and missionaries (what a pairing!) escape their current predicament, maybe there is finally some genuine payoff awaiting him at the end of the line. I’m not one to reveal the endings of films, and I shan’t break that rule, but I just want to say that I absolutely loved the final shot of Rambo. After four films, four adventures that propelled this broken down character into the depths of hell and back again, where he ends up at the end of this film is exactly where he deserves to be.
Stallone takes the reigns as director this time around and reveals to the audience that he in fact knows what he’s doing. There is a curious balance of beauty and horror which Stallone understands about this region of the globe. On a purely visual note, the jungles, the fog along the river, all of these are well captured on camera and translate to film just how dense and impressive they are. On the flip side, Burma is infamously known as of the planet’s worst countries in terms of disregard for human rights, with a military dictatorship willing to slaughter hundreds on a whim if it means securing its stranglehold on power. The scenes featuring the brutal nature of the regime are imbued with a visceral quality that is rarely shown on screen. It isn’t just barbaric in the world of Rambo. It is barbaric and actually happening in our real world. I have read reviews and some complaints aimed at the film for being so unflinching in its depiction of the regime’s treatment of civilians. In a sense, those complaints are apt. Does the movie absolutely, unequivocally need to show us these senseless massacres and games of torture? No, it does not ‘absolutely, unequivocally’ need to show them to us, but they don’t harm the film either. If one is queasy about such matters or finds such scenes to be tasteless, then turn the other way. I would never in a million years call out someone who didn’t want to watch such scenes as a coward. I can understand that violence on such a nightmarish level is difficult to digest, especially with the notion resting in the back of our minds that such things do occur. None of that changes the fact that is does transpire, that change is required. The carnage that Rambo inflicts on a small part of the Burmese military during the film’s frenetic climax is a small act of defiance. I’d like the conflict in Burma to be resolved peacefully, who doesn’t. This is still a Rambo film, and as such if there are villains to hack into pieces, then John is going to what John does best. Does he ever. If there ever was a film that showcased an ‘epic massacre’, two words I’m not sure really go together well, than here is that movie.
By the film’s end, there is a cathartic experience not only for the central character, but also for the audience. After so much horror, we wanted to witness Rambo find his way home, both literally and figuratively. Stallone shows talent as a director not only in the action scenes (which are beautifully intense) but as a storyteller. Something I didn’t think we’d get in another Rambo film was emotional satisfaction beyond anything visceral. Rambo trumps any doubts I had.
Done here? Found out if Bill joined the mercenaries in Burma at his Movie Emporium.
Done here? Found out if Bill joined the mercenaries in Burma at his Movie Emporium.