What follows is pretty much the same review that I wrote for the cinema release of Rambo a few months back ... but with some little extra embellishments here and there.
“Y'know what you are, what you're made of. War is in your blood. When you're pushed, killing's as easy as breathing.”
He's back, all right. And now he's shooting up the town on Blu-ray.
Sixty-one, be damned ... Stallone, unlike every other action hero from the inflatable-eighties, is the only one who can still convince us of his heroic abilities and inspiring superhuman endurance - even Harrison Ford's returning Indiana Jones was knackered after his first set-piece. And most of the young pretenders these days can't hold a candle to him, either. I, like many people, revelled in the antics of the troubled Vietnam veteran and his whistle-stop tour of the world's war-zones, righting anti-American threats and “pushing back” the bad guys with a nitro-glycerine-fuelled injection of brazen testosterone. The films would become more stupid and preposterous as they went on - the bulkier he got, the crazier they became - but there was always something more to Rambo than just an over-the-top, one-man-army that lent him a wickedly cynical and serrated edge. Oh, a lot of us jumped on the Arnie bandwagon, even claiming that the patently ridiculous John (Commando) Matrix was actually “the thinking man's Rambo”, when, truth be told, Arnie could neither run nor fight with any credibility and was about as stealthy as a T-Rex gate-crashing a chimps tea-party. Stallone's Rambo made that painful fall from a cliff-face in First Blood believable and no-one could deny that he is fit enough and strong enough to run through forests, jungles and deserts, get seven shades of the mucky-stuff knocked out of him by leering Russian Spetnatz torturers and still get up and go toe-to-toe with them, fly a gunship or drive a tank. Ethically, though, he was kind of shaky. The poster-boy for Reagan's Muppet-President was not exactly the promotional bite that Stallone's crusader needed and suddenly action-bodycount flicks were out of favour again ... knobbled by a policy-hijacking that the ultimate survivalist hadn't seen coming.
Well, that, and the fact that the Russian military pulled out of Afghanistan ten days prior to Rambo III's premier seemed to hammer the final nail into the mumbling muscle-mountain's otherwise bullet-proof coffin.
Yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Another decade, another conflict. Suddenly, the time is right for the old war-horse to wrap a bandana around his Cherokee-style locks and sharpen that knife - or, in this case, forge an even bigger, nastier new one. But Stallone, post 9/11, had some choices to make before bringing his self-repairing, permanently embittered icon back for more killing. Where, for instance, would he be able to credibly ply his trade without insulting the troops who may already be there for real? Afghanistan was out - been there, done that and, ironically, solved absolutely nothing and possibly even set himself up as a prime target for Al-Qaeda in the process. Iraq? Well, perhaps in about another ten years once the troops have returned home to ignominy and indifference and he can fight their war for compensation. No, Stallone simply phoned the United Nations and Soldier Of Fortune - the publication for recruiting mercenaries with a thirst for real-life Rambo-ing - and asked them where the nastiest, most volatile place on Earth could currently be found. And Burma, with its sickening catalogue of atrocities and raging civil war with the Karen rebels fit the bill to a tee - a place of fearful oppression, religious persecution and relentless death and hideous torture. Note to self - better cancel that trip, then. It would also mean that Rambo would be returning to the type of terrain he knew best and the guerrilla warfare that he specialised in. No playing chicken with a nuclear-powered gunship whilst armed with only what looks like a bottle of Newcastle Brown a la Rambo III this time, John.
So, two decades on from his last tussle with bureaucracy and somebody else's war, we find Rambo languishing along the lowlands just across the border in Thailand, eking out a living piloting a “put-putting” little boat up and down the Salween River and catching snakes to sell and arrow-fishing for food and to keep his hand in with the bow. Welcome aboard to Julie (Dexter) Benz's Sarah and her “God-Squad” of aid workers who are determined to enter Burma and help the struggling Christian villagers suffering under the iron fist of the vicious military rulers. Rambo knows the score, knows they can't make a difference but finally agrees to take them upriver and let them find out for themselves. And find out, they do. The hard way. Quicker than you can say “What Geneva Convention?”, they have been captured in the midst of a simply horrible village massacre and dragged off to the stronghold of some barbaric Light Infantry Battalion, where they are systematically beaten, raped and fed to a horde of particularly ravenous pigs. It is not a good day out and Rambo did tell them so.
“Live for nothing... Or die for something... Your call.”
It's not the most enticing of invitations, is it, Mister Rambo?
Now, what we have graphically presented here isn't the redneck roughhousing found in “Jerkwater, USA”, or the blade-heating, eyeball-threatening panto-villainy of Part II. Nor even the Hostel-predating blow-torch intimidation of Rambo III. This is sadistic, targeted brutality. Targeted not just at the defenceless, fleeing villagers, but targeted directly at our own frantic and helpless sensibilities as we look on, aghast, as a small child is wrenched from his mother's arms and hurled back into a burning hut, kids are stepped on and bayoneted, arms are sliced off and terrified prisoners are forced to cross minefields as cackling goons look on and take bets as to who will explode first. It is most definitely not fun to see innocent men, women and children blown to pieces, hacked-to-death, clubbed and stomped into oblivion. Imagery here will last with you not because it is the glorious, gung-ho gratuity that we know and love from the previous entries - no smoking boots after a sneering baddie has sucked on the business-end of an explosive arrow; no comically cathartic neck-breaking of a mountain-top Russki; and no wheezing Sheriff still trying to be defiant even after being raked by an M16 and having tumbled through a skylight. No, this is hard-hitting, pulverising stuff that hurts and hurts bad. These uber-nasty Burmese brutes do such remorselessly wicked things - and have such obvious fun doing them - that you simply relish the prospect of some righteous, veiny-armed, serrated-edged payback. But, barring those infamous shots that we all saw a long time ago on Youtube and AICN, the retribution is surprisingly swift and, dare I say it, even merciful by comparison. I was hankering after the Rambo of old getting down to some serious close-quarter death-dealing with these guys - the knife, the traps, the knife, the bare-hands, the knife - but, perhaps more realistically, Stallone realises that his indomitable super-warrior is older and slower now, and more in need of heavy firepower and, natch, some assistance to get the job done. The feeling this time out is just to kill 'em quick and get the hell out even quicker. Older Rambo doesn't much care for sightseeing.
“Are you bringing in any weapons?”
“Of course not.”
“Then you're not changin' anything ...”
But there is still an enormous amount of gut-level pleasure at seeing Rambo's revenge. Practically the entire final reel revolves around his ruthless machine-gunning of endless squads of enemy soldiers. And it is here that the devil inside you rejoices, celebrating in a virtual festival of evisceration and splashy bodily disintegration. Of course this has all been done before in the likes of Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down and We Were Soldiers. But those were designed to be a scary and sobering warning to us all that once diplomacy stops, there is only savagery left. Here, once the big guy opens-up and lets-rip, you are going to praying for more trucks of Burmese troops to arrive, such is the sheer thrill of watching them explode under Rambo's murderous fusillade. There is a definite nod to Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch with this sequence, Rambo manning that .50-calibre gun just like Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and William Holden all did before him - Borgnine never did get the chance, did he?. All the action scenes - what surprisingly few there actually are - are absolute crowd-pleasers, providing that crowd is out baying for blood. Arrows puncture soft bits with terrifically solid “thwunks”. Bodies don't just fly through the air after an explosion in that oh-so-obvious stuntman fashion - they are literally hurled with such a fantastic force of concussion that it must have been a sly marriage of choreography and CG. (Sly, geddit?) And what about the bodies that simply evaporate before your eyes? Phew-weee, folks ... you'll be ducking all over the place just to avoid the sticky-bits. This is Rambo crossed with Tom Savini ... and it definitely won't appeal to a lot of people. The broad comic-book violence of the middle two outings is simply not here. Stallone wants to distress, wants to horrify.
And he succeeds.
But beyond the explicit gore, what does this belated mission have to offer? There is a subtle evolution of his character that is reflected in his ability to live alongside this butchery yet be reluctant to take an active role against it. He knows the score, he's been round a few more blocks than you or I will ever know and when he considers a medical/Christian Aid expedition to be a virtually pointless, and indeed suicidal, mission ... he knows what he is talking about. To a degree he is desensitized to the brutality that is going on, but this is because it is part of a much bigger picture than he knows he can deal with. That simmering rage that was so much a part of his makeup has cooled down a fair bit. This time it takes a lot to get him going. Stallone is still keen to play up the “little boy lost” aspect of the character and one of the incredibly few actual conversations he has in the film revolves around what exactly makes him tick and the life he has left behind in the States. We even learn of the father he hasn't seen for years in the only reference that the movies, thus far, have made to Rambo having actually been born, as opposed to specially bred in a top secret laboratory. That Thousand Yard Stare may not impress some loudmouths in the film, but it does speak volumes about a character often labelled as a caricature - Stallone's Rambo may not be all that articulate, but even without the benefit of seeing his previous adventures, few could mistake the haunting look in those eyes and not realise that he may never be able to climb of out of that deep, dark place that imprisons his soul.
“The taking of a life is never justified. I must report this.”
“They would have raped her fifty times and cut your f***ing heads off!”
Ahhh ... well ... since you put it like that ... let's just forget about the report, eh?
But is this a sign that Stallone now knows his limitations for the character? Writing and directing and starring must have taken its toll, as with Rocky Balboa just prior to commencing this other big comeback, and the impression given by our hero's lack of actual action set-pieces involving himself is that he is aiming for a much lower-key approach. Rambo, he seems to realise, simply cannot take on the world and win, anymore. At least, not on his own, anyway. But the inclusion of the mercenaries for more than just a walk-on, last-minute appearance marks a serious turning point for the character. Slowing down? Well, just a little bit. But this gaggle of soldiers of fortune is one of the film's poorer elements. Under-developed, clichéd and irritating, these has-beens are pure stereotypes. We have Matthew (Coronation Street) Marsden actually taking part in the action that he missed-out on in Black Hawk Down as the “friendly” and “considerate” sniper known rather tritely as School-Boy. A few others make up the squabbling and decidedly unprofessional team, but Graham McTavish's scathing and acidic Lewis is notable only for his completely contrived personality. What makes it worse is the fact that School-Boy even defends him by stating that he is “Old-school SAS” and even wraps up the Regiment with the dismissive “superb soldiers but complete egomaniacs”, which is sure to antagonise a lot of people. Lewis does get one superb taunting challenge in, however, that may not sound particularly pleasant on the terraces but comes over as a splendidly gritty urban retort under these gruelling circumstances. You'll know it when you hear it.
As crazy as it sounds, with its hyper-kinetic and headlong rush into all-out carnage, we don't even mourn the loss of Richard Crenna's redoubtable Col. Troutman. Well, we do get a Rocky-style montage dream-sequence that sees the beret-wearing, stern-chinned one return to deliver some classic lines of inspiration - Burgess Meredith's Mickey would have been proud. Remarkably, we don't even miss the great Jerry Goldsmith as Rambo-scorer Brian (Children Of Dune) Tyler steps into the breach with gusto, handling the music with a mixture of modern pulse-pounding percussive action licks and a supremely sublime recalling-for-duty of John J.'s iconic main themes throughout. Energy thunders through the follow-my-lead claymore sequence, the village assault is desperately aggressive and the final-reel's worth of absolute maim-and-mangle mayhem features some terrific music - if you can hear it between the awesome, rib-buckling bass of the .50-calibre and some incessant mortar-fire that is guaranteed to drop the floor from beneath your feet. The scoring is intense and provides some much-needed character and stimulus for the bad guys because, and this a sore point, there is absolutely no personality afforded any of them otherwise. They are just anonymous goons. Only the vicious commander has anything approaching individuality, but even here the film cries out for a Galt or a Teasle, a Podovsky or a Yushin, or even that John Peel-lookalike Zaysen from Part III. This, coupled with the absence of Rambo enjoying turning the tables on his pursuers - which should be considered a vital component of any Rambo movie - is severely disappointing. Well, okay, there is the bit with the claymore and WWII Tall Boy bomb combo which will have your jaw hitting the floor but ... even so, we kind of expect a little more in the way of Rambo, as the quarry, indulging in his trap-building savvy.
“Who are you, Boatman?”
In a way, the film plays out like one of Chuck Norris' latter-day actioners - not that that is such a bad thing, you understand (I like Chuck) - but for a big bombastic blockbuster this just seems a little perplexing with its thin stream of set-pieces and utter lack of, well, story. Then again, perhaps sensibly, the character can now only tackle smaller-scale missions, though if this trend were to continue with further adventures the series would devolve into little more than a gory A-Team set-up. As it stands now, I want to see more of this guy. In this day and age, we need to see some form of violent, eye-for-an-eye (oh, there's Chuck again) vengeance for the despicable things we see taking place all around us. Rambo, fictitious at best, politically galvanising at (dubious) worst, is a necessary remedy to the ills of such a fractured world society. Jingoistic? No. Rambo never was ... and never will be. The deep-seat of his betrayal runs much too close to his vine-veined surface and remains hotter than the Devil's tootsies. He is a loner and he is definitely psychotic. That is the way that author David Morrell originally presented him oh so long ago, and no matter how he may reflect upon the carnage wrought about herein, that beast within him, Hulk-like, will never be tamed. Whatever message Stallone wanted to get across amid the chunks of flying offal seems wrapped up in an observation that is sure to upset any pacifists in the audience (mind you, what the hell would they doing there in the first place, eh?) in that everyone has a turning point and that violence is inherent in us all, given the right provocation.
"If you go against me, I will feed you your intestines. Hear me, believe me ... and fear me!”
Incredibly brutal and punishing, Rambo is a short, sharp shock to the system. It isn't a “good” film at all, folks, but it is macho, adrenaline-pumping stuff for those who thrive on action that doesn't wimp-out. Are you listening, John McLane? And, I have to say that I enjoyed it immensely at the flicks and possibly even more-so on the smaller screen ... but I still wish that there had been, well, more to it. As a film, folks, my critical side cannot afford this more than a 6 out of 10 - its qualities lie elsewhere than in a neat script, three-dimensional characters and a meaty arc of development. But secretly, just between you and me, that war-horsel inside me still wants to push that up to an 8. This is the kind of experience that doesn't speak to your mind, it engages your adrenal glands, your heart and your primal instincts and such gut-smashing movies are hard to come by these days.
So, unofficially-speaking, Rambo gets an 8 for sheer risk-taking, body-obliterating, super 80's-style cast-demolition. But shhh, now, keep it to yourself ... or else people will think I'm going soft ... on the Sly.
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