What began as a franchise of high adventure and bottomless sympathy, before promptly tumbling into a feral cartoon, has found its rightful home here: utter maniacal chaos. "Rambo" marks the return of Sylvester Stallone's Vietnam vet hero, a full 20 years after the release of "Rambo III." It seems that during this considerable downtime, Stallone has reassessed his work as John Rambo and his iconic screen history, and is comfortable raging again in this ruthless exclamation point on a surreal series of films.
Living in Burma as a boatman, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) spends his time quietly reflecting on his life, desperate to evade his demons. When a pack of Christian missionaries (including Julie Benz, "Dexter") comes to Rambo looking for passage into the heart of the Burmese civil war, he reluctantly accepts, but is wary of such dangerous terrain. Returning home alone, Rambo learns that the missionaries were captured by the vicious Burmese military, leaving him in a position to turn his back or assume his psychologically tattered solider mentality and launch into battle once again.
The truth is, "Rambo" is not a return to the sensitivity of 1982's "First Blood" in the same fashion "Rocky Balboa" healed old wounds. Nor is the film a superficial action breeze like the two previous blockbuster sequels. This time Stallone is hungry to prove a point, and he unleashes a torrent of violence in a manner that's just plain berserk. This is a detail that cannot be stressed enough: "Rambo" is a monumentally vicious film.
Stallone (who directs and co-scripted) is angling for the heart of darkness here, exhibiting the devastating Burmese civil war on very realistic terms, eager to stun the viewer with depictions of SLORC army atrocities including beheadings, rape, dismemberments, and further barbaric customs that keep the rest of the volatile country in place. "Rambo" doesn't recoil from any of it, displaying a gruesome rain of death and unspeakable acts of violation. Stallone is creating a bleak perspective here about the Burmese conflict, perhaps distancing himself from the mindless body count thrills of the two earlier films by edging toward authenticity. "Rambo" might seem over the top to some, but it puts the viewer in the middle of pure hell, making vivid points about the futility of peace and war. Here, fighting fire with fire is exhilarating, but there's an unavoidable price to pay.
Of course, Stallone isn't going to let "Rambo" sneak out into theaters worldwide without some expected heroism, and the brawny character is permitted some immense expressions of explosive jungle justice that dilute the verisimilitude of the film (the woefully melodramatic performances don't help the cause either), but still allow for an important sense of popcorn entertainment to help choke down the politics. Hulking around like a brick wall, Stallone isn't the lean machine he once was, but his matured gravitas works well for the character as well as the constant struggle with his uncertainties and traumatic combat experience. As seen in "Rocky Balboa," I enjoy Stallone's newfound comfort with himself, allowing his acting to soak up a dour sense of the world. It takes John Rambo back from a plastic action figure to a human being.
Once Rambo gets his military mojo back (with the help of overly chatty mercenaries also on the hunt), the film loses its damn mind and explodes with a thunderstorm of aggression aimed directly at Burmese military goons. "Rambo" blasts forward with wave after wave of fury, and it wouldn't be such a bad idea for those who like to sit in the first few rows to cover themselves with a plastic sheet Gallagher-style, to keep the buckets of blood and bits of body from staining their clothes. Here "Rambo" turns predator, but in a very dynamic manner that crashes across the screen with all the horror and fist-pumping that has come to be a staple of the franchise. What Stallone serves up in the finale of "Rambo" is a literal goulash of gore (most shots, if not all, are amplified with rickety CGI), and I was quite taken with the fearlessness of it all. The overall responsibility of the film is open for debate, but nobody can say that Stallone didn't reach for the bloodied brass ring with this splendidly bonkers concoction.
Just by being a product created two decades after the last installment, "Rambo" is a different cinematic creature; albeit one with familiar working parts. It's not a strong enough emotional statement to match the anger and frustration of "First Blood," and the action sequences are much too raw and uncompromising to offer solace to the sequel fans; "Rambo" is an unusual creation: a confident, striking production that may not conclude John Rambo's mournful journey, but finds a creative high point to rest upon for now.
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