Rambo (2008)

Rambo is one of the most violent films I have ever seen. Its climax, which involves at least 100 deaths, is frightening. Some of the scenes earlier on made me turn my head, which is something that I don’t often do with movies. If nothing else, Sylvester Stallone has made his point: the problems in Burma are awful. The film portrays an ongoing war — some call it a genocide, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree — between the military and the rebels, and drops Rambo and a group of mercenaries and missionaries in the middle of it.

That’s way oversimplifying things, but that’s the gist of it. John Rambo (Stallone) has been living peacefully in Thailand, presumably since the finale to Rambo III two decades ago, although he appears much the same as he did then. He’s approached by missionaries who want him to take them to Berma using his boat. The two main ones of the group are Michael (Paul Shultze) and Sarah (Julie Benz). Rambo goes along with it because of Sarah, although his reason for doing so isn’t really made clear.

They wind up getting captured, so missionaries also approach Rambo and ask for a ride. He winds up tagging along, and before you know it, we’ve got an incredibly bloody battlefield. It takes about one-third of the movie for the missionaries to show up, by the way, so don’t go in expecting the action to start right away. Now, that’s not to say that the film isn’t graphic up to this point, as it most certainly is. It’s just that it’s all one-sided, with the bad guys doing all the slaughtering. Rambo, the killing machine, hasn’t yet entered the fray.

Rambo is actually very heavy-handed in its approach in portraying the problems of Burma. There is no joy here — which fits perfectly with Rambo, as he’s never happy, either — and almost every scene involving the villains makes you hate them. It’s such a feel-bad experience for most of its running time. That doesn’t make it a bad movie, but if you’re coming into it hoping for a cathartic experience, you aren’t going to leave very happy.

Even once we get to the scene that could easily be cathartic, it doesn’t turn out that way. The message hits home: killing isn’t fun, isn’t good, and it’s hard to take joy from it. You expect to come out of this scene completely satisfied that you just watched a hundred nameless soldiers take multiple bullets to their body, but that’s not what happens. The film is so violent, so graphic, that it’s just horrifying. It leaves an impact on you, and it feels the most realistic of the Rambo films. save for one scene that has Rambo attempting to outrun what equates to a miniature nuclear bomb.

Rambo, as a character, has learned throughout the past movies that the only thing he’s good at is killing. It makes sense that he’s always unhappy, except for in the action scenes, where his face at least moves to being more apathetic than scowling. By the end of this movie, his character has actually come full circle, and the film ends without the promise or need for another installment. Stallone is getting old, anyway, and I don’t know if he’s going to be up for a fifth film.

With that said, he’s perfectly fine here. He got back into amazing shape — although he always seems to be quite fit — and despite being into his 60s, has no problem keeping up and surpassing the younger actors with whom he’s paired. He’s always been at his best as a physical actor, and even at the point when most actors slow down, he’s out here doing this movie. Did he do all of his own stunts? It certainly seemed like it. I believed in him as an action hero.

Stallone was also the director of Rambo, having starred in and helped write the screenplay for the previous films. Here, he wants to make a message film, as well as making his character a much more brooding person. He’s reflecting on his life for a lot of the film, or, at least, that’s what I’m guessing. Stallone isn’t a good enough actor to properly convey that, but given the tone and themes of the rest of the film, this is the only logical conclusion I can come up with. He’s luckily not given any long monologues here, as the better actors are given most of the dialogue.

“Better” is not a term I can use for Julie Benz in this film, who almost single-handedly made me want to stop watching the climax — yes, more so than all of the violence combined. There are only so many times one can scream and cover one’s ears before it starts to get irritating. She does it about a dozen times during this scene. Nothing else; she just sits there and does that. Even one of the preachers, who was previously a stronger proponent of anti-violence, becomes helpful. A glance exchanged at the end between her and Rambo is supposed to be revelatory; I couldn’t tell what either was thinking or feeling, making it meaningless.

Rambo is a film that makes you feel something: disgust. It’s much more about making you experience that than it is about anything else, and because that’s its goal, it is a successful film. It also brings the character of John Rambo full circle, even if that circle is very small and not very important. It is action-packed, and incredibly violent, and I will recommend it because it accomplishes all of the goals it sets out to achieve.

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