Sunday, January 27, 2008

Zaki's Review: Rambo

You have to give Sylvester Stallone credit. At 62 years young he’s still an amazing physical specimen, looking something like a sinewy, muscled tree trunk, and running, jumping, and diving with a physicality most of today’s younger action stars would have difficulty matching. It took courage when he donned the silk boxing trunks for Rocky Balboa last year, and it took courage also to revisit his other revered movie icon for one last (?) go-round in Rambo.

It was twenty-six years ago that Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood introduced us to John Rambo, a deeply troubled Vietnam vet trying to make his way in an America that wanted nothing to do with him. For its time and in its own way, First Blood was quite revolutionary, giving us a grounded action movie that dared to poke the still-fresh wounds from our involvement in Vietnam. The film is probably most memorable for its climax, culminating in a heartbreakingly raw breakdown from Stallone’s emotionally-crippled Rambo.

That’s probably the first and last time one would ever equate the words “emotional” and “Rambo.” Stallone revisited the character in a 1985 sequel, Rambo: First Blood, Part II, that had him returning to Vietnam to “win this time.” Gone was the wounded loner of First Blood, transformed instead into a walking, talking embodiment of the Reagan era. This is the Rambo that anyone who grew up in the ‘80s is no doubt intimately familiar with. For their time, the Rambo films were on the forefront of the zeitgeist, representing in vivid terms the new American policy of confrontation with the “Evil Empire” of the USSR.

Of course, the problem with being up-to-date is that it can very quickly become out-of-date, and by the time Rambo III came out in 1988, with Rambo aiding Afghan freedom fighters against the diabolical Russian occupiers, it bumped up against the inconvenient reality of the then-unfolding Glasnost. And just like that, the Rambo era came to an end, not so much burning out as fading away.

Yet here we are, two decades removed, and John Rambo is back again, twenty years older, and twenty years wearier, but still as buff and monosyllabic as ever. For the fourth installment of the series, which eschews the roman numerals of its predecessors, the biggest question on my mind was which approach star-director-writer Stallone would choose: the relatively realistic approach of First Blood, or the exaggerated, comic book take of its two sequels.

As it turns out, it’s a little bit of both. Set against the backdrop of war-torn Myanmar (called Burma in the film), where an ethnic civil war has raged, the intro helpfully tells us, for longer than any other current conflict, Rambo has the main character living a life of seclusion as a boatman in Thailand. When a group of missionaries (most notably Paul Schulze of 24, and Julie Benz of Buffy and Angel) delivering food and medicine are captured by the Burmese military, Rambo is called into action once more, doing what he does best and leaving a trail of bodies and bullet casings in his wake (“When you’re pushed,” he reminds us, “killing’s as easy as breathing”).

Make no mistake about it, Rambo is unapologetically violent. Hugely violent. Epically violent. However, it’s a violence that’s grounded very much in the reality of modern warfare. Rambo takes no joy in the punishment he must dish out, and I'll admit I found myself a little uncomfortable vicariously cheering for the "good guys" with the level of gore amped up to such a high degree on both sides. I’d like to think that was the point Stallone was trying to make, that violence is violence, no matter who’s doing it, and the only thing that makes it “right” is its necessity. I’d like to think.

At the film’s center, Rambo remains as much of a cipher as he ever was, the intervening twenty years all but immaterial save for the craggy hardness they’ve lent his features. Stallone knows this character inside and out, and he inhabits the screen with supreme confidence, content to let his moments of silence do most of the heavy lifting for him. This too is probably for the best, as when he does speak he utters a few too many fortune cookie truisms (my favorite of these, “Live for nothing, or die for something,” leads one to ask whether “living for something” is an option as well).

Ultimately, like Rocky Balboa before it, Rambo is less a continuation than an epilogue. It’s quite a feat that, twice now, Stallone has been able to give us appropriate closing chapters that allow these enduring, indelible icons to leave the stage on his terms. If you’re new to the Rambo phenomenon, it’s doubtful there’s much here that’s going to win you over, but for longtime fans this is a valentine through and through. The film’s closing moments perfectly echo the opening of First Blood, bringing the character – and the audience – full circle. Mission accomplished, John. B+


Paul said...

Nice review Z,
I re-watched all the Rambo movies with the wife before seeing the fourth installment. She hated the movies and Rambo. I had a good time revisiting them and was frustrated that she didn't like them, but I understood...Rambo is something that many of us grew up with and he became a cultural phenomenon, an icon.
If you weren't around for it then you'll probably never get it.
Anyways...I was anxious to hear your opinion on this and I'm glad you enjoyed it. I should have my review up in a few days...
Thoughts on 'Cloverfield?'

Ferph said...

I am "one".