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Rambo (2008)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

RAMBO (2008)

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Matthew Marsden, Graham McTavish, Muang Muang Khin

Written By: Art Monterastelli, Sylvester Stallone Directed By: Sylvester Stallone

The Short Version

Sly Stallone dusts off the world’s angriest Vietnam vet one more time.

Rambo is astoundingly violent, but it is in service of a real story.

Sometimes too real.

Bodies drop at an averaged-out rate of 2.6 corpses a minute.  (Including time for credits.)

This is Extreme Rambo; if you press “play,” you know what you’re in for.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

SWISS.

Shot full of countless hol- GET DOWN!


Pairs Well With...

MILLER HIGH LIFE.

Cheap, mass market American beer that’s a staple amongst armchair commandos and super easy to reload.  Given the category, one could do worse.

“You didn’t kill for your country.  You killed for yourself.”


Sometimes, you’ve just got to go back to the well.

One could argue that Sly Stallone had already gone back to Rocky’s well twice too many times with Rocky V and Rocky Balboa, but few could fault him for not wanting to end John Rambo’s career with a film that, all would later discover, featured Rambo teaming up with the Taliban.  Sure, they looked like “Freedom Fighters” at the time, but after 2001, many people couldn’t help but look upon that last flick as Rambo III: Oops.  (Though, to be fair, James Bond had done the same thing, so it’s not like Rambo didn’t have company.)

And so, once he found a way to get a big enough budget and picked up another cause, it was inevitable that Stallone would come back to try and set things right with one more turn as America’s most famous pissed off Vietnam vet.  But he didn’t call it Rambo IV or First Blood Part IV.  Instead, he just called it Rambo… which is what everyone else had been calling the second film since 1985. 

As one might imagine, this confused a lot of people.  (Which is why some foreign distributors re-titled it John Rambo, etc., and why many domestic video retailers try to tack on the tagline “The Fight Continues” as part of the title, which it isn’t.)  Since the trailer just featured Sly looking angry in the jungle while lots of stuff went “boom,” many fans actually made as far as their seats in the movie theatre still unsure as to whether this was a brand new flick or a really loud remake of the movie that made Ronald Reagan swoon back in the 80s.  (It’s a new flick, by the way.)

But you know what?  I don’t think that many of those people gave a shit either way.  I certainly don’t know anyone who did.  Stallone was playing Rambo again, stuff was exploding, and bad guys were dying.  What the story behind it might be?  Optional.

That is, at least, one way to approach things, and though it may be the most callous way to do so, I think that it’s the most popular one amongst this movie’s fans.  For most of them, Rambo is exactly what they were looking for: lots of amped-up explosions and bad guys getting what’s coming to them at a rate of approximately 2.6 dead bodies for every minute of this film’s runtime.  (In case you’re wondering, that means a count of over 200 corpses.)  Horrible people get literally sawed in half by a 50 caliber machine gun turret.  Limbs are blown off at regular intervals.  Rambo tears a guy’s throat out – slowly – with his bare hands.  And hey: who doesn’t love a good gut-spilling evisceration when it happens to some horrible bastard who really deserves it?

For those who don’t care about story and disassociate anything that happens on the screen from reality, for those who find vicarious release by enjoying mindless onscreen violence, and for people who find everything that’s happening to be too completely absurd to take seriously… for those people, Rambo is a bloody, nasty, ass-destroying thrill ride, and nothing else really matters.  It can easily be considered, as others have described it, a whole lot of violence around which a movie occasionally happens.  Enjoy.

For those who wish to take Rambo more seriously, though, this leads to the other two ways to look at it: as a whole lot of violence, or as a movie that occasionally happens.

Because it’s what Stallone had in mind, I’ll start with the latter approach first.

Like the other three John Rambo flicks – all of which got major attention from Sly Stallone’s screenwriting pen – Rambo is a deeply political film.  The reason it’s set in Burma (or Myanmar, if you prefer) instead of Africa or the Middle East is because CNN rarely goes there, and Stallone very specifically wanted to call attention to a battlefield that he felt that the rest of the world was ignoring.  And no, it’s not just set and story dressing; he’s serious about sending a message.  When the real Karen rebels (the oppressed minority depicted in the film) picked up on the movie’s dialogue and appropriated the quote “Live for nothing, or die for something!” as a real war cry, Stallone called it “one of the proudest moments I`ve ever had in film.”  One of the film’s stars – Muang Muang Khin – used to be one of the Karen rebels.  And while, after a stare down of sorts, Rambo respects the sincere convictions of at least one person looking to render humanitarian assistance to the downtrodden, he also makes no bones about his opinions of such missions: that they “won’t change anything.”  It should surprise no one that the script eventually calls for the movie’s most staunch pacifist to bash someone’s skull in with a rock.  So yeah, Rambo is very much a political message movie with Sylvester Stallone’s personal politics plastered all over it.

But, like they say in the infomercial business, he’s not stopping there, and any assessment of this next element is very much about one’s own perspective.

As suggested above, Rambo is an extremely violent movie.  There are many more pauses between slashes and explosions than most will give the film credit for, but the fact remains that when the bullets fly, they do massive damage, and the blood cascades in sheets.  For the “just here for the boom” crowd discussed earlier, this counts as “fun shit,” and is left at that.  For others, what happens is just plain excessive, to the point where it’s impossible to look past the body count.  To those folks, I really do have to ask: you knew this movie was called Rambo, right?  Did you watch the trailer?  When I see complaints like that about a movie like this, I have to call them out as fishing for an easy target, and generally devoid of merit.  Besides, even though I’m not so naïve as to think that Stallone and company weren’t aware that carnage would sell, I think there’s something else behind the excess.  Are you ready for it?

It’s only excessive in Hollywood terms.  While a few of the onscreen deaths can be called embellishments, overall, in battlefield terms, it’s actually quite a bit more realistic than Hollywood likes to get most of the time.  Seriously, guys, what the hell do you think happens when a bullet that’s nearly the size of a pony beer bottle tears through flesh at a couple thousand feet per second?  It doesn’t leave a small hole; it leaves a huge one, and often, it does take entire limbs off.  So do land mines and grenades.  Sadly, military hospitals are full of evidence to prove it.  General Patton wasn’t lying back in the day: war is hell, and in Rambo, Stallone and company have decided not to hold back.  They’re showing you the real horror of war.  (Go ahead and watch an uncensored Vietnam War documentary made before the 1990s if you want confirmation.)  And yes, that means that there’s also bullying and torture and sex crime thrown in.  (You never see a full-on rape on camera, but there’s no mistaking that it happens.)  Just like it really happens in all of those places that show up – or don’t show up – on the news.

And that is why for me personally, I consider this the least entertaining of the John Rambo films.  I do not condemn the extreme violence as depicted; I think it’s perfectly acceptable given the setting and the story.  I just don’t like it, not because it’s “excessive,” but precisely because it plays so close to real.

See, I love violent, over the top action movies.  I think that they’re a blast.  (Let’s face it: I’ve used the phrase “best use of a human intestine” in a review.)  But to me, they’re fun because they’re fake.  Machete and The Expendables are ridiculous, so I love them.  Even Rambo: First Blood Part II, whatever real message it was made to send, is still obviously in the realm of the unreal.  But this Rambo isn’t like that.  Because of the way the story is told and the way it’s shot and directed, this is too close to docudrama (even if it’s Marty Stu-ified docudrama), and that edge of realism makes it not so fun for me anymore.  It’s part of why I enjoy action movies and not straight up war movies.

And yeah, I could have done without the references to sexual assaults (though again, their occurrence is real in this setting, so they’re not gratuitous), and I do think that having the lead villain happen to like young boys does cross the cliché line a bit too far in any case.  He was already bad enough after ordering prisoners to run across a minefield, don’t you think?

In any case, though Rambo can be callously considered as “a whole lot of violence around which a movie occasionally happens,” it really is a movie with a coherent story, of which extreme violence is a necessary part.  That really does make all the difference.  If you care. And if you really pay attention, Rambo himself tires of all the killing. If you care.

Bottom line, Rambo is violent.  Period.  If you don’t want to look any deeper than that, there you go.  If you do choose to look deeper, there’s a real story there that’s scarily close to real events.  Whether or not that’s your idea of a night’s entertainment is up to you.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, July, 2012


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