Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 01/26/08 19:32:22

"Welcome (back) to the Jungle."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Twenty years since we last saw him, John Rambo is not doing very well. Oh, he’s just fine physically - his arms ripple with muscles straight out of a fantasy magazine - but he’s alone, beaten, somber. He looks like he hasn’t smiled in those two missing decades, and even if he could, he’d find nothing worth the effort.

“Rambo,” written and directed by Sylvester Stallone, is a spiritual cousin to the movie star’s other recent revival of a cinematic icon, “Rocky Balboa.” Both films returned us to the worlds of its heroes, only to find them tired with age, quietly introspective. Perhaps this is from Stallone himself. In younger days, it is a world of adventure and glory; older eyes see the sadness that surrounds everything, and adventure is too heavy.

The film opens with news recaps of genocide in Burma (or Myanmar, if you prefer), the military exterminating the Karen people in a civil war that’s unfolded for decades. To illustrate the situation, we cut to a rice field. Soldiers are playing a twisted game where a rice field is loaded with land mines, then bet on which locals, forced to run across, will live and which will die. Stallone spares us none of the violence that follows, yet the scene is somehow not exploitive; we are not thrilled by the carnage, but horrified by it.

The Burmese genocide is real. Stallone has said he hopes his film will help bring public awareness to the matter; a key reason for picking the setting was his research into atrocities he felt were being underreported.

The horror may be real, but it is also somewhat anonymous. Speeches about local politics are kept to a minimum, and our main villain, the sinister Major Tint (Maung Maung Khin), is shown more as a generic force of evil than as a key antagonist. (Tint shares only one scene with Rambo, which lasts for less than a minute and includes no dialogue.) This is because “Rambo” isn’t about a specific cause, it’s about cause in general. Rambo the character evolved throughout the 1980s into a symbol for America itself - or, more precisely, what some Americans wished their country should be. The Rambo of 1988’s “Rambo III” is the defender of the innocent and protector of the weak, an initially reluctant but eventually proud fighter of the world’s battles.

This is a much better film than that weak sequel, but its sentiments are the same: America will fight for you. The politics of such a theme are obviously up for debate, not just in a matter of “is this what America is?” but also “should this be what America is?” But the answers - and the very debate itself - do not matter, not here, not in Rambo’s world. This time, “Rambo” goes even broader, suggesting not just a metaphor for the good ol’ U.S. of A., but for all of us, on an individual level. Gone are any trappings connecting the character to his country. Col. Trautman is absent (Richard Crenna died in 2003), and Rambo has no American forces to send him on his way. He now lives as a hermit in Thailand; when others join his adventure, they too are mercenaries without a country. By cutting Rambo off from the very nation he once symbolized, Stallone allows the character to grow into a broader analogy, one for all of us who wish we could defend the innocent, protect the weak. “Rambo” is the filmmaker’s rallying cry of “get involved,” and to watch Rambo go from cynical recluse who refuses to help because he doesn’t think it’ll do any good (his philosophy, as he succinctly puts it, is: “fuck the world”) to soldier who understands that the very act of trying to help even one person can make life worth it is to find Stallone’s message of hope.

And yet all of this is looking too deeply into what’s essentially a tightly constructed, expertly crafted shoot-’em-up. One goes to a Rambo movie to watch the bad guys blow up and the good guys triumph, and this revival offers exactly that. “Rambo” is a compact thriller that gets in, makes with the boom boom, then gets out. For all my talk about Major Tint being a faceless analogy for human evil everywhere, the more probable truth is that we simply don’t need him to deliver countless speeches or design wicked plans for us to boo him; just show enough of his villainy for us to understand that he’s the baddie, then get out of the way.

The plot is insanely simple: Rambo is approached by missionaries, who ask him to take them into Burma. He does, then later finds out they were captured by Tint and his men. Our hero then joins forces with the gang of mercenaries hired to rescue them.

And that’s it. Stallone offers up some soul-searching in the early parts of the movie, where we see Rambo hiding from the world, convinced by one young missionary (Julie Benz) that helping others is good for the soul. He’s not handled his past adventures very well, but Stallone offers only enough brooding for the audience to get the point. Later, when other mercenaries make cracks about how the people of God needed to call on these devils to save them, the point again is only brought up long enough for it to sink in - Rambo is an agent of evil, and he cannot escape this fact, but he can use his evil for good if his conscience will let him. (In other words: war will kill your soul, but without a soul, it sure is easier to fight.)

These ideas are scattered and light, dropped in just enough to offer character depth where it is appreciated without allowing it to overstay its welcome. And then, yes, Rambo makes with the boom boom, and what glorious boom boom it is. Stallone has never made a movie as purely intense and visceral as this. He sets his camera in the heart of the danger and does not flinch at the gore that unfolds before us. This is a grisly affair, with limbs being sliced and skulls getting cracked. When people explode in this film, the guts fly everywhere. First this is used to horrify - we’re witnessing humanity at its absolute worst - and then as catharsis - we’re seeing the villains meet the ugliest fates they deserve.

Stallone has written many action movies and starred in many more, but never directed one (his “Rocky” films lean more toward drama) until now. His work here is exceptional genre stuff, airtight and full of tension. He may make with the shaky-cam and the rapid edits in an attempt to fit in with other modern projects, but such a style actually benefit’s the picture, providing the proper mixture of chaos, shock, and visual thrill. The final half hour is a celluloid tribute to absolute blood-soaked mayhem.

Better still, he has a knack for making ridiculously over-the-top moments acceptable. “Rambo” may be chock full of cartoonish violence, but Stallone makes sure to set the tone long before things become absurd. And absurd it certainly is, in a way fans of Reagan-era action silliness will absolutely love.

He leaves us with a dumbass thrill ride that hides its smarts in plain sight. “Rambo” is a marvelous chunk of excessive action violence that works overtime to earn the character’s comeback.

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