Friday, January 25, 2008

Film Reviews: "Rambo"

Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go Back in the Jungle

The New York Times
Published: January 25, 2008

Has it really been 20 years? Last time we saw John Rambo, in 1988, he was involved in some cold war endgame stuff in Afghanistan, and his action-movie franchise, begun in 1982 with “First Blood,” seemed to be sputtering toward self-parody. Since then Rambo has faded into semi-obscurity, though his name is sometimes still used, perhaps a bit unfairly, as a synonym for revanchist, go-it-alone militarism.

When I saw the posters announcing his imminent return, I wondered whom he would be fighting this time. In “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” the cumbersomely titled centerpiece of the earlier trilogy, he went back to Vietnam to collect payback both from the Communists and, indirectly, from the pusillanimous desk jockeys who supposedly messed up that war the first time around. Given this résumé, it seemed reasonable to assume that now he might be heading back to Central Asia to hunt down Osama bin Laden, a job no one else seems inclined to tackle.

But it turns out I misjudged Rambo, and maybe also Sylvester Stallone, who directed and wrote (with Art Monterastelli) the newest “Rambo,” and who plays the title character. When we first encounter him, this weary warrior has retreated from geopolitics, passing the time at a remote river station in the Thai jungle, where he hunts poisonous snakes and dabbles in blacksmithing. Old Rambo seems kind of depressed, to tell the truth, until his wrath is stirred by the viciousness of the Burmese Army.

Burma? But why not Burma? (In this movie, no one calls it Myanmar.) As a precredit montage of actual news clips reminds us, the military government of that nation has been engaged not only in widespread authoritarian abuses but also in a brutal, long-running campaign against the Karen ethnic minority. And it is with the Karen that Rambo, once roused from his weary cynicism, throws in his lot. No longer the bloody avatar of wounded American pride, he seems more inclined toward humanitarian intervention — a one-man N.G.O. with a machete. Will he show up in Darfur next?

Not that he is motivated by abstract moral concern. (And not that he is entirely alone. Some grumpy mercenaries are on hand to add firepower and profanity to the cause.) With Rambo, the political is always personal. He temporarily joins the Karen cause because some Western aid workers, carrying only Bibles, medical supplies and an air of sanctimony, hire him to ferry them upriver into Burma. He is skeptical about their mission, and their leader (Paul Schulze) seems like kind of a jerk, but something about Sarah (Julie Benz), the only woman in the group, touches Rambo’s soul. This is not a matter of sexual desire, but rather the kind of spiritual awakening that can be expressed only in misty abstractions. (“What you’re trying to do is change what is?” “And what is?” “Go home.”)

Sarah wonders why Rambo — she calls him John — has stayed away from the United States for so long. (This is partly answered in a dream sequence flashing back to some of the earlier episodes.) “Don’t you want to see what’s changed?” she asks. One thing that has is that women in action movies are encouraged to do their own fighting, but Mr. Stallone is old school in this regard. Blowing heads off and slicing abdomens is man’s work. Ms. Benz is on hand to scream, gasp, fall in the mud and huddle in a damp bamboo cage, waiting to be raped by the Burmese bad guys or rescued by Rambo.

And these bad guys make the Vietcong in the second Rambo movie look like paintball-slinging weekend warriors. “Rambo” is, for most of its fairly brief running time, a blood bath punctuated by occasional bouts of clumsy dialogue. There are beheadings, mutilations, disembowelings — enough gore to rival “Apocalypto.”

But the movie does have its own kind of blockheaded poetry. The first installments in the cycle were better films than polite opinion might lead you to believe. At the time their politics made some people nervous, but to dwell on Rambo’s ideological significance was (and still is) to miss his kinship with the samurais and gunslingers of older movies. Mr. Stallone is smart enough — or maybe dumb enough, though I tend to think not — to present the mythic dimensions of the character without apology or irony. His face looks like a misshapen chunk of granite, and his acting is only slightly more expressive, but the man gets the job done. Welcome back.

“Rambo” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has unhinged, sadistic genocidal violence and righteous retribution for same.


Opens on Friday nationwide.

Directed by Sylvester Stallone; written by Art Monterastelli and Mr. Stallone, based on characters created by David Morrell; director of photography, Glen MacPherson; edited by Sean Albertson; music by Brian Tyler; production designer, Franco-Giacomo Carbone; produced by Avi Lerner, Kevin King-Templeton and John Thompson; released by Lionsgate Films. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes.

WITH: Sylvester Stallone (John Rambo), Julie Benz (Sarah), Paul Schulze (Burnett), Matthew Marsden (Schoolboy), Graham McTavish (Lewis) and Tim Kang (En-Joo).

Rambo rises to wreak more havoc

New York Daily News
Friday, January 25th 2008, 4:00 AM

RAMBO. The third sequel in the 'First Blood' series sends its hero to Burma to rescue kidnapped missionaries. With Sylvester Stallone. Director: Stallone. (1:33) R: language, extreme violence. At area theaters.

Like a lost recording by the Beatles, Sylvester Stallone's "Rambo" arrives in theaters today with its feet planted firmly in the past, a reminder of a time when Stallone, Chuck Norris and other wooden soldiers of the big screen filled multiplexes with the floor-shaking thunder of trivialized war.

It's been 20 years since we last saw the hero of the "First Blood" series, that scarred Vietnam vet with an addiction to revenge and a supernatural ability to defeat Third World armies and live to fight another day.

This time, the fantasy is so over-the-top, the enemies so comically monstrous and their deaths so gory, that you may just throw your head back and roar with laughter.

"Rambo" is the second film in Stallone's Greatest Hits comeback tour, following 2006's "Rocky Balboa," the sixth film in that boxing series and the first since 1990.

To his credit, or to the credit of the human growth hormone he espouses, the 61-year-old star, writer, director and producer looks as fit as Jack LaLanne pulling a tugboat across San Francisco Bay. And his unmellowed Rambo has the same signature snarl, nasal grunt and steely stoicism of those long-ago triumphs.

In this episode, Rambo's misanthropic world-view clashes with the Good Samaritanism of a group of Colorado missionaries that he and a church-hired band of mercenaries attempt to rescue from military captors in Burma.

Rambo, now retired in Malaysia where he traps snakes for a freak show and renovates old boats, had taken the missionaries to Burma earlier and offended their leader (Paul Schulze) by killing a half-dozen Burmese pirates en route.

The contrast between Rambo's some-people-need-killing pragmatism and the missionaries' every-life-is-sacred credo is the dramatic fill between the frequent battle scenes. However, the only question hanging over this show is exactly when the head missionary will begin singing "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition."

And what a lot of quality ammo there is: machine guns that tear bodies apart and explode skulls like water balloons; arrows that Rambo flings through the eyes of enemies at 100 yards; a trip-wire explosive with the force of a small atomic bomb. Ah, Rambo, how we missed ya.

Rough-and-tumble 'Rambo' hits target

By Kevin Crust
Los Angeles Times
January 25, 2008

There's something oddly touching about Sylvester Stallone's march down memory lane, dusting off one of his most iconic characters for another outing after years in mothballs. As with 2006's Rocky Balboa and now Rambo, the 60-year-old star dons the persona like a comfy old suit, a little worse for wear but eminently recognizable.

Since drawing First Blood in 1982, John Rambo, a taciturn, nihilistic Vietnam vet who favors a bow and arrow and knife over modern weaponry (but can pretty much wipe out an entire regiment single-handedly with anything in reach), became the ultimate symbol of action-movie excess. A walking, grunting monolith with giant, vein-rippled forearms, Rambo represented a video-game approach to filmmaking long before PlayStations and Xboxes surpassed the multiplex as the hideaway of choice for teenage boys.

Nearly 20 years after fighting the Soviets cheek-by-jowl with the Afghan mujahedeen in Rambo III, John returns to the screen working as a humble river guide in northern Thailand. The hulking former Green Beret is still haunted by his experiences, still hears the voice of his commanding officer (the late Richard Crenna) in his head and still speaks in movie poster-friendly taglines ("Live for nothin' or die for somethin'") when he speaks at all.

Stallone directed and co-wrote the script (with Art Monterastelli) with a modicum of humor - when another character asks if he simply remained in Southeast Asia after the war, he replies, "It's complicated" - and a boatload of blood. It's a labored reunion that hews closer in tone to the series' first movie, but suffers from some typically inane dialogue and the lack of an actor such as Crenna or Brian Dennehy to carry some of the dramatic burden.

A small group of missionaries from a Colorado church asks Rambo to take them upriver into civil war-torn Burma (Myanmar) and after first refusing, he reluctantly caves to the insistent pleas of the group's lone woman, Sarah (Julie Benz). Though there is zero chemistry between Stallone and Benz, there is a strange King Kong/Ann Darrow vibe to the relationship that seems to inspire Rambo to act against his better judgment.

The group fails to return and the church's pastor (Ken Howard in a cameo), after failing to gain assistance from the U.S. embassy, engages a quintet of mercenaries and hires Rambo to take them to the spot where he dropped the missionaries. Led by the bottom-line driven Lewis (Graham McTavish), the guns for hire take their pilot for granted, dismissing him as "boatman," but when they encounter the vicious Burmese army holding the missionaries they quickly realize they're lucky to have Rambo along. The Burmese are rapists and killers who force villagers to scramble through mined rice paddies while they gamble on the outcome. Their leader is a sadist with an appetite for young boys, all of which makes them easier to cheer against.

When the mercenaries, with the exception of an idealistic sharpshooter schoolboy (Matthew Marsden), determine that the danger of a rescue attempt outweighs their paychecks, it's Rambo who exhorts them with a terse, "It's who we are." Moved to take charge by something like chivalry, Rambo hits his stride in the film's second half, meting out justice in an unjust world, and ultimately the movie works best when warbling its out-of-tune greatest hits.

Just as John Rambo reconciles himself to the facts of his situation, Stallone seems to have arrived at an acceptance of his place in the Hollywood pantheon. Peter O'Toole probably said it best as the Errol Flynn-like Alan Swann in My Favorite Year: "I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star!"

Rambo (Lionsgate) Starring Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz. Directed by Sylvester Stallone. Rated R. Time 93 minutes.

Kevin Crust writes for the Los Angeles Times.


“Live for nothing or die for something. Your call.”

Pacifism is a disease. Rambo is the cure.

Why do I have a feeling Hollywood just got schnookered by one Sylvester Stallone. Stallone’s a bright guy. He knows the deal. He understands the only way he’ll get the Weinsteins to throw him some cash for a movie which portrays left-wing, pacifist liberals as the dangerous, pansy-asses they are is to disguise them as Christians.

You don’t have to be a rocket-scientist to watch Rambo and realize Stallone’s made an allegory about the fight against al-Queda, the fight against evil — the fight against those who do nothing to stop evil. The only way to miss it is if all that Christian-hate’s clouded your mind.

Man, it was like being twenty again sitting in the balcony of that crummy downtown theatre where I spent all my free time when I wasn’t working the janitor job or sleeping in a $225 a month hole someone dared to call a walk-up. Yup, just like being twenty again watching Rambo: First Blood Part II and going, Hell, yeah, through a mouthful of Twizzlers.

Rambo is a total 80’s actioner and God bless it for that. Simple plot. Simple characters. Obvious character arcs, some emotion, badder than bad guys, and a little of the ole’ ultra-violence.

Rambo’s nowhere near as violent as Kill Bill or any number of famous violent films liberal critics gush over because it’s their kind of violence — the nuanced kind critical of the white Western European patriarchal capitalist patriotism thing. But liberal critics do hate violence which might, you know, help Bush.

Rambo helps Bush. Rambo shoves the namby-pamby, pacifist, hand-wringing, obnoxious, holier-than-thou, liberal, do-gooders (uhm, I mean, Christians) out of the way and blows some evildoers into pieces small enough to stick in a See’s candy box and mail back to the mothers who spawned them.

Is Rambo a great movie? No. It’s not even all that good. But it is fun. Heck, I’d drop another nine-bucks just to see Harvey’s name in the credits again.

It’s been twenty-years since Charlie Wilson sent former Green Beret John Rambo into Afghanistan to create the Taliban and cause September 11th. Today, Rambo’s bigger, carrying his weight like a burden, and catching dangerous snakes for a living in Thailand when a group of liberal, pansy-asses only missing their blue helmets (uhm, I mean, Christians) approach and ask to be taken upriver to Burma. They want to “change things” for the innocent Burmese who are raped, tortured, butchered, and murdered everyday.

Rambo: You bringing any weapons?

Pansy-ass: Of course not.

Rambo: You’re not changin’ anything…

So, Rambo refuses, but then a cute, young, hottie hippie pansy-ass asks him (uhm, I mean, a Christian), and off they go.

The plot’s that simple and I see no reason to spoil the rest.

**MINOR SPOILER** But I promise you some of the, er, uhm, Christian characterc arcs are almost as gratifying as Harvey Weinstein’s name in the credits. **END SPOLIER**

The secret to a successful action film of this kind is the set-up of the action scenes, not the scenes themselves. The actual action can be as beautifully shot and choreographed as you want but if the audience isn’t leaning forward, fists-balled, waiting for release through mayhem, you’ve lost. This is something Rambo does very well. You want to see the bad guys get theres and that want is fed, and then some. Existential it’s not.

Stallone looks great, doesn’t try to play it young, and definitely hasn’t lost his touch directing big set-piece action scenes. He still hangs with the best of them. Everything’s well choreographed with a fine rhythm and you always know exactly what’s going on. He even whips out the dreaded shakycam, but again, he knows what he’s doing and uses it to proper effect rather than trying to make up for an energy deficiancy.

The three previous films get a hat tip here and the Rambo theme is used to great effect mainly to bookend the story which Stallone brings full circle. With some stronger characters, better defined villians, and stronger dialogue Rambo could’ve been the Rocky Balboa of the series — one of the better entries, but at 90-minutes (again, very 80s) the pacing’s as brutal as our protagonist and the hell yeahs keep adding up.

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