Sylvester Stallone seems to work in
cycles. He seems to be driven to follow up actually good films with
junk, whether it be tasty junk like Cobra or actual trash like
Rhinestone. And that’s just his career as an actor; his directorial CV
is a filled with films that can mostly be enjoyed in ironic ways… if
they can be enjoyed at all. Rocky Balboa was the start of the next
Stallone cycle, a film that was not just a blast and delivered what you
wanted in a Rocky movie, but also managed to be an actually good film.
Rocky Balboa was a well made, enjoyable movie and not something that
requires your tongue to be in your cheek to enjoy. When Stallone
announced that he was next revisiting his other famous franchise
character, Rambo, I began to think that maybe this would be the next
stage in Stallone’s cycle. How wrong I was.

Rambo is not a good movie in the way that Rocky Balboa was a good
movie, but it delivers just about everything you might want in a Rambo
film. Stallone learned the right lessons from Rocky Balboa; like that
film Rambo is briskly paced, and with almost no second act at all.
Unlike Rocky Balboa, Rambo spends very little time on the touchy feely
relationship stuff; while Stallone definitely took this film seriously
– he’s trying to make a statement about the carnage in Burma – he’s not
looking to bore us. We’re introduced to the Burmese bad guys during
their favorite sport – taking Karen Christians and making them race
across minefields. That’s a strong opening to a film, as far as I’m
concerned. Next Stallone reintroduces us to Rambo, who is now snake
wrangling in Thailand. He’s surly and angry and hiding out from the
world, but not for long, since the world soon finds him. A group of
Christian missionaries want to go to Burma and bring some Bibles to the
Karen and they want to use his boat. At first he turns them down, but
the low rent beauty of Julie Benz makes him change his mind.

Stallone’s good about keeping things moving; all of this Christian
missionary bullshit could have taken forever and been full of clumsy
attempts at characterization and depth. Instead the movie just barrels
along and actually only stops for a quick trio of killings when river
pirates try to rape Julie Benz. Rambo leaves the missionaries behind
and the village they’re staying in is promptly attacked by Burmese
soldiers. It’s here where Stallone really ups the ante – Rambo might
end up being the single goriest movie of the year. I know that the
attack on the village is meant to be horrifying, but it’s really a big
wet blast. Body parts are shot off, people are blown up, kids get shot
in the chest. Stallone soaks the scene in blood. I applauded.

The rest of the movie has Stallone teaming up with a group of
mercenaries to try and rescue the missionaries who have been captured
by the Burmese for surely nefarious reasons. When the mercs were
introduced I figured them to be cannon fodder; after all, Rambo goes it
alone. But Stallone has changed up the formula here, and the third act
of Rambo is much more team-oriented. Sure, Rambo stands behind a 50
caliber machine gun for the final battle, raining death on everyone
like an angry god tossing lightning bolts, but the rest of the surviving mercs get their licks
in as well.

It’s pretty likely that some people will be heartily offended by Rambo;
once again an American hero is mowing down hordes of brown skinned
people who have no redeeming qualities or humanity. The leader of the
Burmese troops is not only a killer and an asshole, he’s a gay
pedophile! I believe the guy had a mustache but I don’t remember it
being twirled. But the fact is nobody expects – or wants – reality or
complexity in a Rambo movie. Hell, one of the main themes of this movie
is that killing is necessary, and missionaries who spend the whole film
bemoaning Rambo’s penchant for violence wind up visiting bloody revenge
on their captors. And everybody in the audience cheers. The Rocky films
are feel good stories of uplift (when they’re done right) but the Rambo
movies are, at their best, guttural cries of hate and rage. They’re almost refutations of the hopefulness of the Rocky movies. John Rambo is a
character who hasn’t met a situation that can’t be solved by blowing a
motherfucker to hell, and that’s what we like about him. I will
probably never stand behind a 50 cal and reduce another human being to
red goo, but I love seeing Rambo doing it in my stead.

I keep coming back to that 50 cal, and it’s because the final battle in
the movie is going to certainly end up going down in history as one of
the most violent ever. People are cut in half, limbs are
vaporized, villains are disemboweled. I actually had a hard time
believing that this film got an R rating – 2008 is going to have to
offer up some serious grue to produce a movie that will take away
Rambo‘s red badge of carnage. I, of course, laughed and clapped
gleefully through all of this; Stallone’s certainly serious about
bringing attention to the plight of the Karen, but he’s also serious
about making us happy with the violence.

I also come back to the 50 cal because it’s a sign of how Stallone has
figured out the way to do Rambo now, almost thirty years after First
Blood. The guy is still in good shape, especially for his age, but he’s
thicker and slower now. Using editing and stunt men and trick angles
Stallone could have put Rambo more into the action, but he keeps him
mostly with that big gun. This is a grittier Rambo film, and keeping
Rambo’s feats a touch more realistic helps with that grit. It’s very
impressive how well Stallone heightens his reality without ever going
into the cartoonishness in which Rambo II and III wallowed.

won’t end up on any best of lists, it won’t win any Oscars, it
won’t be remembered as a great film. It’s a movie that knows what the
audience expects and it comes from a filmmaker who is confident in how
to deliver that without being boring, cheesy or too silly. Rambo really
bridges the gap between First Blood and the sequels, and I couldn’t be
happier that Stallone moved the franchise into that direction.

8.5 out of 10