It’s been ages since I’ve felt so dirty about being so well-entertained. Let’s get that fact on the table and shine an LED beam on it: Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo retread succeeds, as far as tension, action and violence go (there’s not much to say about its utter cardboard of a story and cardboard characters). You’ll get your fix of synthetic exuberance—the audience I was with last night blasted into wild, guilt-free applause when the credits rolled on a movie that flew by on PCP-dusted wings. But the audience also had a high concentration of drunken manchildren on the lam from their inglorious little suburban lives, who entered the theater chanting Ram-BO! Ram-BO! in beer-fogged, dog-happy fraternities. Take that for what it’s worth. Take also the fact that I quite like First Blood, and I think it holds up well; I appreciate its gritty, naturalist feel, which Stallone managed to recreate in the franchise’s latest version as director, co-writer and star. In fact, I’ll even go on record with the following: I think Stallone’s 2008 Rambo is the best Rambo since First Blood, despite its narrative and technical flaws, and an ideological naivete so appalling, it’s all I can do to sit here and admit to being completely swept up by the thing. But, for all my inability ever to see a movie as some kind of apolitical trinket manufactured by robots operating in a creative vacuum, I can separate most films into Column A (entertainment value) and Column B (the subtextual byproduct that writers and directors shit out all over a screen, intentionally or unintentionally, thanks to the inescapable fact that they’re part of the human nexus).
As far as Column A goes—whee! If you can shove politics and any concern for narrative logic and character motivation aside, chances are Rambo will be one for the action canon. Pay your $$ and get all the gunfire and exploding humans you could ever wish for in one sitting. Don’t even bother trying to keep a running body-count, be it for drinking-game purposes or sheer prurience. Admire the way Stallone has accelerated the action movie by yet one more degree, combining zombie-flick levels—and styles—of gore with classic Commando gunplay. Prepare to flinch/howl/guffaw in horror/ delight/shock at the creative ways bodies disintegrate onscreen—and disintegrate is the key word, here; be it landmines or arrows, hunting knives or machine-gun fire, watch as legs bisect at the knee, heads erupt in fountains of gore, intestines drop like deuces from slit bellies, and chests cave into red oblivion again and again and again, while exit wounds leave streaks across the screen as wide as—well, as wide as the movie screen.
The latest Rambo is a bloody awesome entry into the gore-sploitation and war-sploitation sub-genres. It’s a meaty combination of jungle action, gore-kills and unintentional camp—there were moments, in fact, that reminded me of butcher-cinema standards like Cannibal Holocaust, with its third-world slaughter arena and mindless imperialism. It’s that irresponsible and that bloodthirsty a movie, with just the sort of ballsy, bad dialogue that salts the meal perfectly. I can’t help but admire Rambo’s hell-bent course to extremes, and despite the fact that my tolerance for severe exploitation violence has lowered over the years (the girl who used to write retrospectives for Salo, I Spit on Your Grave, and Last House on the Left can’t bring herself to see the new rout of torture porn), I was in this movie’s thrall from start to finish.
Rambo is set on the border between Thailand and Burma/Myanmar. An aging John Rambo spends his days operating a boat service on the Salween river and proving his manly-manliness by excelling in activities like snake wrangling, blacksmithing and crossbow fishing; in other words, it’s cheesetastic overkill from frame one. When missionaries from a Colorado church group need someone to boat them into Burma so they can meddle with the oppressed Karen people, Rambo allows himself to be swayed by a pretty blond woman’s very unpersuasive rhetoric (spouted unconvincingly by Julie Benz, better known as Dexter Morgan’s steady, Rita). It doesn’t matter that, at bottom, it’s unlikely that Rambo would say yes—he’s war-weary, morally detached, and all too aware of the dangers of letting this Up With People! gaggle of clowns loose in a genocide zone. What matters is that the movie’s gossamer narrative desperately needs a reason to plant Rambo, armed and pissed off, in the middle of a savage Asian civil war.
The expected unfolds: Rambo tangles with some pirates, the missionaries are carried off by the Burmese militia, a rep from the church group hires mercenaries to extract his friends (yeah, I did a double-take there, too) and begs Rambo to bring them north up the river to do their job. Naturally Rambo rises to the occasion and saves asses with a frenzied, can-do, stars-and-stripes bloodlust; he thrills to the zing of bullets once more, and to the wet percussion of opening flesh; and he looks back on his Green Beret programming and admits to himself that “war is in your blood. Don’t fight it. You didn’t kill for your country, your killed for yourself.” Rambo’s epiphany plays out almost like a moment of divine calling, and by movie’s end the surviving missionaries understand that it wasn’t Christ who saved them; it was the flesh-and-bullets savior—a different kind of immortal—standing over them with a smoking Kalashnikov.
Now, for those of you who (1) don’t believe in Column B when it comes to action movies, or (2) couldn’t give a rat’s ass, it’s time to stop reading. You got what you came for: thumbs up. Rambo is a resplendent show of violence, as over the top as it pleases to be. But it’s also a cluster-fucked hodgepodge of politics and religion that pulls itself apart at the seams with a mixture of good intentions and yawning ignorance. As competent as he is at mounting action sequences, Stallone displays the mentality of an eleven-year-old who thinks solutions to complex problems can be found in his older brother’s Soldier of Fortune subscription. He makes much of the political context while making nothing of it at all. He’s too eager to demonstrate his gospel of bullets, and he fails to show audiences the repercussions of Rambo’s victory—the countless other villages that will be destroyed in retaliation for the Karen rebel attack on the militia. Rambo is pitilessly simple-minded and cynical—I’m pretty cynical myself, but I like to temper my misanthropy with a little more thought and nuance. According to this movie, life in some parts of the world is an endless cycle of chaos and destruction. Mixed messages tell us that (1) it’s pointless to try to help, and (2) only Western intervention and eye-for-an-eye violence can put a dent in the nightmare. Which one is it, Sly? Tell me what the youth of America ought to do—you seem to be adamant about something, anyway, putting certain statements in your characters’ mouths (nearly every line uttered rings of propaganda); closing your film with that iconic Deer Hunter image; and making sure we see your movie as more than a popcorn digestive, as if all the violence you paint onscreen—a disturbing blend of the documentary and the cartoonish—belies some deeper meaning.
Rambo boils down to a damsel-in-distress tale, in which our hero mostly ignores the trampled brown hordes to save the fair-haired innocent from the same fate which countless Karen women endure off to one side. There are two ways to look at the heightened realism of the massacre of villagers, witnessed first-hand by the missionaries: some will argue that showing a village slaughter so viscerally through Western eyes, and nailing the coffin shut on an already-waning cinematic taboo (children are stabbed and shot in full view of the camera), is just the thing to awaken viewers to the reality of genocidal crises blazing around the world. Others will argue that a real ethnic group’s suffering has been callously used as excuse for or backdrop to the bloodbath, and deserves to be examined with more than half a brain-cell and ersatz sympathy. I don’t think these views are mutually exclusive. Does this slippery conclusion indicate Stallone’s clumsiness or genius at dealing with irreducible realities? However you choose to see it, unless you’re able to dispatch the ethnic context while you watch the blood spray, you’re bound to feel a little discomfort even as you enjoy the deliriously dirty entertainment onscreen. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on January 26, 2008.)