After both the financial and critical success of 2006’s Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallone has decided to drag his other cinematic touchstone, John Rambo, kicking and screaming back into theaters. According to the new film, Rambo has been hiding out in Thailand for the past two decades. For Stallone’s sake—at least from a critical standpoint—he should have left him there. But from a box-office point of view, there’s enough ‘80s nostalgia going around to make a small fortune out of Rambo and at least have Stallone considering making Over the Top 2: More Overer.
And I guess in some ways, the existence of this latest John Rambo opus is even a tiny bit my fault, since I was one of those critics who liked Rocky Balboa. It’s not a great film by any means, and it’s barely a good one, but it was a pleasant surprise at the time in that it actually had something on its mind, which is even more surprising when you realize Stallone made it. Where Balboa is about Stallone’s stalled career, Rambo isn’t about much more than ultraviolence. There’s an obvious right-leaning, pro-war tinge to it all (it is a Rambo movie after all) that has conservative pundits like Michael Savage and Rush Limbaugh ready to give Stallone a Medal of Honor. But at the same time, Rambo can’t seem to figure out what its message is. After all, it gives us a group of naïve Christian missionaries who start the mess to begin with, not to mention that they end up being the pansies who are taught that killing is necessary on occasion. But looking for purpose in a Rambo is probably a fool’s errand in the end. No matter how confused a movie Stallone might have made, one thing about this film is certain: It is firmly and unequivocally pro blowing stuff up.
The film itself is one of the most—if not the most—over-the-top, gratuitously violent action films of recent memory. The only film that even comes close is Robert Rodriguez’ gore-a-thon Planet Terror (2007), but that flick also doubles as a horror. The biggest mistake Stallone makes is taking this whole mess seriously. Rambo himself walks around with the look of a man in serious need of a kitten and more bran in his diet, while the rest of the cast is just as humorless. The only laughs are of the unintentional kind, such as when Stallone steals his own device from Rocky Balboa by inserting black-and-white footage from previous Rambo movies to show the audience what the character’s been through, and maybe to remind everyone that he was once young enough to walk around shirtless. In Balboa, it fit with the overall purpose of the film; here, it’s laughable.
I’m sure Stallone was attempting to show the grim reality of war, but the action scenes are done in such an absurdly far-fetched manner that it undermines his whole point. By the time the movie kicks in, Rambo becomes nothing more than a parade of explosions, automatic weapons fire, maimings, stabbings, decapitations, guttings and attempted rapes, with one gratuitous Patrick Swayze-style throat removal à la Road House (1989). To top it all off, the bloodletting is created with the most obtrusive and obviously fake CGI this side of the Sci-Fi Channel, while Stallone, despite decades of action movies, doesn’t have a clue how to direct an action scene without spiraling into muddled shaky-cam confusion.
Sure, the film has a plot in-between all the gunfire, involving a now-retired Rambo who’s hiding out in Thailand as a snake farmer. When some Christian missionaries—who Rambo himself took into the war zone of Burma—are captured by the evil Burmese army, it’s up to Rambo and a group of mercenaries to free them with the highest body count possible. And while Stallone has never been a good actor, the film’s “amateur night in Burma” cast of no-names makes the man look like Laurence Olivier. But all of this is inconsequential in the long run, since the violence is the film’s main selling point, and no audience for Rambo could be looking for anything else. Rated R for strong graphic bloody violence, sexual assaults, grisly images and language.