USA / Germany, 2008
Review by Cullen Gallagher
Posted on 21 July 2013
Source Lion’s Gate DVD
Categories Favorites: The Action Movie
The entries in the Rambo series, whether affectionately or derisively, are often referred to not by their original titles, but by the abbreviation “Rambo” plus whatever number film in the cycle they are referring to. Technically, this is only accurate for Rambo III. And while calling the fourth film simply Rambo might make this all the more confusing, the decision is ultimately quite significant. It heralds a new era for the Rambo franchise—a new generation of fans, a new film industry, a new cultural and political climate, and ultimately a new action hero. This is now twenty-six years after the release of First Blood, and much more blood has been drawn since then, and many more wrongs committed. To stick by that original title would be to indicate that Rambo hasn’t moved beyond that initial film. But, as evinced by the other entries in the cycle, he clearly has, and throughout Rambo he will continue to change even more because, if anything, this latest film is all about movement, both as an aesthetic choice and narrative motif.
“Change” might seem like an unlikely word to associate with a film that, from the surface, seems like a remake of Rambo III from 1988 which in turn was an attempted repackaging of Rambo: First Blood, Part II from 1985. All three films center on Rambo going behind enemy lines to rescue hostages, with the last two films specifically dealing with oppressed minorities needing aid. Rambo, however, seems to take a step back twenty years from 2008 to make right all that went awry in 1988. And indeed, Rambo is a fully realized version of what Rambo III failed to be, which was a geopolitical action movie on an international scale that took both politics and ass-kicking equally seriously. Without the simplistic binary of Cold War rhetoric weighing down on the story (and amplifying its message beyond what the script could support), Rambo manages to accomplish both quite ruthlessly, as it is not only the most violent film of the series, but also one of the most overtly political films to emerge from Hollywood in the past few years.
Rambo begins with a montage of documentary news footage of the Burmese genocide of the Karen: riots, corpses left to rot, decapitated heads, children being tortured. Anyone looking for escapist diversion finds himself slapped hard in the face with brutal images that are very real and surprisingly controversial (something which Hollywood tends to shy away from). The genocide of the Karen seems more likely a topic to appear in a documentary than a mainstream blockbuster movie. And while an alternate opening to Rambo III showed Afghani rebels being massacred by the Russians, Rambo’s decidedly non-fiction prologue seems far more provocative, as well as problematic. For here, in the opening seconds of the movie, we are confronted with one of its primary dilemmas: the reality of violence contrasted with the fantasy of action.
Sylvester Stallone, who directed and co-wrote the film in addition to starring in it, has commented that his intention was to inform audiences of what he thought was a timely topic that needed wider exposure. “I just wanted to bring [audiences] up to date and there’s nothing more impressionable than when you actually see real newsreel footage that shows you’re not just doing a film that’s a fantasy. It’s for real. It’s like showing Vietnam and then you actually go into the film.” This brings to mind precisely what Rambo’s character did in First Blood: he turned the woods of America into the jungles of Vietnam. So, does this mean that Rambo is a social activist in addition to being an action hero? It seems as though this is one of the directions that Stallone is moving the character towards in this fourth film. For the first time, Rambo is facing questions that move beyond his own personal interest and experience. He is forced to take a philosophical and political stance on issues that he has always maneuvered around without confronting them face-to-face.
Working as a snake trapper and river guide in Thailand, Rambo is approached by a group of Christian missionaries from Colorado who want to go into Burma to deliver medical aid and spiritual relief to the Karen. Rambo’s response? “Fuck the world.” More so than in previous films, nihilism has consumed Rambo. Repeatedly he remarks (in various permutations), “You’re not going to change anything.” Nonetheless, one of the missionaries, Sarah, manages to affect Rambo. Speaking in slogans (as most of the characters throughout the film do), she tells him, “Maybe you’ve lost your faith in people, but you must still be faithful to something…. Trying to save a life isn’t wasting your life.” So, he agrees to transport them up river.
Just like in Rambo III, they are captured, and Rambo is forced to go in after them. Departing from convention, Rambo doesn’t go alone—he’s hired only as the boatman to bring a team of mercenaries to where he last saw the missionaries. This role reversal further emphasizes Rambo’s crisis of conscience: how much longer can he sit on the sidelines and watch what he knows is wrong to continue?
When Rambo does decide to act, he is merciless like never before. “War is in your blood,” he tells himself. “You didn’t kill for your country. You killed for yourself. The gods are never going to make that go away. When you’re pushed, killing’s as easy as breathing.” The reference to plural “gods” separates him from the Christian missionaries without specifying what - if any - religion he relates to. It also serves to strip away any misleading ideologies that might be associated with his actions, and prevents Rambo from being a didactic mouthpiece with ulterior political motives. He acts in accordance with no government, church, or military, and having accepted no money for his services he is not a mercenary. He’s a pure fighter, acting on his own beliefs—an entity unto himself.
Structurally, Rambo is to be admired for its focused vision and concise plotting. Clocking in at a brisk 90 minutes (80 of narrative action and 10 of credits), Rambo steps away from the current Hollywood trend of unnecessarily lengthy movies. With no willy-nilly up-down-up plot points, Rambo is a straight crescendo from start to finish, with only a few minor skirmishes peppered throughout, all leading up to a gory climactic spectacle that tops anything in the previous films. Shooting in the washed-out colors and jittery camera movement that have been dominant since Saving Private Ryan, Stallone ups the ante by showing the nauseating grotesquerie of war like few other films have. Heads explode, bodies are ripped in half by bullets, chests are left with gaping holes—and Stallone’s camera shies away from none of it.
So where can Rambo go from here? Like Odysseus returning home after his journeys, the film concludes with Rambo turning down the driveway of his father. The opening instrumental arpeggio of First Blood’s moving theme, “It’s a Long Road,” echoes on the soundtrack as Rambo walks determinedly down the dirt road, past the ripe, golden pastures and grazing horses. He’s returned to the pastoral landscape that he emerged from in First Blood, the one he’s been hiding from ever since, replacing it with the jungles of war zones across the globe. Has he come full circle, as Col. Trautman implored him to do in Rambo III? Or is he back where he started, destined to be disappointed and light out for the territories yet again? These very questions suggest that Rambo’s saga is far from over (and reports show that Stallone has a fifth film in the works), and that he is not only continuing to evolve, but - perhaps for the first time in his life - has several roads from which to choose. Though whichever one he chooses, as the refrain reminds, it is sure to be a long one.
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