In an early scene in “Rambo,” Sylvester Stallone’s new installment in the long-dormant action series, we’re introduced to the titular hero (Sly, of course) as he rummages through the underbrush of Thailand searching for cobras. See, ever since we last left him – after having fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1988’s “Rambo III” – the former Green Beret has been living in Southeast Asia working on a snake farm. Yep, he’s traded in his combat knife and bow and arrow for the chance to nurse pythons. What? Did you expect him to be flipping burgers somewhere in Ohio?
Rambo’s simple life in the sticks is disrupted, however, when a band of Christian missionaries arrive asking for his help. Initially refusing, the grizzled stoic gives in when he’s approached by the beautiful Sarah (Julie Benz, TV’s “Dexter”), who begs him to take them up the river into Burma to help the desperate villagers that are being massacred by the ruling army. Even Rambo’s hardened heart can’t resist the impassioned pleas of a beautiful blonde, and soon he’s leading the group into the jungles of Burma on his little ramshackle boat. Things go wrong, of course, and the missionaries end up getting captured. In response, Rambo leads a ragtag group of mercenaries – including a scowling thug (Graham McTavish) and an impossibly wet-behind-the-ears youngster (Matthew Marsden) – into the lion’s den. Mucho ass-kicking, American-style, ensues.
If there’s one thing that sets “Rambo” apart from the recent spate of franchise resurrections we’ve been seeing lately (“Rocky Balboa” (2006), “Live Free or Die Hard” (2007)), it’s the inherent political incorrectness of it all. The film is like one big middle finger in the direction of popular liberal sentiments, although something must be said for the fact that Sarah – who, by all accounts, is the wide-eyed na’ve liberal to Rambo’s world-weary, war-prone conservative – is a Christian activist. But the last thing the film is interested in is politics. What really makes “Rambo” so jaw-dropping is its questionable taste. Like the insultingly manipulative “Blood Diamond” (2006), “Rambo” comes across as a message movie without a conscious, a commentary on a tragic current event boosted up with considerable amounts of crowd-pleasing action and gore – you have to keep the people entertained, you know, even when you’re trying to nail home an honest-to-God message.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. “Rambo” has something that the aforementioned “Blood Diamond” didn’t, and that thing is Sylvester Stallone. Let’s face it, Sly can make anything watchable. Seeing him sport that bandana again and wield his bow and arrow like a world-class archer is both an exhilarating and surreal experience. The entire film feels like it was pulled out of a 20-year-old vault, dusted off and repackaged to look new. It’s something that could have only been spawned from the ’80s, and yet – look at that – it was filmed last year.
For all its many trespasses into seriously questionable moral territory, the film desperately wants to be taken seriously. Opening with genuinely unsettling newsreel footage of the various massacres in Burma and loaded with anguished, preachy diatribes from its cardboard-cutout characters, it’s the sort of somber, overtly dramatic film that dares you to laugh at it. For this reason alone the film comes across as more than just a vanity project for Stallone. You get the sense that there is genuine anger here towards the situation, and its admirably unflinching view of the carnage ensuing in Burma almost gives it credibility. But the film is just too silly; the ridiculous dialogue, preposterous characters and over-the-top gore (I couldn’t count the number of exploding heads with two hands) immediately throw into question its motivations.
Whatever. “Rambo” may be cheesy – even tasteless – but it’s entertaining and refreshingly devoid of any self-conscious pandering to contemporary political correctness. It’s lean (clocking in around 90 minutes), mean and thoroughly, in-your-face American. Reagan would’ve been proud.
Rating: 2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars
At Quality 16 and Showcase