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Everyone old is new again: Rambo heads back into the jungle

by Glen Baity

People thought Bruce Willis was crazy for doing a fourth Die Hard movie last year. A little skepticism shouldn’t come as a surprise, really: What’s a member of the AARP doing jumping off an airplane at the age of 52?

I was in that chorus, but I started singing a different tune when it became apparent that Live Free or Die Hard was, pound for pound, the best mindless action movie that came out last year.

So it was with open arms and an open mind that I welcomed Sylvester Stallone’s resurrection of both working-class hero Rocky (in last year’s fun, campy Rocky Balboa) and soldier-without-a-country Rambo (in this week’s Rambo, the fourth in the First Blood series). Age ain’t nothin’ but a number. Even if it’s a number like, in Sly’s case, 62.

Rambo (cut down from the original title John Rambo, for some reason), finds our hero living a miserable, solitary existence outside a Thai village. Things are going along much as they have since, presumably, the end of Rambo III, until a band of do-gooding Christian missionaries requests the use of his ramshackle riverboat to make passage into war-torn Burma, bearing medical supplies and prayer books.

After a little swaying by lovely charity worker Sarah (Dexter’s Julie Benz), Rambo revs up the boat for a turbulent ride into one of the worst parts of the world.

As expected, these people are captured and imprisoned less than a day after leaving their laconic guide’s watchful eye. When he learns of their ordeal, Rambo joins up with a crew of mercenaries contracted to retrieve the missionaries, in the process unleashing the long-dormant beast within.

The film’s script is probably shorter than your average porno screenplay; after all these years, Rambo still isn’t much of a talker. That’s a good thing, really – when he does open his mouth, it’s to drop a bit of dubious wisdom like “Live for nothing or die for something.”

But don’t be deceived by that sort of hokum: if you think this is a Rocky Balboa-style nostalgia trip, you’re in for a bloody rude awakening. In fact, Rambo boasts more exploding heads per reel than any film this month, and could very well take the prize for all of 2008.

What’s that you say? Exploding heads not your thing? No worries. Sly’s got you covered with execution-style killings of every variety, from firing squads to hangings to flamethrower barbecues. Machine guns detach legs at the knee, hunting knives spill viscera on the muddy ground and land mines practically disintegrate whole human bodies, briefly turning them into bright crimson ink blots before chunks of flesh fly toward the lens.

The First Blood movies were always violent – they did, after all, have “blood” right there in the title – but things have changed in recent years. Like everything else since the dawn of photorealistic CGI, screen violence can look as real as the director desires. And it looks real here. Very, very real.

All the mayhem set to Brian Tyler’s percussion-heavy score, which is like small-arms fire rattling around in your eardrum for 90 consecutive minutes. It rounds out the immersive nature of Rambo’s violence, making it one of the most panic-inducing trips to the movies you’re likely to have. Once the action heats up, there’s really no place in the entire film to breathe. I’m assuming that’s Stallone’s goal. If so, mission accomplished.

It might successfully induce some post-traumatic stress, but the film is a failure. It’s too unflinchingly real to be any fun, and too dumb to take advantage of the spotlight it shines on the violence in the part of the world in which it’s set. The wider conflict between Burmese factions is never explored in any detail, and Stallone’s sense of subtlety is pretty much the same as it ever was: The bad guys are the same sneering thugs of a thousand ’80s action movies.

Through it all there’s Stallone, who is still a perfectly believable war machine – when he’s not killing, killing, killing, he’s gazing drearily off into the distance, contemplating the bodies piled high on his conscience. He’s something of a nihilist at the beginning of the film, and – mild spoiler alert – seems to find some sort of peace and reason to exist in the course of the rescue mission, though how such a transformation comes about is an utter mystery. Not that you’ll really notice. This is a film that pounds you into submission, and once the credits roll, you’ll be too relieved to quibble over little things like character development.

To comment on this article, send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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