Saturday, April 14, 2012

Rambo (2008) review

RAMBO 2008

Sylvester Stallone (John Rambo), Julie Benz (Sarah), Maung Maung Khin (Tint)

Directed by Sylvester Stallone

The Short Version: Stallone directs his first Rambo movie and builds it around the bloody turmoil that's been going on for decades in Burma. Lavishing the film with the most savage scenes of brutality this side of an Italian jungle gorefest, you'll be reminded more of movies like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980) or THE LAST HUNTER (1980) than you will something like THE KILLING FIELDS (1984) or CASUALTIES OF WAR (1989). Like MEN BEHIND THE SUN (1988), viewers may be divided as to if the film is actually exploiting the violence as opposed to condemning it. Obviously Stallone's intentions are sound, it's just that very little time is spent preaching the plight in Burma versus showcasing graphic eviscerations and exploded heads. As unadulterated popcorn entertainment, RAMBO delivers. This will also be of interest to horror fans as there's more graphic blood and gore spilled than probably a dozen horror pictures combined.

Living in Thailand as a snake wrangler, John Rambo is approached by a group of Christian missionary human rights workers to guide them up river to Burma in an effort to give aid to the oppressed Karen people. Parting ways in the jungle, the merciless Burmese military raid the Karen village, butchering its inhabitants and taking the aid workers hostage. Rambo is once again asked to make the journey up river this time escorting a group of mercenaries in an effort to rescue the remaining human rights activists that are still alive.

Not since DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) have noggin detonations been so non-discreet.

Some twenty years have passed since RAMBO 3 (1988) and while those earlier films got bigger with each succeeding entry, this fourth installment jettisons grand spectacle for a slightly more modest approach, but pushes the envelope in other ways. Possibly the single goriest movie of its kind, heads roll, intestines spill, victims are eaten alive by pigs, throats are ripped out, limbs are dismembered and bodies explode with rampant abandon. Sadly, there's plentiful CGI gore, some of it is difficult to ascertain while a couple of shots are painfully obvious. At the heart of all this carnage, there's a compelling story to be told, but it takes cover in all the bullet riddled bloodbath.

This story involves the barbaric treatment of the Burmese people by their own despotic government, a tragic, ongoing dilemma that Stallone and crew championed in the movies promotion and also on the DVD extras. The extras go above and beyond the call of duty in educating viewers on what exactly is going on over there; something the movie doesn't get across outside of women and children being gunned down and raped, babies thrown into fires, or impaled on bayonets and hoisted into the air. According to Stallone, the worst atrocities couldn't be shown. So what we have here, if one were to make a comparison, is the action version of Mou Tun Fei's MEN BEHIND THE SUN (1988). Yes, I just compared Stallone's movie to one of the most deplorable cinematic experiences of all time.

Both films detail oppressive regimes that were/are hellbent on the complete and total extermination of a race of people. In Mou's film it's the Japanese against the Chinese, but in Stallone's movie, it's the Burmese against their own; in this case, the Karen people of Southern Burma and along the border of Thailand. While both films seem content to revel in gruesome scenes that tread a thin line between graphic historical significance and crass exploitation, you at least get more depth from the Japanese perspective in Mou's film. In Stallone's movie, you never get a feel for the Burmese tyrants outside of their penchant for cruel torture and callous barbarity. That's all that's really required for this kind of movie, but for the one entry in this series that openly declares it's making a political statement, we only ever get to identify with the violence of the vile Burmese militia. We also never get much to chew on in regards to the mercilessly oppressed Karen people aside from seeing them obliterated, chopped, dismembered, broken, burned and blown up.

Furthermore, the character of Tint, the lead villain (played by Maung Maung Khin, a real life revolutionary fighter for the Karen), is given little to do aside from look menacing while giving orders to butcher helpless villagers. He's given scarcely little dialog, too, which only exacerbates his characters lack of depth. When his gory coup de grace comes during the final moments, his death is virtually interchangeable with any number of his mindless, heartless soldiers.

Still, the villains are potent in their savagery even if the rampant violence may bring to mind any number of jungle based exploitation than something like say THE KILLING FIELDS (1984). While the movie predominantly basks in its action movie conventions, the documentary on the DVD does an admirable job of connecting the grim film to its even more nasty reality; a sad fact being that the alarmingly dangerous situation in Burma doesn't seem to have changed for the better since Stallone's movie was released. Reportedly, RAMBO is banned there and some of the dialog uttered by Rambo in the film has been adopted as battle cries by the Karen freedom fighters!

With location shooting in Burma being out of the question for obvious safety reasons, the film was shot in Thailand near the border of Burma. Glen MacPherson's cinematography occasionally captures the sweltering atmosphere and some of the mountainous vistas in all their steamy splendor. Thankfully, the shaky cam isn't to the point where it looks like the camera is mounted onto an M-50 machine gun. The jungle terrain is also a nice, if deadly setting that, married to the downbeat aura and plentiful gore, looks like something Sergio Martino, or Antonio Margheriti might have done had they ever been given a 50 million budget to play with. Stallone's film is definitely a throwback, if an incredibly violent one the likes of which haven't really been seen from a Hollywood picture since the 1970s; the revolting finale of SOLDIER BLUE (1970) being one such example. The smaller scale production (compared to the bombastically explosive grandeur of the preceding sequels) aids in grounding the film in reality more than if the budget had been closer to what these sort of films usually cost.

At barely 80 minutes, there's hardly any fat on the film at all. While it wasn't a massive success, sequels have been proposed, but the EXPENDABLES series seems to have taken precedence. It's also interesting that earlier in the decade, other RAMBO story ideas were being bandied about. One that was reported in TV Guide not long after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 had Rambo doing battle with Bin Laden and the Taliban! Even more bizarre, after this fourth entry was completed and released, a sequel was announced that would have seen Rambo in SyFy Channel territory hunting a government created half human monstrosity that had escaped a research facility!

Say what you will about Stallone, but the man is obviously a talented filmmaker and does a fine job here in spite of him having taken the directors chair at virtually the last minute. He also gets around extremely well for a man 62 years of age (at the time). The main thing I like about RAMBO is that, unlike the other films (especially parts 2 and 3), the character doesn't run around mowing down hundreds of bad guys who can't shoot worth a damn. Rambo is part of a team this time out, traveling with a group of mercenaries. He gets a couple scenes to show off, but mostly this is a joint effort.

At first, this merry band comes off as the typical loud mouth, arrogant bunch that's been trotted out ever since James Cameron made merc machismo fashionable with ALIENS way back in 1986. From their dialog, you could surmise these guys may as well be wearing red shirts, but these stereotypical throwaway characters eventually rise above the standard action movie cliches; and while characterization isn't the films strongest point, it's nice to see such an indomitable character like Rambo working together with a group as opposed to stealing all the major action scenes for himself.

Surprisingly gruesome for an 'R' rating, this is the PLATOON (1986) of macho action hero movies. It has a serious message beneath the surface, even if it isn't fully realized. The onslaught of torture, gore and bullet riddled bodies consumes any attempt at a serious statement against the horrors taking place in Burma. Stallone's movie succeeds in being entertaining and is uniquely diverse from the rest of the series, detached almost. It also brings things full circle at the end, which was a nice touch. Much better than I expected, it's easily among the gloomiest, grittiest American action films I've ever seen. It's so grotesque at times, you wouldn't be far off the mark to classify this as a horror movie. RAMBO may flunk out balancing its message with its visceral shocks, but it's at least recommended for its popcorn value. Watching the extras regarding the horrible plight of the Karen villagers adds a great deal of pathos that the film somewhat fails to achieve. RAMBO could have been a vastly different animal had these social issues been put to the forefront. Instead, it opts for a more conventional, outrageously violent alternative. Still, it's doubtful fans of the series would accept an overly preachy Rambo movie. As escapist entertainment with moderate social relevance in hiding, Stallone succeeds admirably in delivering a brutally tight little action movie.

This review is representative of the Lionsgate 2 disc DVD set.

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