Saturday, January 26, 2008

REVIEW: Rambo (2008)

NOTE: The first half of this kinda turned into a longer "catch-up piece" for the "Rambo" franchise than I expected to. For those wishing to skip to the actual review, it begins directly following the bold-face "Mild Spoiler" warning.

If future generations (hell, CURRENT generations) ever want to get an immediately-clear idea of just HOW all-over-the-map the tone, ideology and zeitgeist of 1980s American cinema was, watching the original three "Rambo" movies will probably do it. The six year, three-film evolution of John J. Rambo - a decorated Vietnam vet suffering profoundly from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and seemingly unable to adjust to a non-warrior life - from a tragic figure of 'Nam-haunted America to one-man-army superhero to cartoonish "patriotic" Commie-buster is one of the most surreal results of the "sequelization" process; right up there with Godzilla's gradual metamorphosis from walking spectre of nuclear evil to baddie-fightin' single-dad.

"First Blood," the debut of the character (based on a book by David Morell,) largely "snuck up" on audiences of the time. The "psycho Nam-vet" had become a movie stock-character almost as soon as the first post-Nam movies started to come out; and at first-glance "Blood" didn't seem all that different from any other "turned into killers by the army and unable to turn back" stalking highways and turning small-towns into bloodbaths all over the exploitation/drive-in circuit of the day. The exception, folks would discover, was in perspective: The film casts it's sympathy overwhelmingly behind it's wounded-warrior, framing his violent outburst as an instinct/PTSD-based reflex-reaction to his being unjustly harrassed by a vindictive small town Sheriff's department.

This, as it turns out, made it the ideal movie for the strange transition underway in America's post-Nam view of itself - still hurt and bitter over the war itself, but now also beginning to feel the pangs of regret over how said bitterness got projected onto the returning veterans. At once stridently anti-war (anti-military, really, when you get right down to it) yet earnestly pro-warrior, it was simply exactly the right movie at exactly the right time, and megastar Sylvester Stallone's (then already near the pinnacle of his "Rocky"-era stardom) John Rambo was the right hero... A kind of modernized-anachronism, much like Rocky Balboa, given an extra boost with the return of the old-school "Army Hero" archetype to American pop-culture prominence - coming into being the same year, in fact: the revamped "G.I. Joe."

The down-right surprising willingness of the public to embrace Rambo as an anti-hero quickly led to his celebration as a straightforward hero, period. And while that said some pretty positive things about America's reconcilliation with her Vietnam veterans it wound up being less than the best thing that ever happened to the franchise: Strong and resourceful but still all-too-human to start with, Rambo found himself refitted into a pumped-up, nigh-invincible action figure capable of mowing down legions of foes with relative ease in "Rambo: First Blood Part II." A well-staged actioner and a huge hit at the time, the film today mostly plays out like a high-camp parody of it's own legion of imitators - imagine if "The Brave One" had been a sequel to "Nell" and you'll have an idea of how jarring it is for THIS movie to be the direct sequel to "First Blood."

The commitment to giving Nam vets their belated appologies and salute remains sincere, despite a fairly cheesey screenplay, but in the end it's more notable for the preposterous knots the story ties itself into in order to both concievably relate to the first film's "the-system-is-broken" nihilism and hit the "go-team" patriotic superheroism demanded of Reagan-era military flicks: Enlisted by his former army bosses to smuggle remaining American POWs out of Vietnam, Rambo blasts his way through NVA creeps and meddling Soviet interlopers... but his real wrath is saved for the American military beaurocrats who continue to abuse and discard his fellow soldiers. It makes for a unique time-capsule, if not necessarily a sturdy film. And even that "uniqueness" would be gone when the time came for the forgettable Afghanistan romp "Rambo III," which finally reduces Rambo to just another musclebound cipher kicking butt for the stars n' stripes. The franchise, along with "Rocky," waned and so did Mr. Stallone's status as a go-to action hero.

I believe that brings us up to date.

MILD SPOILERS POSSIBLE FROM THIS POINT ON

"Rambo," (which really should have been called "Rambo IV," "Rambo Returns" or maybe even "Last Blood,") isn't so much about completing or even altering the arc of a bygone-era's hero like "Rocky Balboa" was - John J. Rambo seems to enter and exit the film in about the same place mentally as he was the last three times and pretty comfortable with it to boot - as it is about reviving a particular form of action movie: In this case the muscle-n-hardware unappologetic blast-fests of the 80s that the "Rambo" franchise created and was ultimately consumed by. You'll find no stealthy Jason Bournes, no air-walking "Transporters" or mathematically-precise gun-kata here - this is about putting the biggest guns in the hands of the man bad enough to wield them.

John Rambo, now in his early 60s and somehow looking like MORE of an intimidating physical presence than before, has made something of a life for himself as a snake-trapper and riverboat captain in Thailand, just down river from the raging civil war in neighboring Burma (reportedly chosen by writer/director/star Stallone after both the U.N. and Soldier of Fortune magazine both told him that this was the part of the world most crying-out for attention of the Rambo variety) where government soldiers are brutally slaughtering the Karen Rebels. A group of Christian missionaries from Colorado want to hire him to take them into the aforementioned war zone so that they might hand out medicine, Bibles and moral support to the Karen, something he's not interested in doing (he's sure they'll get themselves killed) until the group's lone female (Julie Benz) begs him.

While on the river, the ideological gulf between the battle-hardened Rambo and the earnest but hopelessly naive and obnoxiously sanctimonious Missionaries comes into focus and sets up the theme for this go-round: A band of river pirates turn up with intent and ability for rape and murder, Rambo does what he does to rescue his passengers... who return this kindness by berating him for his sinful ways. "Taking a life is NEVER justified!!!" lectures the head Missionary, who may as well be named Ned Flanders and who earlier had similarly scoffed at the notion that they bring some weapons with them. Silly Rambo! Guns are for sinners! Bibles, prayers and good intentions are all the protection we need... and all the "help" we're looking to really offer the oppressed rebels. You can guess how that works out for them.

Now THIS, folks, is surprisingly interesting stuff. The overall arc, that of "peace at any cost" folks learning that sometimes violence IS the answer, isn't anything earthshaking for the genre - but the specifics at play here are. Normally, you see this routine in overly political terms, with pacifist "liberals" getting schooled in the "realities" of war by a gung-ho "conservative" army hero. That the opposing philosophies here - the shoot first modern cowboy and the devoutly religious - are BOTH generally claimed under the umbrella of the American "right-wing" effectively innoculates it against political overthinking. "Rambo" isn't a clash of left and right but of human practicality versus spiritual sanctimony... and more interesting still, it doesn't cheap-out: It has a WINNER.

The film sets up a badder-than-bad cadre of villians, lays out the John Rambo Method of dealing with them - human ingenuity, a willingness to FIGHT for what you know is right - and the Missionary Method - surrender your will/life/fate to a deity, ask him for help, hope he's on your side - and finds the Missionary Method wanting. Most of the time when this area gets covered, it's set up to split evenly on both sides... but "Rambo" has a refreshingly direct opinion on the matter... even more refreshing since it's the one you so rarely see get a thumbs-up in the popular culture. After suffering through watching the this-close-to-magnificient "I Am Legend" descend into bullshit "spiritual" twaddle a little while back, I'm not sure I can accurately convey how glad I am to see a major-market action blockbuster hinged on a theme of human brains, brawn, invention and pro-action triumphing where sanctimony fails utterly. It's not that I can't appreciate a bit of the ol' "Angels came and saved everyone, th' end!" when it's done right, I'm just thrilled to see some balance.

But even when they ARE satisfying, we don't go to "Rambo" movies for theme. You want to know how the action is. In a word? Brutal. Stallone has been paying attention to where the genre has gone, and where it's been, and he's delivered the kind of horror-movie-level violence you're usually only going to see when Mel Gibson gets his hands on a camera and some Jesus Costumes. He knows the formula well enough to refine it and make it work like a machine built for the singular purpose of eliciting visceral reactions of his audience: First you show a hero. Then you show bad guys doing unspeakably horrible stuff to both establish your bad-assery credentials. You're allowed to go nuts with it (and boy does he) because the audience knows they can experience the evil vicariously without any guilt in the knowledge that the pre-established hero is going to punish this evil by the end. Then you let the punishment begin, and the audience full-cheers at the vengeance inflicted upon the purveyors of the violence they were gasp-cheering earlier. Set the timer, walk away, 90 minutes later you've got a gorehound crowd-pleaser.

At first it almost seems like he can't possibly pull it off, the initial violence is so extreme. The Burmese villians race captives through minefields, stomp and gun-down children, torch people alive, rape and beat women (and children), toss toddlers into flaming buildings, feed prisoners to pigs and spray gunfire around like an infernal fertilizer. I can't remember the last time I saw this level of onscreen carnage in an American theatrical film... it easily out-gores "Apocalypto" and even horror splatterfests like "Saw" and "Hostel." It could well be the bloodiest movie of the year - and this is only the bad-guy-badness-establishing-violence... Rambo hasn't even started on them yet! Though rest assured, once he does (after the Missionaries' benefactor asks him to take a team of Mercenaries to the spot they were last seen) the result honors the genre-mandated agreement between you and the movie that all the "bad" violence you have to see in the first half will be doubly-revenged by "good" violence in the second. And yes, Rambo has brought along his bow and arrow.

The action is epic, the themes are genuinely interesting, but the film finally doesn't quite land in the realm of "great" (though it IS the best entry in the series after "First Blood.") It doesn't really do much to advance or broaden Rambo as a character - content to simply let him be Rambo once again stuck doing the dirty work he hates being so good at - the way "Rocky Balboa" put the final psychological period on it's titular lead. And while the lean n' mean editing and pacing is appreciated in terms of keeping the "ride" exciting, it must be said that the film could likely have had more ressonance beyond just raw thrills if it had taken a bit more down time to flesh out it's characters and central themes (it doesn't really have a "second act" between the setup and the payoffs.)

What we get is an old-fashioned blood and guts action flick, well made and utterly comfortable with itself, with the bonus of a more-interesting-than-really-necessary exploration of faith vs. fist philosophy. For a 20 years later relaunch of a dubiously-departed action franchise, that ain't bad at all.

FINAL RATING: 7/10