Sunday, January 27, 2008

Rambo!

Well, I went and saw Rambo and have to say it's pretty amazing. Granted I was predisposed to like it, but I didn't even imagine it would be as strong a film as it was. I don't know where in the world this Stallone has been hiding out all these years, but the man has truly made an action masterpiece. It's a return to the seriousness of the first film, with only a few moments that hint at the comic book nature of parts 2 & 3. Personally, I believe the first film is the best, so it was great to see this one adopt a similar tone. I'm not saying that it's going to convert anyone who isn't a fan of action films, but the faithful are going to be very happy.

In this entry, Rambo is now living in Thailand hunting snakes for a local sideshow. After delivering his latest catch of the day, a group of missionaries approach him with a request to transport them to Burma. As the film illustrates with graphic footage in the opening moments, villagers in that region have been subjected to brutal treatment by the Burmese military. It is the missionaries' intent to go in and offer medical aid. Despite his better judgment, Rambo is talked into the trip by an idealistic member of the party named Sarah. She makes the point to Rambo that one has to do their part to change the world and help people. Rambo informs her that one can't change "what is." Even so, his admiration of her willpower is enough to win him over into helping her (if not the cause). After dropping the party off, the missionaries are taken prisoner by a ruthless military unit during a raid on the village they are working in. Given that this is a Rambo movie, of course he will be sucked in for a rescue operation. The head of the church where the missionaries came from hires Rambo and a team of mercenaries to go in and get them out. Cue intense action until the end credits.

The plot probably seems pretty standard for a Rambo film I'll grant you. Outside of First Blood he's done nothing but help the downtrodden (with some early mild reluctance in each case). This time really is different though. In his early 60's (yet looking very fit), Stallone exudes a real world weariness that was lost in later installments of the series. You truly sense he's just tired of all the nonsense of the world, and has come to the conclusion that nothing matters. Truth be told, he says very little in the film . . . but what he does say carries weight. You won't find any stock one liners in this one (e.g. "I'm your worst nightmare"), even though there are plenty of opportunities. This Rambo doesn't care about playing head games, he's just going to take you out as quick as he can. Instead, when he chooses to speak he's saying something you can bet is important and/or making a grand point (e.g. "Would you rather live for nothing, or die for something?"). In a lesser movie his statements could come off as cheesy, but due to the fact the film takes itself seriously, they play well.

A big reason it all works is that Stallone has indeed chosen to take the film seriously. He's been making the talk show rounds discussing how he made this film to highlight the deplorable situation in Burma, and he has succeeded on that front. One review I read compares this as a hybrid between Rambo and Black Hawk Down. That's pretty accurate, but I'd say it's even more intense than Black Hawk Down. The scenes showing the treatment of the villagers, and their outright massacre are as hard to watch as anything I've seen. By the time the rescue mission kicks in, you're really a bit numb. Of course you want Rambo to go in and save the day, but the sense of fun they injected into the middle installments is nowhere to be found (nor should it be). The rest of the film is pure tension, and features some of the most vicious action ever committed to film. When Rambo goes into full Rambo mode (and trust me you'll know when it happens), it's nothing short of overwhelming. After all is said and done, it leaves one feeling completely drained (as I'm sure was the intention).

A couple of other points I need to mention, which involve spoilers (scroll past this section if you want to remain spoiler free):


#1 - Since Richard Crenna has passed on, clearly Colonel Trautman cannot make an appearance. I read that they considered recasting the character with James Brolin, and I'm so glad they didn't. Instead they include a sequence where Rambo remembers some things Trautman said to him, which provides a nice connection with the earlier films while illuminating the character further.

#2 - I love the ending of this film. It sees Rambo going back to America to seek out his relatives (which apparently live on a farm in the Midwest). He's decked out in what he was wearing in the opening scene of First Blood (complete with duffel bag) where he was going to see his Army buddy, and the Jerry Goldsmith theme is playing in the background. It was a perfect conclusion to the series (if indeed this is the last installment).

End spoilers.

In conclusion, if you're a fan of the series at all, you're really going to enjoy this. Even if you just love action films, you're really going to enjoy this. The extreme violence means it's going to turn a lot of people off, but unlike the earlier installments (save for First Blood) the violence here is far from glorified. Here there is a message, and Stallone has managed to bring the series back to a more thoughtful place . . . which is a pretty amazing achievement at this stage of the game. On a final note, I had said earlier that I was disappointed that they changed the film's name from John Rambo to Rambo. Well, I have to revise that. The character is such a force of nature it's hard to think of him as John (at least until the closing scene). Again, let's just hope this doesn't rule out a Marion Cobretti sequel (let's see that one be treated in a serious, straight-faced fashion : )

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