Hunter Stephenson’s Movie Review: RAMBO

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The following review contains very minor spoilers and was written with consideration for those who have not seen it.

I’m disappointed with how Rambo seems to be doing this weekend at the domestic box office, and I am disappointed that I haven’t reviewed the film until now. That said, at least I am reviewing it, as many of the boisterous voices that could have made Sylvester Stallone‘s film an event film with online reviews have not done. There are those action fans, general moviegoers and fanboys who are on the fence about this movie; and for many the tide has already gone out for the film; they’ll get to it on DVD. “Who cares?”

I think this hesitation amongst movie reviewers and movie goers says something about how we deal with age in this country; it signifies that even when an actor goes over and beyond what is expected of him after he’s lived through and outlasted so many copycats, decades of Hollywood, and charlatans to the action throne, the respect is not there like it should be. Is Rambo cool or not cool in the internet culture? Am I too young or too old to see it? I’ve got a college education now, does that matter? What will my buddies straight out of Caddyshack II think if I like it?

America, please.

Review continued after the jump.

These are the pervasive, ubiquitous questions that have spoiled the sensation and unique qualities of mainstream, populist American film just like they have dampened rock ‘n’ roll. We over think everything, even as we soak up “Daily Britney.” There is a large difference between uninspired, lowest-common-denominator slop that the studios offensively push out like mutant pig babies from a sow in a factory (Meet the Spartans, Tyler Perry’s Madea, Witless Protection) and friggin’ Rambo. As Quentin Tarantino would loudly and hyper-actively tack on, “…OKAY?!?” There was a time in the ’80s when action films served their purpose as honorably as high brow films. Judd Apatow has clearly taken notes from that supercharged era of popcorn with his slew of R-rated comedies that hail back to comedies like Stripes and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but no young turk has done it with action films.

So, Stallone, in his early 60s, has done it for us. And man-o-man, does it feel good to sit in a dark theater, observe all types of clearly excited dudes pile in for the fourth and second best Rambo, and have voices yell “Holy Shit!” in the theater after it starts, with plenty of laughing and flinching bouts in between. At a screening my friend attended, a plebeian drunkenly let off an air-horn* when Rambo appears on screen and catches a fish with his bow and arrow (he was escorted out, but some movie goers wanted him to stay). Indeed. Rambo is a party and it fights for its right. It is the straight-up best action film I’ve seen since Bad Boys 2 and a classic comeback for the genre. I liked Rocky Balboa, but it stumbled a bit. Stallone’s age was both the film’s center and a semi-desperate gimmick. But the Stallone in Rambo makes the Bruce Willis in Live Free or Die Hard look like a soccer dad chump, and note that he also directed the movie in the blazing wilds of Thailand. Do you see Coppola out in the jungle begging for heat stroke, jus’ sayin’?

Rambo is a masterful and not ironic wink at the audience who grew up on Rambo: First Blood Part II, those who were wondering if Stallone still had it in him against all odds, common decency and third act folklore. Stallone more than still has it. There were so many guys in my audience who obviously fit this demographic and many had brought their sons along; I’m sure the dads walked out with a similar feeling, like, “See punk, I told ya.” And I doubt one kid walked out of the screening hating this movie or liking it as a simple “meathead joke,” even the ones who precociously dig Ingmar Bergman, Terrence Malick and My Dinner with Andre.

There is a slew of fantastic and quirkily iconic images here, for the franchise and the genre, and Stallone has almost reinvented his second most famous character as pure myth. The Rambo in this film is not really John Rambo, so the singular title is fitting. This Rambo is almost like a cigar store Indian gone fully animated (not Creepshow animated), a kind of muscled punk pulp fiction gruff that mumbles things to Christian missionaries like “Fuck the World.” Does Stallone think this line is funny? I’ve had this debate with people. I think it’s ridiculous to think he doesn’t see purposeful humor in it. If I ever have a chance to speak with Stallone, I’m going to ask him if he genuinely didn’t mean for this line to get a laugh from the crowd. It’s too well-timed and bluntly delivered to be interpreted any other way. The Rambo here is just over it, over the world, and sure, he’s been like that since the Vietnam War, but now he just wants to catch cobras and pythons and watch the big rock burn, hands off. He’s one detached bastard.

There is a relentless segment in the film where an entire Burmese village is graphically slaughtered and punctured with bullets. The massacre is lead by a Burmese general who wears mirror-lensed sunglasses and he’s presented similarly to the symbolic, iron-fisted guard in sunglasses from Cool Hand Luke. Bullets maim, shred flesh like sandwiches, and pop heads open; blood flows. A small Burmese boy is shot dead, and like at “Fuck the World,” I laughed loudly at this, too. The scene so sudden, brief and incredulously extreme, it was the moment when I realized my expectations for this movie’s wrath, even with the complimentary pre-show Death Chart, were set low.

The horror that plagues the Burmese villagers gets a laugh several times because it’s simply not possible; but Burma is nefarious for these acts of animalistic violence, and whatever the critics say, Stallone has done a good deed. Human life is cheap there. Stallone memorably has Burmese rebels forced by militants to stumble across wetlands littered with submerged mines. Wholly original outside of reality, and wholly memorable terror. Really, when is the last time you thought about the atrocities occurring in Burma? George Clooney can say the word “Darfur” with emphasis for the next five years, but Rambo is a more effective message to achieve public awareness. And it glimmers with startlingly unapologetic entertainment value. Sue me, it works, like a spiked bat, natch.

There have been comments about Rambo on /Film that express a modest disappointment with, not so much the actors, as the actual presence of the other soldiers of fortune. Rambo guides these men down the river on a mission to save the American missionaries that have been made prisoners by the Burmese army. But these characters, especially the roguish Lewis played by the Brit actor Graham McTavish, serve as an uncouth pack of serviceable well-armed lessers and allow for Rambo’s badassery to remain in focus as he stays characteristically solemn, alert and caught in his strange state of perma-regret (he’s killed what, 1,000 people, a little reflection is due).

The set-up where the mercs creep into the prisoners’ quarters in the jungle at dark, with ran pouring and splashing off the bamboo huts, lightning striking, mud and shadows kissing, it’s been so long since a movie nailed this kind of cinematic rain-drenched tension that drives people to action-war films. These scenes are no longer an overdone cliché, even for the character that exhausted them. Nor are they a low-budget homage here, which is what I was afraid Rambo might be altogether. The dynamics in these scenes are fresh, and they are shot and edited with confidence and verve. With an audience presumably familiar and comfortable with the setting, Stallone ducks predictability and lovingly perfects genre imagery that helped make him a star. This is Stallone’s Unforgiven served at the altar of pop culture, with a wicked slap of the ruler to those who look down on it.

After the missionaries are untied and they escape, with incident, I eased to the notion that the movie was done with its job. I had witnessed what I came to see, Stallone had made good. The film was a six out of 10. The death chart’s numbers had already been met, I guessed. This was a tight affair, and already far from the straight-to-DVD nightmares some might have toyed with, and thought a sure thing pre-Rocky Balboa.

But the next 20 or 30 so-minutes blew my mind. As Rambo heads deeper into the jungle, the audience is given a literal explosion that is so neatly wrapped up and unforeseeable, it nearly matches the classic elevator shaft scene in the first Die Hard. When Michael Bay plots an explosion, it’s like God-as-playboy having stupid fun, mildly amusing himself with all at his disposal. When Rambo executes the explosion here, it is a eye-boggling signal from the most pissed off, toughest person on Earth to whatever sick effer created our galaxy; it is beyond. There are few scenes that literally knock you into the back of the theater, but like the voice said behind me, the exact same words I muttered, “Holy Shit, man.”

There are moments in a man’s life when everything just clicks, the gear is changed and he just goes for broke. Stallone does that here. This is not so much indulgent and unnecessary violence, as many would proclaim, this is violence is comparable to the expectations for Led Zeppelin if they ever tour again, but those won’t be met. This is just Led Zeppelin violence, hah, or AC/DC on their best day. This is a 60-year-old Stallone clearing the damn theatrical jungle of years of undergrowth, torching mediocre action movies like Hitman, The Transporter, Eraser, Shooter, and Sudden Death forever. This is the cinematic equivalent to a “shredder” in Shane Black’s endearing The Last Boy Scout. Rambo stands high on a hill, overlooking the carnage, and for a moment I thought he was part Native American, part Jason Voorhees, and part America, the bad and the good and the ugly.

Ostensibly, the ending to this movie is dead quiet, yet it’s packed with crazy, and it’s just as ideal, shockingly awesome, and sort of…just sad. The ending made me realize that there was a time when I was, like, 11 years old and I watched First Blood and First Blood Part II (as you know the third Rambo is lame) and I equated the image of Rambo firing thousands of bullets shaped like monsters’ golden teeth with America, as people all over the world did, more so than Ronald Regan, the flag, and, at the time, fast food. This U.S.A. was a mammoth that would never budge, that had the best and wildest movies and was proud of it; its citizens and movie stars didn’t age. Honestly, for many years I expected Arnold and Sly to never get old, and I didn’t think I would either. This was the way it had always been, headbands and bazookas and I was the fortunate son of it, enjoying an endless summer by the pool and Rockys and Rambos.

And then Stallone did Oscar and then this decade he went directly to DVD in movies I will never pick up to look at like Shade. I swear, I went to sleep after catching Rambo and I had a dream about Rambo V, and it began right where this one ended. When I woke up, I dashed over to report Rambo V‘s details on /Film like it was the scoop of the century. I thought it was really a sealed deal for, like, two minutes, so strong was the plot. It involved Rambo and his friggin’ father (somehow played by Clint Eastwood) and his never before mentioned war buddy (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger), all chewing half-smoked cigars as they get together after Rambo has discovered a huge labyrinth of caves behind the building he’s walking to at Rambo‘s end. Deep down it’s stashed with drug dealer money or possibly treasure, and they know it. And then the bad dudes arrived. And this movie was so good!

But the great ending to Rambo, Rambo IV, is what the critics are missing and denying in their reviews. It shows us that we can grow old, and while some of us will die behind desks, some of us are going to rock this world harder than we ever did. Rambo’s and Stallone’s trajectory is the great trajectory of the modern American life, one filled surreal success, rock star wealth and renown, legendary egotism, brain dead mistakes (Daylight, Shade), embarrassments, consumerism, weird strategies, and…even when it should be over, you make a ridiculously ballsy action film at 60something out in Thailand with 5,000 producers funding it. And it’s still not over. I have high standards when I go to see a movie in the Oughts. I’ve been burnt, the action genre has long been dead and made for “girly men.” And I loved this movie; it exists outside of the other Rambo movies for me, and I’m beginning to think it even surpasses the first.

I liked Cloverfield a lot, but I won’t be watching that film again for years. I don’t need to. That movie was a nightmare that summed up the last six or so years of nightly news and plunged hope. In contrast, Rambo almost changed winter to the peak of an Aquarian summer for me, and every guy who walked out into the air had a smile that said, “Damn, I can’t believe how much I enjoyed it. Wait, what in the dunkirk happened to our action movies?!” This is comparable to the sunglasses in They Live for American action cinema from ’08 onward. Do not pass on it. Stallone is not here for DVDs.
10/10

*Did anyone bring an air horn to the Bourne films? Think not.

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