John Rambo has always gotten a bad rap, as he's perpetually misconstrued by both the supporting characters in his films as well as the cynical movie-goers of the outside world who dismiss him as a joke. This is, of course, because the iconic action hero is best remembered as a cartoonish, buff instrument of American vengeance from 1985's Rambo: First Blood Part II and 1988's Rambo III. Due to this, people have forgotten that the first outing of John Rambo, 1982's First Blood, was an action-drama dealing with America's post-Vietnam disillusionment and one man's failed fight to reincorporate himself into society. For 2008's Rambo (a.k.a. Rambo IV), Sylvester Stallone (who co-wrote and directed in addition to starring) returned the character to his roots; emulating the tone and emotion of First Blood in order to craft a gritty, poignant war picture that doesn't skimp on the action. What's truly daring about Rambo - and what a lot of critics have missed - was Stallone's decision to resurrect the ironic warrior to lament his soul rather than celebrate his strength.
The story, expectedly, is simple and direct. Twenty years have passed since John Rambo (Stallone) saved Colonel Trautman from Russian forces in Afghanistan, and he now lives the life of a recluse in Thailand desperate to evade his personal demons. As the film opens, a group of Christian missionaries approach Rambo seeking passage into the heart of Burma, as they wish to bring medical supplies and prayer books to the war-town country. Rambo reluctantly accepts the offer, but is wary of the dangerous terrain. Days after, Rambo learns that the missionaries were captured by the Burmese military. Choosing to assume his psychologically tattered soldier mentality and launch into battle once again, Rambo joins a group of mercenaries as they head into Burma on a rescue mission.
Stallone chose to preface Rambo with authentic documentary footage depicting the actual situation in Burma, which has endured what is described as the longest-running civil war in history. This horrific footage effectively places the story in a real-world context - it's made clear that the atrocities taking place in Burma are real, rather than part of the screenwriter's imagination. In this sense, Stallone and co-writer Art Monterastelli utilised Burma as a framework within which they constructed a typical action movie. Yet, within the simplistic framework there are layers of complexity that may be easily missed. For instance, the Burmese soldiers appear to be the epitome of one-dimensional evil since they slaughter villagers and enjoy gang-raping women. However, the documentary footage prefacing the film reveals that thousands of these soldiers are kidnapped boys who are forced into the army and dehumanised into soulless killing machines.
Ultra high body counts have become a staple of the series, and Rambo does not disappoint in this sense. The levels of gore push the R-rating to the very brink, yet the unremitting violence is not as joyously self-indulgent as previous Rambo adventures. See, there's more to Rambo than just carnage. The film builds with a palpable intensity, and the first half depicts Rambo reluctantly working his way back to his former self to confront the life he tried to leave behind. Through depicting the Burma atrocities in explicit detail, the film additionally offers a social commentary and manages to shed light on the realities of life in the country (the film has done more for Burma awareness than the UN). Thus, this entry to the series is more about authenticity and gritty realism, mirroring the tone of First Blood. Rambo is not perfect, of course - it's largely generic (at times painfully so), the dialogue is risible on occasion, and the tonal shifts can be problematic - but the positives outweigh the negatives.
Yet, all of this is probably looking too deeply into what is a taut, expertly crafted shoot-'em-up of pure awesomeness. You attend Rambo movies to watch the titular badass laying waste to hundreds of bad guys, and this fourth instalment offers exactly that. In prior Rambo sequels, Rambo was dropped in some hellhole to rescue a bunch of people before he breaks them out, kills the bad guys and escapes. Rambo '08 stays true to the formula, except - as previously stated - there's a lot more grit. Stallone is never shirtless at any point, and the cheesy music was replaced with Brian Tyler's harrowing, exceptional score. Rambo even works as a member of a team, as opposed to taking down hundreds of soldiers single-handedly. Up until Rambo, Sly had never directed an action film, but his excellent handling of the material here belies his inexperience. Sly may have utilised a shaky-cam approach, yet the style benefits the picture and is at no point distracting. And my word, the picture delivers in terms of action - the final battle is a celluloid tribute to the blood-soaked mayhem of the '80s. For all the criticisms Rambo endured, the violence is deserved: it characterises the villains, and provides the audience with a sweet sense of vengeance.
Sylvester Stallone is cold as ice in his performance as Rambo, and he brought to the role a sense of menace that has been lacking in previous entries. John Rambo is truly scary here; he's a powder keg waiting to explode, and he certainly does explode once the action shifts to the camp where the missionaries are held captive. It's not an Oscar-worthy performance, but it is more nuanced than most will admit. Julie Benz is also effective as a Christian missionary named Sarah. While Rambo jumps through hoops for Sarah, she is not a love interest. Sarah is Rambo's prime motivation for battling the Burmese army, but it's because she profoundly touched his soul. In the supporting cast there's also Matthew Marsden and Graham McTavish, both of whom are standouts as mercenaries. There are others in the cast, but suffice it to say every actor hit their mark.
Infused with a poignant social commentary to provide sufficient context for the action, Rambo exists to call attention to the atrocities in Burma in addition to providing a fitting end for John J. Rambo. In First Blood, Rambo's breakdown in the film's final minutes left us with the sense that he wanted to discover who he is and put the past behind him. This theme was never brought full circle in the following two sequels, but Rambo '08 does exactly that: providing the ending that fans have yearned for since the commencement of the franchise. One could argue I've read too much into Rambo, but I believe critics are not reading enough. It would be a shame for a viewer's preconceptions to overwhelm Stallone's achievements, which goes for both the cynical critics looking to be critical as well as the action fans seeking a fix. There is a beating heart at the core of Rambo, whether you wish to notice it or not.
Interesting to note, Sylvester Stallone's director's cut of Rambo is the superior edit. It fleshes out the characters more effectively, and the film as a whole feels more cohesive and complete. For my full analysis of the extended cut, see http://www.listal.com/viewentry/944709