Sunday, January 27, 2008

Review: Rambo (2008)

We happen to be in the midst of the return of the hardcore action film. Starting with "Crank" in 2006, and moving through last year's "Shoot 'Em Up" (and for that matter, the underrated "Smokin' Aces"), balls-out action has resurfaced, sans the pointless plotting that plagues most action films. Now, don't get me wrong, I enjoy character study and labyrinthe plotting as much as the next guy, but there is a time and a place for those things, and some days, I just want to see Jason Statham throw down without having to think about how his childhood led him to nihilism.

Now, Sylvester Stallone has revived his second franchise in three years (after 2006's "Rocky Balboa") to take American icon John Rambo out for one more go-round. This character has been attacked over the years by a lot of people who consider Rambo the ultimate symbol of testosterone-fueled idiocy. They say that the movies push an ignorant-American image and suggest that only men are capable of affecting change, and only using brutality. To them I say, lighten the hell up and stick to your David Lynch films. The fact is, I'm pretty sure if you asked most people seeing "Rambo" this weekend whether they believed they were expecting an award-winner, they'd just laugh. This series has always been escapist entertainment, and remains so.

Let's get to the movie itself, though. "Rambo" kicks off in present-day Thailand, which Rambo now calls home. He is sought out by a band of Colorado missionaries determined to enter war-torn Burma to provide aid to a small village. He tries to talk them out of this, but is persuaded by Sarah (Julie Benz) to take them in by boat. Despite an attempted pirate raid, they reach their destination, only to be taken hostage by the Burmese Army after the village is destroyed. Rambo then brings a band of mercenaries to the scene to retrieve the hostages. Rambo joins in, and...well, I don't think I have to explain what comes next.

Stallone, who also wrote and directed the film, dives right back into the character. The fact that one of the working titles for this film was "John Rambo" is telling, because all other characters and plotlines are secondary; this is about one man, and one man alone, and we see a bit more of his humanity, if not enough to make him anything other than a killing machine in 50-something year old man form. Like last year's "Live Free or Die Hard", this is a story of a grizzled veteran pulled back into his violent life when reminded that this is the only world he knows.

Some will be turned off by the fact that Stallone laboriously shows us the atrocities being committed in Burma. The aforementioned village sequence is incredibly graphic, and no punch is spared (at one point, a small child is flung into a burning building). There are definitely some sequences in this film that are incredibly hard to watch, but they do the trick, for they make you want to see Rambo take action, and at the end of the day, that's what the audience for this film is paying $9 to see: John Rambo killing communists warlords and their armies. The eventual final payoff will more than sate the appetites of action fans, for once the message is through, and the throat-ripping begins, Stallone seems right at home. The sequence with the Claymore mine alone makes this worth a watch, because, if there is one absolute truth in the world, it's that mushroom clouds are fun; doubly so when they're triggered by a bomb that isn't supposed to create them, by a long shot.

Overall, if you're planning on seeing "Rambo", you know by now what you're paying for. The film is entertaining enough, even though it takes itself far too seriously. Stallone's intentions might be good, and I have a lot of respect for him trying to shed some light on genocide, but this is Rambo. The ending, with gatling guns and knives and a missionary killing a man with a rock, is what the target audience (read: guys my age) is paying for.

Note: The film is not even 90 minutes long. With this, and last week's "Cloverfield", I'm really hoping the era of action films bloated with filler to take up 120 minutes is past. Sometimes, brevity is the higher ground.

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