Should I Watch..? 'Rambo' (2008)
What's the big deal?
Rambo is an action war film released in 2008 and is the fourth film to feature the eponymous character created by David Morrell. The film follows the disturbed Vietnam veteran called into action once again to rescue Christian missionaries kidnapped by militia in war-torn Burma. Directed and co-written by star Sylvester Stallone, the film also stars Julie Benz, Paul Schulze, Matthew Marsden and Graham McTavish. The film is the first in the series not to feature Richard Crenna as Colonel Trautman - the film is dedicated to Crenna who died in 2003. Released to a mixed reception from critics, the film went on to earn more than $113 million worldwide. Despite being possibly lined up as the last film in the series, this was followed by a sequel in 2019 - Rambo: Last Blood.
What's it about?
During the Saffron Revolution in Burma, the army is engaged in a campaign of terror against rural villages by ruthlessly killing civilians and abducting women to be used as sex slaves. Among the troops, Major Pa Tee Tint has a reputation for brutality and cruelty. Meanwhile, in nearby Thailand, John Rambo is living off the grid and earning a meagre living as a snake catcher and boat captain. Still living with his inner demons twenty years after his last foray into action in Afghanistan, Rambo is contacted by a group of Christian missionaries who wish to hire him to take them into Burma. Reluctantly, Rambo agrees and ferries them up the Salween river on his boat.
After forced into killing some pirates on the journey, Rambo is abandoned by the missionaries who are aghast at his actions. After telling Rambo to return back to Thailand, the missionaries make their way to a nearby village which is then attacked by Tint's forces. With the villagers slaughtered, Tint takes the missionaries as hostages. But Rambo didn't return to Thailand as asked and unfortunately, he witnessed the atrocities committed by Tint's troops. Looks like Rambo's about to go to war once again...
Maung Maung Khin
Major Pa Tee Tint
Art Monterastelli & Sylvester Stallone*
Release Date (UK)
22nd February, 2008
Action, Thriller, War
What's to like?
I have long since given up hope that the series would find its way back to the style and tone of First Blood which introduced a very different Rambo to the one we know today. The shift from traumatised veteran to unstoppable war machine began with the first sequel in 1985 and this film continues that trend. Stallone has crafted the character into a literal one-man army, able to take on all comers with every conceivable weapon without so much as breaking a sweat. Sure, he gets covered in mud and blood (some of it is even his own) but there is something resolutely primeval about Rambo. His lack of character is compensated by his own myth, carefully crafted by those all-action Rambo movies of the mid-to-late Eighties.Any fan of those will be delighted to see the old boy back once again.
I must credit the attempts to bring Rambo back to relevancy again - the political situation in Myanmar at the time felt under-reported and in a strange way, the film tries its best to shed light on the situation. Having said that, there is little time for political discourse once the violence arrives because when it does, it simply doesn't stop. Through a non-stop hail of gunfire and exploding blood packs, the film makes no attempt to shield us from the sheer horror of war as countless baddies are riddled with an almost comical number of bullets. In many ways, the film harks back to the on-rails nature of Rambo III which saw an equally stupid level of violence but little in the way of innovation. This fourth film is as old-school as they come and proud of it.
- Unsurprisingly, the film was banned in Myanmar where bootleg copies of the film are said to be highly sought after. Burmese freedom fighters have even adopted some of the film's dialogue as a rallying cry which Stallone claims is one of the proudest things he's accomplished in movies.
- Maung Maung Khin, who played the ruthless army officer Tint, actually fought for the Karen rebels in real life. He was afraid of reprisals against his family if he took the role on, including imprisonment and murder. He only accepted the role because we wanted to bring attention to the conflict.
- The film marks the first time in the series that Rambo is not seen shirtless. This was not due to the fact that Stallone was 61 at the time of shooting but because he had extensive tattoo work across his shoulders which wasn't keeping in character. It's also the first Rambo film not to feature a helicopter.
What's not to like?
Depressingly, it would appear that Stallone hadn't learnt any lessons since the last time we saw Rambo. The character is as monotone and one-dimensional as ever, his lack of speech merely indicative of internal trauma. The scared and desperate survivor we saw in First Blood is long gone, replaced by a boring action hero who never seems in any actual danger at all because you never believe he could be harmed. Unless you get your kicks by watching scenes of bloody slaughter, Rambo is an utterly joyless experience. It all seems so pointless and nihilistic and you never get a feeling of excitement from it, just relief that it's over when it finally finishes. However well done the battles are, they simply aren't exhilarating or imaginative in any way - most of the time, Stallone simply guns down baddies running toward him (through a minefield sometimes as well!) from the back of a truck with a massive machine gun with convenient amounts of ammo.
With little actual discussion of the conflict in Burma, the film's attempts to shine a light on the conflict fall well short. If anything, it simply feels like a setting that is likely to upset the least amount of people. The plot also feels underwritten with a running time barely over an hour and a half while the supporting cast all seem like simpering wusses or indistinguishable baddies. Khin, as the lead villain and in his acting debut, delivers a menacing performance but you know the writing's on the wall if he were ever to face Stallone in a fight. I just wanted the film to engage with me instead of just delivering ceaseless violence. Sure, it looks like hell in the field but I can't think why anyone other than Rambo would want to be there. I certainly don't.
Should I watch it?
It might have lost some of its jingoism but Rambo is a straight-up action film that accurately depicts a brutal and bloody conflict in a jungle environment. And if that's all you're after then this grim exercise in cinematic violence will tick all your boxes. But personally, I wanted more from this - namely some character development, an engaging story and a sense that this film wasn't a desperate attempt by Stallone at reviving one of his most popular characters. This is no Rocky Balboa, not by a long shot.
Great For: anyone who thinks a gun can solve any problem, fans of the Rambo sequels, Stallone's attempts at denying the ageing process, gore hounds
Not So Great For: Christians, the squeamish, the Burmese authorities
What else should I watch?
The Rambo series has become a byword for over-the-top, ridiculous levels of violence featuring Stallone's other favourite character in between reprising Rocky for endless sequels. They're OK if you like that sort of thing but for me, the character held so much more promise in the first film. First Blood sees a traumatised Rambo return from Vietnam and fall foul of the law who simply don't understand what Rambo is or how dangerous he can be. The film becomes a tense and thrilling chase movie as the police hunt for Rambo on what is effectively his home turf, the forests of Washington state. It's so much more exciting and gripping than any of the sequels which turn the Rambo character into just another action film stereotype.
Of course, not all action films are focused on just delivering the bangs for your bucks. Some of them offer inventive story-telling and cutting edge effect like the still fantastic Terminator 2: Judgment Day, others give their lead character plenty of charm and turn him into a likeable everyman facing overwhelming odds (Die Hard) or how about a digital playground showing us things we've never seen before in The Matrix? Even if you like your action movies as crazy as this, the insane Crank provides plenty of videogame-style mayhem to enjoy as Jason Statham smacks several colours of crap out of Los Angeles. And if you're after a more cerebral action film from the Eighties then I'd plump for RoboCop which saw the titular cyborg explode onto screens in a film that is a bit more than a futuristic shooter.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox