January 28, 2008

There Will Be (Lots of) Blood

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Rambo is a movie with an identity crisis. It strives to be more than a mindless action flick, but can’t escape the sizable portion of the script that is devoted to copious violence. However, despite some shortcomings, the film is enjoyable so long as you don’t expect too much from it.

Directed by Sly Stallone himself, Rambo tries valiantly to be a character-driven tale of redemption. To achieve this end, Stallone adds some less-than-subtle foils to the story in an attempt to flesh out the humanity of Rambo, if indeed there is any left.

The plot takes off when Jonathan James Rambo is approached by a church group seeking transport into war-torn Burma on a relief mission (that’s right, a church group: a few doctors, a preacher, a nurse and no weapons). Rambo agrees to help, and on the ensuing boat ride engages in some heavy philosophical debate. In this section of the film, issues are raised that seem inconsistent with your typical Rambo movie as the passengers preach to John about the sanctity and value of all human life, redemption and family.

Unfortunately, any attempt at character development goes out the window when the boat is captured, and Rambo goes off the deep end, blowing away six pirates in a manner of seconds. The church group is appalled; Rambo looks bored.
Flash-forward and the passengers are held captive by Burmese soldiers with no hope of escape in what I assume is a fairly accurate (and appalling) depiction of a third- world guerilla camp. But have no fear: here comes Rambo to the rescue, accompanied by a scrappy band of mercenaries and the requisite bad-ass British black-ops soldier.

The action cranks up about seventeen notches; Rambo grabs a machine gun turret and kills probably 85 Burmese soldiers. It’s around this point that the movie forgets its purpose. What could have been a very profound sequence turns into a blood-letting in which one of the church guys even bashes a soldier’s face in with a rock — an act totally contrary to his previous “all life is sacred” beliefs. This bedlam, coupled with the epic and climactic music unfortunately wraps up the movie with the message that violence is the only way to change anything. It feels like a mistake in editing, because Stallone seemed to really want to convey the exact opposite.

Even though Rambo is the fourth installment in the franchise, it manages to stand independently, so a viewer need not have seen the first three movies to follow the plot. This is both a good and a bad decision on Stallone’s part. For one, it means that Rambo is accessible to everyone, not just those who were around to see the character wreak havoc on the big screen back in the 1980s.

On the other hand, it also means that that the film lacks any of the emotional depth that one would expect from the final chapter to such a famous series. John Rambo lumbers through the film with a grimace and no sense of the past as seen in previous Rambo movies (with the exception of a brief flashback montage). The viewer is left to wonder why the movie was a sequel and not just a stand-alone action story with a different title character. This autonomy drags the film even more into the dregs of mindless action, and generates yet more disappointment. Rambo seems so close to proving its points, but then gets lost in the details.

To judge Rambo solely based on what it could have been is to do it great disservice. Stallone begins to explore some very deep concepts, from the value of human life to the difference one (non-Rambo) person can make in the world, but then doesn’t follow through. The movie desperately wants to be meaningful, but misses the mark because it skips steps along the way. Development lurches from one scene to the next, with the gaps filled by explosions.
What’s left is a disjointed message that can fairly easily be extracted and polished by the viewer. This kernel of meaning will hold different significance to everyone; some will write Rambo off as a bad movie, while others will see it as a springboard to reach deep, philosophical discussions on the car ride home from the theater, and still others will go on about the sheer numbers of heads that explode on-screen.

To this end, the movie offers something (however miniscule) for everyone. Don’t see this movie if you don’t like violence, and don’t see this movie if you have something better to do. If, however, you have an hour and a half to kill (no pun intended), consider spending it with John Rambo.