Writers: Art Monterastelli & Sylvester Stallone
Cast: Sylvester Stallone (John Rambo), Julie Benz (Sarah Miller), Paul Schulze (Michael Burnett), Matthew Marsden ("School Boy"), Graham McTavish (Lewis), Tim Kang (En-joo), Rey Gallegos (Diaz), Jake La Botz (Reese), Maung Maung Khin (Major Pa Tee Tint), Ken Howard (Reverend Arthur Marsh) & Dennis Kipronoh Sang (Volunteer)
On a high after his sixth Rocky film made a surprise splash at the box-office and garnered positive reviews, writer-actor-director Sylvester Stallone turned his attention to his other iconic character: Vietnam veteran John Rambo. 26 years after the first instalment ('82s First Blood) and 20 years after the last ('88s Rambo III), audiences have moved on from the musclemen who filled cinema during '80s Reaganism, and Stallone's now in his 60s. The march of age and time didn't stop Rocky Balboa ('06) finding an appreciative audience, but Rocky was always a more textured "underdog" character than the violent, bandana-wearing, excess of Rambo...
The plot is predictably very simple: John Rambo (Stallone) is living in Thailand, catching poisonous snakes for local showmen, when he's asked by Christian missionary Michael Burnett (Paul Schulze) to lead his group into Burma up the Salween River, so they can get vital medicines to people terrorized by the Myanmar Armed Forces. Rambo declines to help, until beautiful missionary Sarah Miller (Julie Benz) appeals to his sense of decency -- and flutters her eyelashes. Inevitably, after being dropped off up river, the clueless missionaries are captured days later, so Rambo agrees to deliver a group of armed mercenaries into the Burmese jungle on a rescue mission...
Cue a gratuitous amount of violence; as bad guys are mown down by machine guns, limbs are dismembered, stomachs disembowelled, throats ripped out, a WWII bomb decimates a large expanse of jungle, and heads pop like water melons dropped onto concrete. For gorehounds, there's enough here to get your bloodthirsty juices flowing, but little else to sustain interest beyond the visceral onslaught. But then again, what do you expect from a Rambo movie -- where intentions of a psychological study, based on David Morrell's 1976 book First Blood, quickly gave way to blood n' guts sequels in the '80s?
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Rambo returns to the continent that messed with its hero's mind during the Vietnam War, to show us the atrocities of the Burmese government are every inch as nightmarish -- and not distanced by decades of time. Indeed, the film even opens with news footage of people caught up in the world's longest-running civil war -- between the tyrannical government and the Karen rebels who hope for democracy.
You can argue the film's trying to justify itself, as the "gratuitous" nature of Rambo's deeds are given context in this grainy video-footage opening, but is it really just granting itself an excuse for the brutality? I'm not sure, but I do know the Karen rebels have taken Rambo's "live for nothing, or die for something" line as a motto, claiming Stallone's film gave them fresh resolve to defeat their oppressors -- so that's surely a good thing?
Beyond the queasy violence and political backdrop, Rambo is devoid of subtleties and a diverting storyline. Stallone's far from an Adonis these days, but his granite-like face, bulldozer body and dour attitude remains the same. He may be entering his sixth decade on this earth, but you still wouldn't want to pick a fight with "old man" Sly. Interestingly, Stallone keeps his body under wraps (not an option for Rocky's boxing scenes), so you can still imagine there's a washboard abdomen lurking under his dirty green shirt. It's just a shame Rambo tends to rely on massive guns to dispense bloody vengeance in this fourth film, as his physicality is reduced to a dash through a jungle (a blast-wave licking at his ankles) and a few moments where he rises up behind Burmese baddies, like H.R Geiger's Alien eyeing up a snack.
The supporting cast all have thankless roles, but do what they can. Paul Schulze plays pacifist Michael, whose "character development" ends with him bashing a man's skull in with a rock (amoral message; check), Matthew Marsden (former soap star, now a regular in cheesy flicks like Anacondas) plays nice-guy mercenary "School Boy", Graham McTavish plays dislikeable cockney leader Lewis, the recipient of bad karma for pissing off Rambo, and Julie Benz (Buffy/Dexter) is "love-interest" Sarah, a blonde who views Rambo in the same way Fay Wray saw Kong. I half-suspect they'd drug Rambo and ship him from his jungle abode, to put him on display in New York..
Overall, Rambo is trashy nonsense of the highest order. It exists purely to make people gawp at the blood-spattered visuals and offers nostalgia for fans of '80s action cinema, and the Rambo franchise in particular. The story is all set-up and climax, with zero character development or surprises, while the 93 minutes drag in-between the violence. It's grizzly, outrageous, dumb, blunt, distasteful and violent. But that's what the target audience expect, and exactly what Stallone delivers.
Budget: $50 million