Having spent 20 years as a fisherman, John Rambo (Stallone) returns to action when a group of relief workers he led into war-stricken Burma are captured by vicious militia. And this time he’s not alone...
John Rambo got tamed. In the two-decade hiatus that separates his last outing from this month’s simply titled Rambo (formerly John Rambo, Rambo IV, Rambo IV: In The Serpent’s Eye), the Vietnam vet has taken up fishing, packed on a few pounds and nailed a faux-peaceful look to his strangely unwrinkled features. But Sylvester Stallone wants us to believe that somewhere underneath his massive frame still lies a killing machine. Tough job, since he slumbers through his own movie as a supporting character, rather than the one-man army who almost single-handedly created the genre that defined the ’80s.
We get a script glued together from bits and pieces of Rambo: First Blood Part II (the jungle setting) and Rambo III (the rescue mission) that barely allows the ultimate soldier to wrap his meaty fists around any sort of action. After years living peacefully in Thailand, Rambo reluctantly agrees to take a group of Christian relief workers into war-torn Burma. “We can make a difference,” the blonde and frail Sarah (Julie Benz) tells her sceptical guide, who replies, repeatedly: “Go home.” She should have listened. As her group arrives at a Generic Third World Village, they are brutally attacked, the villagers are slaughtered and the survivors (why there are any is a mystery) taken prisoner. Rambo gets the news, sighs and goes to the rescue.
Ham-fisted dialogue aside, we expect Rambo to at least deliver in the action stakes. And deliver it does, but the main man is left on the sidelines: Rambo leads a band of mercenaries to the rescue against an army of faceless bad guys. It’s these taggers-along who do the lion’s share of the heavy lifting - or at least heavy shooting.
Meanwhile, the baddies are developed not even a little. We have no idea why these men are holding hostages in the middle of the jungle, nor are we given any clue as to how, if at all, it relates to the ongoing civil war there. But they sure are bad: soldiers shoot at prisoners as they run through a minefield; rape and decapitation are common practice. As counter-balance - and to satisfy the audience’s blood lust, perhaps - Rambo goes heavy on the gore. Very heavy. When the action kicks in, torn limbs and exploding heads became part of the scenery in a never-ending climax designed for the Xbox generation (see, for example, Rambo turning a soldier into meatloaf using heavy artillery in one unusually inspired scene).
The real problem with Rambo is the lack of an anchor. The late Richard Crenna was perfectly cast as the franchise’s Col. Trautman (and, for that matter, in Hot Shots! Part Deux…) because he knew how to steer Rambo in the right direction. The character is sorely missed here, as Sly himself acknowledges by giving Rambo a dream sequence where Trautman tells him to stop denying who he really is: a killer.
The other problem is Rocky Balboa. With the triumph of his sad-and-tender winner from last year, Sly thought he could win the ’80s kids all over again through sheer nostalgia. But Rambo is no Rocky. He doesn’t have a soft side; he needs to mope a little but then step straight into the action, period. Pushing 62, the actor/director was in the perfect position to tell the tale of the boxer in need of one last round - a tale that mirrored his own career - but here he can simply no longer deliver the kind of stunts expected from an action movie. The charisma-deficient mercenaries (one called “School Boy”? C’mon!) who tag along are a cheap excuse to provide thrills, leaving the audience with nothing to cheer but the all-too fleeting Rambo moments: an exploding arrow here, total carnage there. The brief running time - a bit under one-and-a-half hours - makes the whole experience bearable, but overall Rambo feels like the trailer for an adventure that never really ignites.
Rambo could have been a satisfying romp - wherein bad dialogue and cardboard characters can be forgiven - but for the sin of making the main man step to the sidelines in favour of charisma-free fillers. Bad move, Sly...