In a literal world, Rambo would be subtitled “1,001 Ways to Rip Apart the Human Body”. During the course of this relentlessly gruesome fourth sequel in the Rambo series heads explode, limbs go hurtling in all directions, bodies erupt into clouds of blood, and there is even a sequence where a man’s intestines are ripped out of his stomach and go whipping around him as he rolls down a hillside (it’s hard to stand up when your innards are falling out). Oh and corpses, lots and lots of corpses, in various states of bloat and decay. You have to hand it to scribe, star, and director Sylvester Stallone: he sure knows how to come up with creative ways to blow people up. If carnage is your thing and you care not a whit for “plot”, “acting”, or “craft”, then by all means go see this film. But if a pleasurable movie experience for you includes character development, a believable storyline, and interesting ideas then, for God’s sake stay away. But you knew that already.
When we last left our favorite brooding death-machine, he was fighting in Afghanistan and excoriating enemy du jour of the 80’s, the Soviets. When Rambo begins, John Rambo has abandoned the killing life in favor of an idyllic existence in northern Thailand, piloting a longboat on the Salween River and catching fish with a bow and arrow – Thoreau would be all over this shit, especially when Rambo welds the propeller for his boat himself. His retirement is interrupted when a group of white-bread corn-fed Christians from Colorado show up beseeching him to sail them upriver to war-torn Burma. Needless to say, these Americans have no clue about what they’re getting into. The leader of this group, Michael (Paul Schulze), the dweebiest dweeb who ever dweebed, is such a stereotypical Ugly American that his noble intentions – to bring western medicine and the word of God to the Burmese – are overshadowed by his arrogant stupidity. We hate him on sight for no reason other than he doesn’t possess the same jaded fuck-it-all attitude as Rambo. Michael’s willowy blonde gal pal Sarah, (Julie Benz), whose presence is this movie seems to be only to charm Rambo with doe-eyed looks and scream like a baby when heads start flying, convinces him to do as they wish with hallmark statements like “Saving a life is worth your life, isn’t it?” Despite his reluctance, Rambo concedes and delivers the naïve God squad members to a Burmese village, but not before blowing the heads off some river pirates on the way there. This is a Rambo film, after all.
As expected, things are hunky dory for about 5 minutes before the military shows up and starts slaughtering people, in an extended cinematic succession of gory and gorier deaths. The Christians are taken prisoner and their pastor shows up at Rambo’s Thailand shack in a suit and tie asking him to accompany the mercenaries he has hired into Burma and rescue his flock. And then… the rest of the movie happens. I feel no need to describe it, as the plot is so aggressively A-B-C that by the end I was still waiting for something to happen. Stallone sneers rather than acts, and the dialogue is so skeletal (“Fuck the world.”) that his sneering speaks volumes in comparison. All the characters in Rambo aside from the titular protagonist are as wooden as Michael is brash and consistently underestimate Rambo for no real reason (his muscles are huge and he captures deadly snakes for a living), making it easy for him to come off as the greatest combat soldier ever. Any glimmers of individuality in persons other than Rambo are quickly squelched and otherwise decent set ups never deliver: A Burmese military commander promises to be a grand antagonist in the mold of Herman Goering, but the only lasting impression of his inherent rottenness is the cigarette hanging from his mouth. Only Graham McTavish as a dickish mercenary is any fun to watch.
By the end of the film, it is assumed that John Rambo has undergone some sort of great change of heart but what that shift in perspective might be is never made clear. At one point, Rambo asserts his credo, growling, “Die for something, or live for nothing” and accentuating each word as though the sentence were the most important ever uttered, however what Rambo believes in dying for other than a chance to kill generic bad guys is left ambiguous. This is a serious flaw in a film that purports to examine the troubled soul of a Vietnam vet. The only sequence is the film that even begins to explore his apparent inner torture is a montage of scenes from the previous films in the Rambo series, a lazy move and one that doesn’t illuminate anything if you aren’t familiar with the other movies.
Unlike Stallone’s last outing, Rocky Balboa, which earnestly tried to give depth and meaning to another iconic Stallone character, there is no profundity here though parts of the film indicate that there was supposed to be. The newsreel that opens the film tells the audience everything they need to know about the Burmese civil war (war is bad, doncha know) and all details are left to the imagination and Wikipedia. But all of this is fine, as who goes to see a Rambo film for its political subtleties? Except for Ronald Reagan, I mean. To Rambo’s credit, the film is not another reiteration of the white man saving the brown people from themselves, as it easily could have been. Rather, it is the worldly white man saving the dumbass white people from themselves, which is actually pretty cool when you think about it. However, don’t worry about thinking while watching this movie. Just focus on the gore. And the blood. And the exploding heads. And that part with the intestines. Anything else would be giving this film too much of your precious brain space.