The Stallone Diary: One man’s attempt to come to grips with one of the greatest filmmakers of our age, Sylvester Stallone. Today’s excerpt, Rambo, the fourth film to feature Stallone as the titular Vietnam vet.
“You’re either livin’ for nothin’ or dyin’ for somethin’ ”
-John J. Rambo, Rambo
In Rambo, the most recent of the retitled First Blood films, John Rambo answers the problem of Myanmar with his arrows, guns, and HGH-addled paws. The biggest shame in this film? Richard Crenna isn’t around to tell the bad guys that they’ll need a good supply of body bags. It’s all the dubious politics, blood splatter, and half-formed thoughts you’d expect from a First Blood picture.
The film opens with Rambo living in Thailand as a snake wrangler and boatman. One day he’s approached by Christian …
No, wait, the film really begins with a quick explanation of Myanmar (though it’s still called Burma in the film) and a scene depicting nameless Burmese soldiers taking prisoner out for exercise … the kind that involves making them run through minefields. The scene might have some impact in a film not titled or featuring Rambo.
So these Christian Missionaries hope to bring medicine and Jesus to the downtrodden people oppressed by utterly corrupt Burmese soldiers. Rambo initially refuses until a Missionary with legs, blond hair, and girlparts convinces him to do something. He takes them up river and almost avoids being noticed by pirates. When the boat is raided, Rambo takes the marauders out with a flash of ultraviolence which scares the living Christ out of the Missionaries. Mike, the leader of the pack, wants to go back, but Girl Missionary convinces all to move on.
Now, a word here about the Girl Missionary: She’s played by Julie Benz. You might remember her from shows like Angel, Deadwood, and Dexter where she plays roughed up women. Although she’s gotten away from those parts in recent years, it was definitely her bread and butter at the time Stallone cast her. Before anything has happened in the film, she already looks like, in the words of Martin Lawrence, shit got real. She does have a knack for playing utterly wounded, though. And it’s her wounded charm that makes Rambo do any of the violence that follows. So bully for her, I guess.
Rambo returns to his river hut while the Missionaries treat disease and discomfort when BOOM, the totally evilz Burmese soldiers show up and bring death and destruction and they shoot the village dogs. They take the white people as prisoners and draft the local boys into their army of darkness.
Rambo is then awakened from a dream about his previous films by the Missionaries’, um, boss? He asks Rambo to take some Mercenaries up river to rescue the first group. Rambo’s response: he forges a machete.
Let me repeat that. He FORGES a machete.
Actually, it looks more like one of those swords the Orcs make in the first Lord of the Rings movie. Come to think of it, Stallone’s Human Growth Hormone treatments make him look kind of like one of the Uruk-Hai. Hmm …
Anyway, the Mercenaries and Rambo head into the jungle and do some mad Metal Gear infiltration of the Burmese battalion camp while the soldiers are too busy raping local girls to notice. Oh! Also, the nameless Burmese general is a total pedophile. No, really! A boy comes to his hut and he gives him that “it’s that time again” caress. So not only is he a dude who kills fifteen hundred people before breakfast, not only are we told he cooks up more Crystal Meth than Riverside County, CA, but he’s also a totally pedophile. EVILZ!
So the Mercenaries and Rambo get some of the Missionaries out, and start running back to Rambo’s boat. When daylight comes, the Evilz Burmese get the scent (with the cutest trained attack dogs, no less) and chase after them. Rambo’s response: he puts a claymore under an old WWII-era British bomb and blows up a sizable part of the jungle along with some of the Evilz army dudes.
What follows can only be called an orgy of broken bodies. Rambo beheads a guy on one of those guncars and uses the high power gun the best way Rambo can: turning fools into human spaghetti. This cues the mercenaries and the local rebel faction to declare all out war on the Burmese soldiers in a twenty minute ballet of flying body parts, boats on fire, and trees getting Stallpwned.
This is the most satisfying part of the film as it lets all the violence you want come to the fore. Heads explode, dudes get punked, and the nameless Burmese general gets introduced to his intestines.
And then, somehow, Rambo decides to go find his family. He returns to the U.S, manages not to run into Brian Dennehy, and finds his family’s horse ranch(!) Sadly, we don’t get a cameo from brother Frank, which would’ve made this one of the best First Blood movies ever. Also, no horses explode as Rambo’s long walk fills the time of the end credits.
Amazingly, Stallone made a film in which there is only ONE MONTAGE. Once a staple of his work, I was devastated to see him not use his most powerful cinematic weapon against the evilz Burmese and the audience. Worse yet, the montage is his dream of the previous Rambo movies! He doesn’t train, compress time, or even show us Rambo’s journey home through the technique that got him through Staying Alive. I wept for the loss.
Instead, he gives us carnage on a scale rarely seen in action movies of late. When the sniper Rambo befriends gets a nice head-shot, the target’s head EXPLODES! Stallone is not shy about the violence, even when we’re supposed to take it seriously, as this still from the weird opening demonstrates:
The whole thing leaves you with a giddy feeling that you used to get from movies before they became too po-faced to be believed. Yeah, Stallone means for this movie to be gripping, but his inner action hero needed to come out and play again. The tension between those two impulses is the sweetest of filmic wines.
The only sadness is that Stallone’s planned Rambo V will never happen. Here’s the premise: “Rambo versus werewolves.”