Troubled Vietnam War veteran John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) lives a reclusive life in rural Thailand when he is approached by a group of Christian missionaries. They want passage up-river to Myanmar, where they intend to provide medical assistance and prayer for the local Karen community. After reluctantly escorting them to the border, Rambo is forced to return with a group of paid mercenaries when the missionaries are captured by the Myanmarese army.
When it was released in 2008, Rambo felt like a work of blunt opportunism. Sylvester Stallone had recently directed and starred in the excellent franchise revival Rocky Balboa, and with that film scoring with both audiences and critics it likely seemed a commercially savvy move to undertake the same revival with Stallone’s other popular franchise. As John Rambo he had played arguably the most iconic entertainment figure of 1980s America, as the character transformed over three films from embittered Vietnam veteran in Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood to jingoistic super-man in Peter MacDonald’s Rambo III. While admirable effort was made in 2008’s Rambo to bring the character back to ground, he nonetheless was the star of a ridiculously violent and gory exercise in military excess. The visuals of a muscular white American murdering a few hundred Asian men to rescue one vulnerable blonde woman were unsettling, to say the least. To be fair, the racist undertones are alleviated slightly by the film slipping a new people of colour into the mercenary team, but it still lurks suspiciously in the corner.
As for the violence – and it really is remarkably graphic and harrowing stuff – whether or not it feels appropriate likely comes down to how each viewer feels about screen violence in general. Rambo does not engage in the comparatively sanitised violence of earlier films. Bodies are blown to pieces by landmines. Soldiers are literally shredded by heavy machine gun fire. Civilians get beheaded, or have their limbs hacked off on-screen, and in one particularly confronting moment a toddler is ripped from its mother’s arm and forcibly thrown into a burning building. The bodies simply lie where they fall; when other characters stumble upon them days later they are bloating in the humidity and are swarming with flies. Rambo alone kills more than 250 enemy soldiers during this film, and it’s only a 90-minute film. There is an important question worth raising about screen violence in this sort of war-zone context: is it better to make violent deaths clean and with a minimum of blood, thus avoiding any risk of indulging in ‘grand guignol’ blood and gore, or is it better to bluntly demonstrate that violence is messy and horrible? To be honest, Rambo treads an uneasy line between realism and exploitation that makes such a debate all the more relevant towards it.
Certainly the violence matches the film’s exceptionally bleak outlook. A group of missionaries want to help persecuted Christians in a pacifist manner. The appalling injustices being inflicted on these Karen rebels simply does not allow for a pacifist response. Rambo insists before dropping the missionaries off to their fate that their peaceful ways won’t save anything. By the film’s conclusion, with an exhausted and emotionally shattered Rambo standing among literally hundreds of bodies, it is hard to justify that the violent approach worked much better. This is a film hell-bent on demonstrating that ‘war is hell’.
Stallone delivers a strong performance; the best he’s provided the character since the 1982 original. There is not an interaction with the USA for once. The missionaries may be American, but the patriotic underpinnings of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III are pleasantly absent. This time around Rambo goes to war not to rebel against the USA or to further its interests, but because it is simply the right thing to do. It is the best of the First Blood sequels – tightly stripped down and intense – although it’s worth nothing the significant drop-off between the original and the subsequent three.