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Dustin Putman

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Rambo  (2008)
1 Stars
Directed by Sylvester Stallone
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Paul Schulze, Matthew Marsden, Graham McTavish, Tim Kang, Rey Gallegos, Jake La Botz, Maung Maung Khin, Ken Howard
2008 – 93 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong violence, sexual content, grisly images and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 24, 2008.
Sylvester Stallone—writer, director, actor—appears to have begun an unlikely new comeback stage in his career by catching up with his most iconic past characters. For 2006's "Rocky Balboa," he treated the continuing saga of the aging title boxer with intelligence and realism, and actually won a fair amount of positive notices for it. With the oddly-named "Rambo," the fourth entry in the series (and the first in twenty years), Stallone makes no such claims. Sure, the filmmaker in him would like to think that he is shedding serious light on the sixty-year Civil War conflict in Burma, but really, it is only used as a tactless backdrop for an assaulting orgy of graphic violence and gory bloodshed the likes of which have never been seen before in an R-rated motion picture. 2004's "Dawn of the Dead?" 2004's "Saw?" 2006's "Hostel?" 2006's "The Hills Have Eyes?" Forget it. All of the above are akin to a luxurious walk on the beach followed by a tranquil candlelit dinner in comparison to the carnage "Rambo" throws at viewers.

A Vietnam War vet who hasn't returned to U.S. soil in twenty-five years, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) now leads a solitary life as a boatman in Thailand. Shortly after dropping off idealistic aid worker Sarah (Julie Benz) and the rest of her team to the Thai-Burma border, he is visited by a group of mercenaries who claim they never returned from their trip. A danger-infused rescue mission follows, and it isn't long before Rambo has returned to his old ways, specializing in guerilla warfare and survivalist instincts at any cost.

One would be hard-pressed to imagine a conventional narrative being any thinner than the one in "Rambo." The dialogue—what there is of it—gets bad laughs as the film initially preaches in faux-philosophical terms about how violence doesn't solve anything and how dying while making a difference is better than living while doing nothing. In a blink, the film turns a blind eye on its messages in exchange for a nonstop parade of exploding bodies, decapitations, vivisections, and any number of other atrocities done to men, women and children in explicit detail.

Writer-director Sylvester Stallone has made the point that this onslaught of gruesomeness was necessary in order to accurately portray what goes on in Burma to this day. All fine and well, except that the violence is exploitative and served up as nothing more than something for the audience to cheer about while munching on popcorn and nachos. The movie's narrow-minded answer to solving the conflict is to kill every "bad guy" in sight, but what then? By the time the spilled guts stop falling and the limbs finish flying, the situation in the third-world country is no better than it was and the only people Rambo has saved are the Caucasian Americans.

The acting matches the one-dimensional depth of the characters. There is no denying that Sylvester Stallone looks great for a 61-year-old man—he is fit, muscular and physically vibrant—but his performance consists of macho poses, grunts, and a lot of shots of him running his hands through his hair. As the imperiled and in-over-her-head Sarah, Julie Benz (1999's "Jawbreaker") is pretty awful, as is Paul Schulze (2007's "Zodiac") as her Christian-spouting beau Michael. The rest of the cast fails to make any impression at all.

There will be a specialized audience that will eat up "Rambo," hooting and hollering every time a helpless victim is massacred and the evildoers ultimately get their comeuppance, not giving a moment's thought to the hypocrisy and cynical ugliness which it represents. For the rest of us, the film is hollow, hopeless, horridly written and wholly unpleasant. The mayhem on display is competently shot and effective in the way that it favors practical effects over today's preference for lazy CGI, but to what end? When it's over, your fist closes on thin air, and all that is left are memories of ghastly images at the service of moronic, borderline-irresponsible so-called commercial entertainment.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman