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Friday, May 23, 2008


Back for another season in hell

At the time, it seemed like the "Rambo" series epitomized everything that was wrong about the '80s. Star Sylvester Stallone, with his oiled-up, inhumanly pumped-up physique, was the poster-boy for the first generation to embrace steroid abuse. The revenge fantasies he was peddling — re-fighting the Vietnam War, confronting the Russians in Afghanistan — neatly intersected with the feel-good military "victories" engineered by the Reagan administration: invading the small island-nation of Grenada, and bombing the children of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Rambo Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Never say never again: Sylvester Stallone in "Rambo"

Director: Sylvester Stallone
Running time: 90 minutes
Language: English
Opens May 24, 2008
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Just as the Reagan White House erased the sting of the Vietnam defeat from the public memory by using baby-step operations against lightweight opponents, so did "Rambo" erase the shame from movie screens. After years of self-flagellating films on Vietnam like "The Deer Hunter," "Apocalypse Now," and "The Boys In Company C," "Rambo" promised — with near-fascist simplicity — victory through strength.

Some 20 years on from "Rambo III," the series returns with the generically named "Rambo." Killing commies went out with the Cold War, and the prospect of U.S. military triumphalism went out with Donald Rumsfeld's resignation. So the new "Rambo" begs the question: Is there any reason for John Rambo to return to our screens, other than a nice, fat paycheck for Stallone?

The answer, surprisingly, is yes. (And regular readers may be wondering whether I fell down and hit my head this week.) Location is everything, as they say, and notably, Stallone — who also wrote and directed the new film — did not set his film in Iraq, where victory through strength seems ever more remote. Instead, Stallone called the U.N. — I'm not making this up — and asked whether there wasn't some conflict that needed more attention, some evil regime that deserved to be Rambo-ed?

The answer he got was Burma (let's not indulge its military rulers by calling it Myanmar). In researching the 60-year ongoing conflict between the government and the Karen minority rebels, Stallone got well and truly pissed. Yes, "Rambo" is still pure action-entertainment, but Stallone is also documenting how horrific it gets when an army turns against its own people. (A cynic might ask, where was he when this was happening all over Central America in the '80s?)

The film opens with a montage of atrocities perpetrated by the Burmese military, including the notorious shooting and beating of Buddhist monks in last year's antigovernment demonstrations. The fictional story starts with soldiers brutally raiding a Karen village, torching buildings, raping women, killing for sport, and forcibly recruiting young boys as soldiers. All this is well-documented reality (see the recent documentary "Burma: Behind The Pagodas," still open).

Cut to a Thai village on the Burmese border, where former soldier John Rambo (Stallone) now lives a solitary existence as a river-boat pilot. He's approached by a group of American missionaries, who want to travel up-river to illegally enter Burma and deliver medical aid to refugees. No go, too dangerous, says the taciturn Rambo, but Sarah (Julie Benz) the only woman among the missionaries, finally guilt-trips Rambo into helping. "Trying to save a life isn't wasting your life, is it?"

"We're here to stop the killing," says the missionaries' leader, Michael (Paul Schulze), but the viewer can only think, good luck to you, pal, not in a "Rambo" movie! Sure enough, the liberal do-gooders get captured while aiding the refugees, and the soldiers take great pleasure in tormenting them (including, in one of many nauseating scenes, feeding one of them to the pigs).

The missionaries' church hires a small group of mercenaries to extract them, and Rambo is again asked to take them up-river. This time he follows them to the Burmese military base, where they attempt a daring nighttime raid to free the Westerners. This sequence — in which six men flit from building to building at night, looking for the captives while various drunken soldiers stumble by — is incredibly tense and well-shot. Stallone proves himself as a director here, taking what could have been a quite rote situation and squeezing every last drop of fear and adrenalin out of it.

What follows is a flight back to the river, pursuit by the Burmese Army, and a final, apocalyptic shootout of the kind you would expect from a "Rambo" movie, with heavy-caliber machineguns, rocket launchers, and sniper rifles that take a man's head clear off. A note on that: the violence level this time is upped considerably, with heads on stakes, shredded limbs, and even a throat ripped-out. This is definitely a post- "Saving Private Ryan" Rambo, with that film's level of grimly realistic chaos and carnage. This critic, however, still isn't sure realism and "Rambo" are a good fit.

Philosophically, the new film is classic "Rambo." The pacifist, liberal missionary leader must learn to kill with his bare hands before the film is over, reminding one of that old canard, "a conservative is a liberal who got mugged." Your world view is for sure part and parcel of your experiences, though, and for John Rambo, "when you're pushed, killing is as easy as breathing."

The film closes with a long shot of John Rambo returning, at last, to his parents' ranch in the U.S. This might signal the man's peace with himself, and the end of the series, but it may be read as a veiled message regarding the Iraq quagmire, saying bring the troops home. A "Rambo" flick with an arty, ambiguous ending . . . I'm still not sure I saw the right film.

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