Burmese days, Rambo-style
Rambo may be ridiculous, but Sly delivers the gratuitously violent goods, writes Donald Clarke
RAMBO Directed by Sylvester Stallone. Starring Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Paul Schulze, Matthew Marsden, Graham McTavish 18 cert, gen release, 91 min
ALMOST exactly 12 months ago, when reviewing the most recent Rocky film, I promised to eat my own head if the picture then provisionally titled Rambo IV: Pearl of the Cobra did not suck. On balance, I reckon I can just about get away without scooping lumps out of my sorry face. Only just, though.
It can’t be denied that the fourth film in the cycle has an appalling integrity to it. Twenty years after the lumbering warrior, by wading in with Afghani mujahideen, helped invent the modern version of militant Islam, he once more straps on his headband and sets out to pacify a troubled corner of Asia. By “pacify” we, of course, mean annihilate, decimate, extinguish and lay waste.
If you want a measured analysis of the troubled state of Burma – yes, Burma – then take yourself round to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house. Rambo films are in the business of orchestrating mayhem in such a way as to make little men feel mighty and, my word, this film observes its remit.
One John Mueller, professor of political science at Ohio State University, has, apparently, calculated that some 236 people are sent to their makers in Rambo. That works out at 3.04 deaths per minute.
Well, I wouldn’t want to question the professor’s methodology, but he appears to be suggesting that, from time to time, a full 20 seconds pass without anybody being butchered. What film was he watching? Stallone kills the fascist soldiers in threes, fours and fives. He drags machetes across their abdomens. He rips the heads from their shoulders with machine gun fire. In one particularly memorable sequence, he quite literally tears out a general’s windpipe with his bare hands. Maybe that should have read 3.04 deaths per second.
Drawing superficial influences from such immeasurably superior films as Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan and Apocalypto, Stallone the director brings a studied messiness to the action that compares favourably with the Reaganite monumentalism of the earlier pictures. As AC/DC might have it, if you want blood, you got it.
So, if the violence is acceptably gratuitous and satisfactorily frequent, why am I not tucking into my head? Oh, it’s just everything else that sucks. The Elderly Action Hero is already a staple of American cinema – “Jeez, I’m getting too old for this,” Detective Harrison Eastwood says as he puffs over the hill for the hundredth time – but Stallone’s immobility, which passed for stoicism in the 1980s, now makes him look faintly catatonic.
And then there’s the grimly perfunctory plot: a gang of humourless Christians hire Rambo, currently retired to a hut in south-east Asia, to transport them up river, where they intend to distribute medicine and salvation. We suspect they may eventually find themselves forced to moderate their pacifism.
Given that Sly has had two full decades to follow-up Rambo III, he could surely have come up with something more imaginative than an unlikely amalgam of Mad Max II and The African Queen. Rocky Balboa demonstrated that Stallone does have the knack for wringing poignancy from the most cliched situations, but this version of Rambo, somewhat sadder, significantly less humorous and immeasurably gruffer, is just too inhuman to inspire anything like proper sympathy.
And yet. Maybe it’s just nostalgia. Maybe it’s something to do with the way so many of us drift to the right in later years. Maybe we’ve just been deprived of red people-meat for too long. But it is strangely comforting to have the old man back.
God’s in his heaven, Mongo the chimp is in the White House, and there are entrails at the end of Rambo’s machete. Watch out head, I’m tucking in.
Aaaaeeeeeagaaaaaaaa: Sly Stallone acts up a storm in Rambo