It’s been more than 25 years since Sylvester Stallone first donned the headband to play pissed off Vietnam vet, expert in guerrilla warfare, and all-round patriot John Rambo in First Blood, although it wasn’t until 1985’s sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II, that the character truly entered the zeitgeist when Ronald Reagan proclaimed him a Republican posterboy and his name subsequently became a byword for any have-a-go-hero or nutter in a combat jacket.
Two decades on from fighting the Russkies in Afghanistan in Rambo III, the character clearly hasn’t mellowed much. “When you’re pushed, killing’s as easy as breathing,” he mumbles herein, and, as to prove his point, soon starts whacking Burmese bad guys with characteristic abandon. This is not a great movie, but it sure as hell is a violent one. Limbs are hacked off, bodies explode, heads are decapitated or pop like cherry bombs under sniper fire, flamethrowers torch villages, women are raped, men sodomised, and innocent civilians are gunned down or blown up for sport. The film even opens with some horrendous news footage of real atrocities in Burma. “It was important to let the audience know this is not a fantasy film,” says director/star/co-writer Sly. “This is happening here and now.”
Having successfully resurrected Rocky Balboa and, with it, his all but dead film career, it was only a matter of time before Stallone dusted off his other iconic action hero beginning with the letter R for another trip into the heart of darkness. Now living a simple existence in Thailand, collecting snakes for tourist sideshows and shooting fish with a bow and arrow, Rambo may be relatively at peace in his self-imposed exile but he’s still pissed off and stoic. (His first words are “Fuck you”.) Soon, a group of American missionaries led by idealistic wimp Michael (Paul Schulze) and his fiancée Sarah (Julie Benz) show up, asking him to take them by river into Burma to deliver medical and spiritual aid. Rambo initially turns them down flat, but eventually cracks, Sarah’s powers of persuasion rekindling the beast inside him in more ways than one.
En route, they run into a boatload of vicious pirates and before you can say “Kalashnikov” Rambo’s wasted the scum. He’s even got himself a new motto: “Live for nothing or die for something.” Later, after the “God squad” are kidnapped by the sadistic Burmese military, Rambo is hired to travel back up river, this time as guide to a group of foul-mouthed mercenaries sent to extricate them. So far, so Apocalypse Now. But, inevitably, it’s Rambo who proves the better equipped to deal with the jungle hellhole they soon find themselves in, although wisely, given Stallone’s now 61, the film keeps him on the sidelines during the real hand-to-hand stuff, and behind the barrel of a .50 calibre jeep-mounted machine gun that decimates everything in its sights.
On his amusing and thoughtful commentary, Stallone states that he only took on directing duties late in the day after the original (unnamed) director bailed. Searching for a style for the film, he hit upon the idea that maybe the movie should be shot from “Rambo’s point of view and have his personality. Never steady, but not overly active, the camera is alive, prowling, jittery.” To be fair Rambo’s a better director than Sly is an actor or even a writer (despite his Best Screenplay Oscar for Rocky). While the script’s simplistic at best and the dialogue simply atrocious — “Man, I have seen some shit, but brother I have never seen no shit like this,” bleats one mercenary upon seeing a local village massacred by the Burmese military — Stallone knows what his audience wants and choreographs his action sequences with an eye towards maximum spectacle, offering up bloody mayhem, shockingly realistic evisceration and earth-shattering explosions that look dazzlingly good in hi-def. “Let’s just show it the way it is,” he relates of his motives behind the onscreen bloodbath. “If we can’t be great, let’s be truthful.”
Alas the extras are a mixed bag. ‘It’s A Long Road: Resurrection Of An Icon’ is the longest at 19 minutes and the most disappointing, lacking context, clips from any of the previous three movies, and sound bites from anyone beyond those involved in this production. (Was it that hard to get a comment from novelist David Morrell who created the character in the first place?) The rest are, by and large, EPK fluff, although the ‘Weaponry Of Rambo’ featurette reveals that Thai authorities were understandably apprehensive about the production shipping in 90,000 rounds of ammunition — enough to start a war — while ‘Legacy Of Despair: The Real Struggle In Burma’ adds some welcome background info and historical perspective. Citing the film’s apparent impact in helping bring Burma’s horrendous human rights record back into the public’s consciousness, the featurette also exposes a country where Rambo DVDs are banned and watching one is punishable by ten years’ imprisonment or a life sentence if you’re caught selling them. Which puts an altogether different slant on the term “movie jail”.
Extras: Commentary by director; ‘It’s a Long Road: Resurrection of an Icon’ featurette; ‘A Score to Settle: The Music of Rambo’ featurette; ‘The Art of War: Part 1: Editing’ featurette; The Art of War: Part 2: Sound’ featurette; ‘The Weaponry of Rambo’ featurette; ‘A Hero’s Welcome: Release and Reaction’ featurette; ‘Legacy of Despair: The Real Struggle in Burma’ featurette; Deleted scenes; Subtitles. Blu-Ray exclusive extras: Picture in Picture commentary with Sylvester Stallone; Audio commentary with branching features: Snake sale (casting); Burmese pirates (shooting); Helping People (production design); Rambo’s dream sequences (editing); With the mercs (casting); Rambo’s arrow attack (visual FX); Nuclear claymore (Visual FX); Rambo returns (visual FX)
* this review originally appeared in DVD & Blu-Ray Review