Since 1962, Burma has been ruled by a brutal military dictatorship which has killed and tortured thousands of citizens and suppressed all opposition. The international community is deeply conflicted about what to do about the repressive regime with some countries in favour of intensive sanctions and others reluctant to intervene. However, one option remains which has been strangely ignored by the United Nations; send in John Rambo, the only man with the guts to get the job done.
Needless to say, despite some tentative political posturing, Rambo is an exploitation movie pure and simple. This is both its limitation and its strength. The form is completely inadequate to deal with the real-life horror which is ongoing in Burma and turning the tragedy into what amounts to an old fashioned cowboy movie doesn’t really help. The film is deeply simplistic. The military are black-hats – rapists, drunkards, sadists – and the peace workers are wishy-washy liberals – indecisive, naïve. Meanwhile, the tough mercenary force is macho and foul-mouthed while Rambo stalks through it all with inner calm and a very big bow-and-arrow. However, while the overall effect is undoubtedly tasteless, it’s not really anything which filmmakers haven’t been doing with international events since the days of World War Two and the Cold War, when Nazis and, subsequently, Russians were painted in much the same colours as the Burmese Junta is here.
However, if one casts aside one’s doubts about the unsavoury use of a real life trouble spot as backdrop, Rambo is a damn good example of brisk, unpretentious action filmmaking which does exactly what you expect of it in a very professional manner. Sylvester Stallone has matured into a very competent filmmaker and his work here wouldn’t disgrace one of the great old time action hands such as Allan Dwan or Raoul Walsh. The key is total efficiency and elimination of waste. There’s a given amount of time devoted to setting up the situation and the characters – basically evil Burmese and hopeless missionaries - and then we’re pitched slam-bang into the action. And what action! The second half of the film is a symphony of blood, demonstrating beyond doubt what damage can be done to the human body by a bullet, an arrow or the hands of a very determined Vietnam veteran.
It’s horrible, graphic and absolutely riveting, nowhere more so than when our hero rips a baddie’s throat out with his bare hands. The morality of this is highly dubious and one should perhaps be ashamed for appreciating it – I certainly can’t defend it in aesthetic or moral terms beyond suggesting that it’s probably better, on the whole, for violence to be graphic and unpleasant rather than sanitised. Stallone directs all this in a fine frenzy and his own action performance is remarkably convincing. The stunts Rambo performs are not outrageously outlandish for a 62 year old and due attention is paid to his age in the somewhat abbreviated running sequences.
You don’t go to see a film like Rambo for the performances but it’s good to report that there are nice touches from Julie Benz as the embattled heroine, Matthew Marsden as a sympathetic mercenary and especially Graham McTavish as a frightfully aggressive cockney who seems to have strayed in from a Guy Ritchie movie and gets the best line of the film as he calls one of his Burmese tormentors a “ladyboy cunt!” Even better is the presence of Sylvester Stallone who has by now honed his performance as Rambo to a minimum, making an impression with his physical presence and getting away with as little dialogue as possible. He’s become more interesting as an actor with age and the lines on his forehead and the sad experience reflected in his eyes have an eloquence that renders speech redundant.
It is however a shame that we don’t have a Colonel Trautman figure to act as a moral counterpoint to Rambo – there’s a brief appearance from veteran Ken Howard but he’s no replacement for the marvellous Richard Crenna.
Ultimately, for anyone who yearns for the good old days of 80s action movies, Rambo is a pure blast of adrenaline-fuelled fun. It comes in at under ninety minutes, looks absolutely gorgeous – superb location work throughout – makes good use of snatches from Jerry Goldsmith’s unforgettable score for the first three films and leaves you exhausted and exhilarated. It’s what a good Saturday night movie is all about.
Rambo is distributed in the UK by Sony and it’s good to see that they’ve made a rather better fist of it than Momentum did with the first three films.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is a beauty with gorgeous, subtly delineated colours and loads of detail throughout. There are no problems with excess grain or artifacting of any kind. As for the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, it’s stormingly effective with explosions and gunshots bouncing around the channels and the bass booming out to intimidating effect – watch the cat run for cover during the last half hour.
The supplements are quite generous. First up is a witty, eloquent and insightful commentary from Stallone, proving once again that when it comes to filmmaking, he knows what he’s talking about. He has a strong sense of the character of Rambo, as you’d expect, and he verbalises it rather better than the films themselves, particularly the rather thuggish second one, would lead you to expect.
In terms of documentaries, the disc contains seven featurettes which run just over an hour in total. The first six concern the making of the film and contain extensive interview footage with cast and crew. Stallone dominates of course but there are interesting contributions from the numerous producers and cast members including Julie Benz and the very amusing Graham McTavish. There’s a featurette about Brian Tyler’s music score in which the composer discusses his love of Goldsmith’s music and how he used it to develop his own composition. We also hear from editor Sean Albertson, the sound designers and the all-important armourers. There’s nothing here which goes too far beyond the EPK level but the general level of intelligence and common sense is high and everyone seems proud of their work. Finally, and most soberingly, there’s a featurette about the real situation in Burma which sensibly allows various experts to speak about the historical context and what’s happening at the moment. The news footage is sometimes genuinely shocking and distressing. It’s a very good example of what should be a self-evident truth - fiction is far less emotionally affecting than reality. The general consensus seems to be that Rambo is actually a fairly accurate representation of what life in Burma is like at present. Apparently, the Burmese government’s reaction to the film is one of panic so it’s good to see that Stallone’s movie might actually have done some good.
Finally, there are four deleted scenes which extend points already made quite adequately in the film. The first is the most valuable as it gives a more complete explanation of why Rambo agrees to ferry the missionaries up river.
The film has optional English subtitles as do the featurettes and the deleted scenes. There are a generous 28 chapter stops and simple but evocative menus.
I loved watching Rambo and hope that the mooted follow-up lives up to the standard. It’s the kind of great trash movie that doesn’t necessarily have to be enjoyed with one’s critical faculties turned off. Sony’s R2 DVD looks and sounds great and is enhanced by some pleasing extra features. Definitely recommended.