When Taxi Driver came out in 1976, most people were really disturbed by the climactic shootout featuring a mohawk-haired Robert De Niro pulling out a variety of guns to graphically murder a bunch of pimps and pushers in a psychotically misguided attempt to save Jodie Foster. A small number of filmmakers who saw this film obviously had a different reaction. It got them thinking about how that sort of violence might play in a fun action movie. And thus, a decade later, the gun-fu genre was born in Hong Kong with the release of John Woo‘s A Better Tomorrow in 1986. Soon after that, extreme gunplay became an accepted standard of the modern action movie all over the world.
The same sort of thing may have just happened again. I saw it coming when Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998. As disturbing and horrific as the Omaha Beach sequence of the film was (so much so, post-traumatic-stress counselors were present to tend to some of the D-Day veterans who came to the premiere), I knew some sick bastard would see that film and think, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if a dumb action movie were allowed to be this unbelievably gory and violent?” Well, a decade later, we have arrived. And the sick bastard who sat in theatres ten years ago turns out to have been Sylvester Stallone.
In the past year, Stallone has revived two of his iconic long-running characters for new outings in theatres. Rocky Balboa proved to be a surprisingly low-key and mature final note to cap off his series of Rocky movies that ranged from heart-felt Oscar-winners to silly cartoons. Rambo, on the other hand, has proved to be something else entirely.
I’ve seen a lot of Stallone movies over the years, but the beast in this film is barely recognizable as Stallone. He’s been so altered by cosmetic surgery and human growth hormone, he looks like some Frankenstein monster hybrid of himself, sewn together from bits and pieces of Sly, a gorilla, and whatever the fuck Tetsuo turned into at the end of Akira. Even Stallone seems to realize how scary he looks now, because for the first time in a Rambo film, he never takes his shirt off. It’s like he’s afraid his crazy man boobs might leap off his chest and devour the camera operator if they’re exposed to the light.
The film catches up with Rambo twenty years since last we saw him. The thin plot involves him getting talked into ferrying some missionaries into Burma and, after they inevitably get into trouble, going back to rescue them. The female lead is Julie Benz, so you never have to worry too much about her fate. You know right from the start that even if Rambo fails to save her, Dexter will come and kill everybody on her behalf. Julie does bewitch the psychopaths.
What ensues promises to be a cornerstone in the next generation of American action movies. Rambo doesn’t kill his enemies in this one. He liquefies them. No, no, not liquidates — liquefies. Thanks to the same sort of computer-enhanced imagery we saw in Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, we’re treated to splatter effects that play out like the grand finale of a fireworks competition. Only here, it’s not played as camp or comedy, it’s dead serious. The end of the film (and I really don’t think this qualifies as a spoiler because it involves neither plot nor a twist) has Rambo manning a huge machine gun on the back of a truck and turning an entire company of Burmese soldiers into pudding. Despite the mass-scale relentless slaughter that eats up about seven solid minutes of screen time, you may be left expecting additional Rambo-style action following this sequence. Something that would display his legendary Green Beret skills better than being the first guy to commandeer The Big Gun. But no. Stallone is a little too old to get himself mixed up in any hand-to-hand action more involved than a quick beheading or disemboweling with his orc sword (no really, his orc sword). The best we can expect is to witness him unsportingly mowing down his enemies from range before his bursitis acts up.
The movie isn’t actually good or entertaining. It’s more pointless and only perversely amusing. I’m sure plenty of people will try to write it off as dumb fun, a popcorn flick, a black comedy about violence. But there’s something more disturbing going on here. Rambo is so earnest in its dark, brooding tone, it chooses to inject some highly wrongheaded political content. The Rambo series has always had a strange political agenda that, in each entry, was meant to be topical and, in retrospect, proved to be absurd. Who can forget Rambo III, with John Rambo hanging out with his buddies in the Mujahideen, helping them kill nasty Ruskies who, as Richard Crenna quipped, were experiencing their very own Viet Nam? Oh, how times change. Oh, how history alternately repeats and reverses itself.
This time, the political subtext is all about what’s going on in Myanmar. Rambo, much like the leaders of the free world, refuses to acknowledge the political reality of Myanmar and insists on calling the country Burma throughout the proceedings. In an attempt to edjamacate all of us dumbass moviegoers, the film opens with actual documentary footage of atrocities in Myanmar that would be more appropriate in a Faces of Death video than a Rambo flick. It’s one thing to try to ground your silly action movie in the real world, it’s another to exploit actual dead and dying people as stock footage before your hero starts plucking arrows into bad guys. It’s kinda like watching a Saw movie that has Jigsaw subjecting people to deadly traps because he’s pissed off about the genocide in Darfur. It’s not a comfortable mix.
Now, I know it’s important in every action movie to establish that the evil doers are really super-duper evil so that we can feel all pleased with ourselves when the hero mercilessly slaughters them. But the massacre that happens in a peasant village to set up this fact goes rather above and beyond the call of duty. It’s okay for the villains to shoot some civilians to illustrate to us that these are indeed bad bad men. But here we show them shooting kids, standing on the head of a child and bayoneting him, and tossing a baby into a burning building. All as part of a general chaos of murder and mayhem so extreme, even I, aficionado as I am, can’t immediately come up with any parallel examples in the entirety of exploitation cinema history. Ok, Sly, we get it. They’re bad guys. But it’s a Rambo movie for fuck’s sake, not Schindler’s List. Let’s dial the war crimes down a notch, shall we? I came here to have some fun, now I just feel dirty.
With no Richard Crenna around, there’s not even a hint of the usual fleeting humour left in this entry to make it anything more than relentlessly bleak and dreary. The increasingly irrelevant MPAA rated this movie R, which is generous considering it’s easily the most violent American action movie ever made. This is the organization that used to demand edits whenever someone got a paper cut. Now, it seems, no act of violence is too extreme to earn an NC-17. That rating is reserved solely for when characters put their weapons down and get busy making some sweet love. Heaven forefend American children see any of that. They might get it into their heads that sex is a good thing and perhaps more amusing than shooting total strangers in the head with a howitzer. We can only hope that this unexplainable R rating will open the floodgates to other, hopefully better, shoot-em-ups that will hit the same fever pitch of violence and gore without neglecting superfluous bells and whistles like plot, character and nuance. It’ll never happen, of course, but let’s keep hope alive just for the hell of it.
Stallone disposes of yet another Chicago Sun-Times reviewer. He’s coming after me next, and yes, as a matter of fact, I am shitting my pants.