To describe “Rambo” as “violent” is to insult the civility of excessively violent movies everywhere. For while the blood and guts in a film like “Final Destination” may be hilariously over the top, “Rambo” is simply beyond the pale. 236 people die in this movie, and no one goes easy.
As a technical matter, the gore is a soaring achievement for the special effects team, but in the darkness of the theater, the audience is more shaken than impressed. The violence of “Rambo” surpasses the merely gratuitous and vaults wholeheartedly into the ultra-violent. While perhaps not as lingeringly disgusting as “Hostel” and its torture/horror brethren, the carnage of exploding heads and shredded limbs is often difficult to watch, even for the more hardened movie-goer.
Absent is that celebration of ludicrous ways to kill people that suffused the earlier Rambos. The exploding-arrow-to-the-throat moment in this movie is less spectacular and more agonizing. Also missing is the violent catharsis that “Rambo: First Blood Part II” and “Rambo III” provided for an American psyche brutalized by defeat in Vietnam. The wish fulfillment of rescuing POWs or killing Russians in Afghanistan has no equal in Rambo’s battle with the Burmese army, despite the token attempt to garner relevancy from the recent crackdown on Buddhist monks in that country.
The entertainment value of John Rambo dispatching the bad guys with his usual extreme prejudice is extinguished by the horrific parade of human barbarism that precedes it. In one scene alone, five women are gang-raped — and that is one of the tamer depictions of the army’s evil. During an expertly edited scene of the army’s attack on a village, the audience is treated to babies torn from their mothers and thrown on bonfires, limbs hacked off, children shot, more rape, on top of the usual level of carnage. In one particularly gruesome scene, a weeping child is slowly bayoneted. And as though the fake violence were insufficient, “Rambo” begins with news footage of real rotting corpses. It’s the stuff that the NC-17 rating was designed for, but has miraculously earned only an R.
The point of all this horror is not immediately clear. In the hands of someone with a more insightful perspective than Sylvester Stallone, who hits the trifecta of writing, directing and acting, the movie may have spoken powerfully to the human capacity for brutality, or may have illuminated the horror of war. After all, as unsettling as these things are to witness in a movie, the thought that they may be a fact of life in some parts of the world is even more disturbing.
Unfortunately, all the context that this carnage receives is a woefully pitiful plot wherein Rambo must lead a team of predictably coarse and world-weary mercenaries to rescue a band of missionaries from captivity. There is the cantankerous British soldier of fortune who doesn’t much like Rambo, the native guide, the young good-looking sniper who stays behind to help our hero out, the particularly sadistic army officer and a pretty blond missionary naive to the violence of the world. She spends most of the movie crying or gazing gratefully at Rambo. The writing is as uninspired as the characters (not that “Rambo” is an especially wordy movie), though Stallone does get in a few moments of brilliance: “Fuck the world.”
Ultimately, “Rambo” can only shock and disappoint its audience, and no amount of Human Growth Hormone can save a movie this bad from itself, not that it tries that hard.
After all, Rambo doesn’t kill even one guy with his shirt off.