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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Rambo

I’ve been blessed to travel all over the world, Sweet Readers. I’ve been chilly in Chile and hungry in Hungary; I’ve enjoyed a New York steak in New York and waffled over whether to order Belgium waffles in Belgium, but I paid the check in both places and in the Czech Republic too. I’ve French-kissed on the French Riviera and had a Brazilian in Brazil. One thing I’ve never done though is find myself in a close shave in Burma, and in the new movie Rambo that’s exactly where star Sylvester Stallone finds himself.

The Burma shave I’m referring to is the crux of the plot in
Rambo. You see, in the twenty (!) years since Rambo 3, so much has changed and so much has been forgotten even the number in the series has been abandoned and this version is treated as a whole new entity, and, in many ways, it is. Rambo (Stallone; Rocky Balboa) is now living a quiet Buddhist lifestyle on the Salween River in Thailand, making a modest living as a snake wrangler. His days as a soldier are decades behind him and he is in a hardened state of existence that has blocked out the world of his past. Then along comes a band of American missionaries, headed by the sanctimonious Michael Burnett (Paul Schulze; Zodiac), determined to make their way into Burma to bring Bibles and medical supplies to the Karen people of the region, caught in the middle of genocide by the prevailing army.

At first
Rambo is adamant in refusing to transport the religious group into what has been a war zone for more than fifty years, but Sarah Miller (Julie Benz; tv’s “Dexter”), the sole woman of the group, makes a plaintive plea to his humanity, and so he acquiesces, even though he has major reservations and believes he is leading these people to their deaths.

The trip itself is far from uneventful, but once Rambo drops off the missionaries it is only a brief respite that is a little too precious and ‘Lost Horizon’ perfect before the merde hits the fan and the bullets, blood and body parts hit everywhere else, and I mean everywhere. In comes the nasty Major Pa Tee Tint (Maung Maung Khin in his debut) with his slew of Burmese cats, which are anything but warm and fuzzy. These dudes would rather gut you than greet you and they do, slicing and dicing the villagers like they were chicken in a Benihana restaurant.

Of course, even in the midst of all this blood, mud, and disarray, the Major manages to spot the few white folks rolling in the rice paddies and miraculously dodging the bullets and bayonets. Instead of killing them, the Major orders them captured and brought to his prison for who-knows-what. I think he probably wants to know how they managed to avoid six thousand bullets and a thousand or so grenades when none of the native people could. It must be from watching all those “8 minute Abs” infomercials. Either that or he is going to torture them until they give him the 4-1-1 on how to make Nike shoes for only pennies a pair. Oh wait. They already do that. Well, I’m sure he’ll torture them anyway whether he has a good reason or not.

And guess who’s going to have to rescue their sorry butts?

Now, Stallone realizes that at 61 it’s best that he keep his shirt on for this one, so as pumped up as he appears as
Rambo (and Stallone admits to using human growth hormone in preparation for the movie) we are spared any glimpse of “moobs” (or man boobs); he even goes so far as to share the screen with other, younger would-be “Rambos” this time around. Besides directing, Stallone also co-wrote the script (with Art Monterastelli; Buried Alive) as he has all four movies in the series, so he knows the character better than anyone. He is smart enough to know that John is going to be the ultimate hero of the piece, but even he can’t take on a whole army alone anymore, so he populates the film with a crew of mercenaries hired by ~ get this ~ the Church back in Colorado to find the missionaries and bring them home.

I loved the missionaries’ mercenaries. They were as rag-tag a group as The Pirates of the Caribbean, but with dirtier language and a willingness to lop off heads with a lot more seriousness than Johnny Depp and his crew ever did. The baddest, Lewis (Graham McTavish; BBC’s series “Casualty”), has to be the gruffest talking Brit this side of Gordon Ramsay, though I don’t think I’d trust Lewis’ hygiene in the kitchen as much as I would Ramsay’s. He is a bully and actually has the cohones to razz Rambo himself like John is some kind of girly-man. Hmmm. You just know Lewis will be in for a surprise before this comes to an end.

Along with Lewis are School Boy (Matthew Marsden; Resident Evil: Extinction), Diaz (Reynaldo Gallegos; Spiderman 3), Reese (Jake La Botz; One Night with You), and En-Joo (Tim Kang; What Remains), each as colorful as Lewis in his own way, and each trying to grab a bit of camera time by out-mugging the other with their own eccentricities, but the story, location shooting (Thailand plays itself AND Burma), and special effects win out.

Speaking of special effects, the gore managed here is like nothing I’ve seen before in a war movie. It’s astonishingly real, from heads exploding, bullets ripping through flesh and tearing off limbs, to chests bursting apart and expelling their organs right into the camera’s waiting lens. While one could argue that the graphic slaughter is far too gratuitous, I’d say it is finally an honest portrayal of what goes on in places like Burma, Darfur, Rwanda, and Nigeria every single day and generally whitewashed by the news media in this country.

While I doubt most people will go to see
Rambo for its humanitarian message, Stallone has acknowledged in interviews that he was inspired to resurrect the character one final time based on the stories he had heard about of the atrocities that had been occurring unchecked and generally unreported in the western press about the genocide in Burma, and he hoped that Rambo would raise people’s awareness of the problems there. I hope he is right, though I suspect most folks would have been just as interested if the story was set in some fictional country like Walnutistan. They are mostly interested in seeing their hero, John Rambo, kick butt, one more time, and who can blame them? The die-hard, er, Rambo series’ fans have been waiting two decades to see their favorite ex-Green Beret in action, and they will not be disappointed with this outing.

When
Rambo first opened I wasn’t sure I wanted to see it because I still remembered how awful Rambo 3 was in comparison to the first two movies, but I recalled that I felt the same about Stallone’s bringing back his other signature character, Rocky Balboa, last year, and that turned out to be the best Rocky ever. I think the same could be said of this Rambo. Maybe Stallone is suffering from Eastwood Syndrome. He seems to be making better movies the older he gets. Not that I’m complaining. I can hardly wait to see what he does with Judge Dredd in 2020. Well, maybe I can wait on that one.

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