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Arts & Culture

Rambo

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Sylvester Stallone introduced us to John Rambo in 1982's First Blood . In that film, Rambo was a Vietnam vet who goes ballistic after getting roughed up by a small town sheriff. The clever thing about that film (directed by the underrated Ted Kotcheff who also made North Dallas Forty and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz ) was that because Rambo was fighting law enforcement folks rather than out and out bad guys, he devised means of fending off their attacks and evading capture without killing everyone. The film delivered standard action fare but in a lean package. The first sequel, Rambo: First Blood II, exploited that formula and set Rambo loose on real bad guys that he could annihilate. In First Blood II, Rambo is removed from prison by his former superior so that he can go to Vietnam on a special mission to take photos of POWs still held there. But naturally, Rambo decides to break them out instead. Then for Rambo III, he heads off to Afghanistan to rescue his former commanding officer. Now Rambo is back to Southeast Asia, this time Burma. Rambo (like Rocky Balboa in 2006) drops all numerals for his fourth film outing but the film bore such working titles as To Hell and Back and Pearl of the Cobra . This third sequel marks the first time that the star has taken on acting, writing and directing duties for the franchise.

Julia Benz and Sylverter Stallone in Rambo (Lionsgate) =

So after hitting the hot spots of Vietnam and Afghanistan, Rambo now finds himself in Thailand bringing a group of Christian aid workers into civil war torn Burma. When the aid workers go missing, Rambo teams with a group of mercenaries hired by the group's church leader to rescue them. This is the simple premise that allows Rambo and company to mow down the Burmese military with reckless and gorey abandon. The film seems to have taken its cue from the recent Alien vs. Predator: Requiem and gone all out for a bloody R rating to show that it's serious about appealing to hardcore action fans. Like AVP:R , which generated Internet buzz by releasing a red band trailer (that means one approved for R rated audiences) highlighting the goriest scenes from the film, Rambo's red band trailer featured exploding bodies, disembowlment and general carnage that apparently created a blood frenzy for the film.

Okay, I want to digress for just a moment. Now I'm not sure it's appropriate to raise a serious subject in conjunction with such a simple-minded Hollywood product but here goes. Having just come from the Korea, North and South film festival at UCSD, I have politics and film on my mind. One of the films shown was May 18, about the Gwangju massacre in 1980 South Korea. The film served up a brutal and violent depiction of the government crack down on demonstartors. When one of the visiting South Korean directors, Park Kwang-Su, was asked how that film was received in his home country, he suggested that it was seen just as an action film not as anything politically controversial. This in turn prompted UCSD Professor Jin-Kyung Lee to express shock that something as politically charged as the Gwangju Massacre could have become mere fodder for an action film. I felt a little of that "shock" in response to the violence in Rambo. It's one thing for aliens and predators to treat humans as little more than snack food to be torn apart. Yet it's quite another to tap into real events and politics as a mere plot device to justify showing innocent people being blown apart and mowed down by machine gun fire.

Rambo begins with newsreel footage of the real horrors going on in Southeast Asia as if to say, "Hey this kind of stuff is really happening so it's okay to show it in all its gruesome detail." This then sets the stage for the blood splattering, flesh-ripping carnage created by the special effects team for the film. The violence seems gratuitous because it's turning to these real world events as nothing more than a gimmick to set its action in motion. It's real world horrors but without a context to consider them in. Stallone doesn't really care about Burma, but Burma makes for an exotic locale, provides for an easily identifiable "other" as the villain, and allows the film to seem on the surface politically correct in its concern for human rights. (But in the end, Rambo is really only interested in saving the white woman, no matter how many lives that takes.) So as with that UCSD professor, I feel a certain outrage that real atrocities have been turned into something mundane to fuel an empty-headed action film. I know that Rambo is not a serious film that anyone would look to for a commentary on Burmese human rights, but I'm just not sure that gives it carte blanche to be so callous. At times I was wondering whether I felt more disgust at the horrors committed by the soldiers in the film or at the filmmakers for blithely exploiting real human tragedy for mere pop entertainment.

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The gutting scene made infamous in the red band trailer (Lionsgate)

Now that I got that off my chest, here are a few classic Rambo moments, exactly the kind of thing you would expect in a sequel like this. When asked about his past Rambo succinctly mutters, "It's complicated," which translates as go watch the previous three movies. Then there's the obligatory flashback montage of familiar moments from past Rambo films including the famous primal scream(s). And of course there's an easy to remember one-liner that comes when Rambo, assessing the situation and deciding whether or not to continue the search for the aid workers, states: "Live for nothing or die for something." That's a few more syllables than he usually employs but I guess in a sequel everything's inflated. And finally in explaining the state of the world to the idealistic Sarah, he says, "Nothing changes." Well that apparently that goes for world politics as well as movie sequels.

Stallone fared better both in front of and behind the camera in his recent Rocky outing. In Rocky Balboa , Stallone delivered an equally unbelievable film but one that tapped in nicely to the previous films and delivered the formula with efficient appeal if not innovation. In Rambo, both the film and the character are so muscle bound that they can no longer move with much grace or agility. This film is like a bull in a China shop -- it just keeps charging forward, destroying everything in its path.

Rambo (rated R for strong graphic bloody violence, sexual assaults, grisly images and language) is not for the squeamish nor for those who like to be intellectually stimulated by a movie.

Rambo, like its star, is so pumped up on steroids that it's become cartoonishly exaggerated. I appreciate that Stallone keeps things simple and understands that this is nothing more than a formula action picture. But the gore here becomes so excessive that it becomes gratuitous. But that didn't seem to offend the two sixty-something ladies exiting the theater who were talking about how they liked the film and thought "Sylvester Stallone is NOT too old to play Rambo, he was good." So Stallone seems to have young men and old ladies in his camp. Hmmm? An action star for the geriatric crowd. Maybe when we get to Rambo 10 or Rocky 15, Stallone will be out there showing us how to fight with walkers.

Companion viewing: First Blood, North Dallas Forty, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Commando, Missing in Action, Rocky Balboa

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