Sunday, December 27, 2009

Rambo (2008)

Having broken all records for serial killers and mass murderers in his first three films, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) hides from his oh-so-dark nature in the jungles of Thailand close to the Burmese border, earning a living hunting snakes and driving a boat up and down the river.

When a small group of American missionaries and doctors tries to hire him to get them into Burma where they plan on giving the civil war haunted civilian population the dubious blessings of christianity and the more practical blessings of medicine (without carrying any visible amount of medical supplies with them, mind you), Rambo declines at first, unwilling to help these nice white people commit suicide and explaining himself by mumbling stuff like "things don't change". But the conviction of girl missionary Sarah (Julie Benz) changes his mind, and he delivers the group where they want to go, if not without a run-in with some rather nasty people Rambo dispatches with panache.

A few weeks later, another guest visits his hut. Turns out that Rambo's missionary friends have been captured by a warlord and their church has hired a small unit of mercenaries to get them out, as churches do.

The ex-soldier agrees to get them there, and although he is just supposed to be the group's boatman, takes quite a personal interest in rescuing the hostages before they are eaten by pigs. He also seems to enjoy slaughtering a lot of people.

Rambo is a schizophrenic little film. While it is obvious that Stallone (directing, writing and acting, of course) is trying hard to make a film that says something profound about human nature and violence, I have a hard time to puzzle out what exactly it is he thinks he is saying. "Violent people are good at being violent"? "Rambo needs a good therapist"? "Blood is red"? These are all good possibilities, if you ask me, and I could list arguments for all of them, but watching the film, I very soon found myself no longer caring what profound messages Mr Stallone has to convey.

Instead, the physical impact of the film's action hit me, the classic adrenaline exhilaration of a good action film. Those feelings easily add up to the message "Pretend violence is cool. And look how merrily the body parts fly!", which is most certainly not the message Stallone is going for, but the reaction the loving depiction of people ripping each other to shreds in creative and exciting ways usually produces in heartless and decadent people like myself. It's not the director/writer's fault, really, unless you want to blame him for the fact that action films are exceedingly bad at making points against violence, because pretend violence is what they are build on. I have to say that I admire Stallone a bit for at least trying, as I admire his attempts at making a film whose hero shoots a lot of Asian people that isn't racist to its core. Again, his success in that point is rather dubious, seeing that each and every character is just as deeply characterized as is useful for cannon fodder, but compared to many of the Italian jungle action films I have seen, this is golden.

So, if Rambo isn't all that effective as a message film, how good is it as an action film? Good for an American action film, I'd say, which means that it lacks the strange elegance of martial arts cinema, the relentlessness of classic heroic bloodshed era Hong Kong film or the outright insanity of contemporary Thai action film and replaces them with as much blunt, visceral impact as possible. That method often doesn't work too well for me, but in this special case I find the film's bluntness quite striking. It certainly helps that - say what you will about Stallone - the man in his roles as a director and scriptwriter knows how to pace a film, how to do escalation right and how to have his film edited for maximum physical impact, all very useful things when it comes to a supremely physical genre like action cinema.

Then there's the fact that Stallone is by far not as bad an actor as mainstream film critics like to say. He of course has only a very limited range of expression, but he seems conscious enough of his own limits to avoid making a laughing stock of himself, something that puts him far above people like Seagal, Schwarzenegger or Cruise. At the very least, he knows how to use his (admittedly by now rather disturbing) physique to get across raw presence on screen. And what more do you need in action cinema of this type?

All in all, I had more fun than expected with Rambo. Of course, when you are looking for a film that is truly as profound as this would like to be, you're probably better off avoiding it completely, but do people honestly go into the fourth Rambo film expecting to learn something new about human nature (whatever that even means)?



Keith said...

My summary of this was that Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino set out to make fake grindhouse films and failed, while Stallone made an actual grindhouse film and succeeded.

I'm also pretty sure that the actual Sylvetser Stallone was replaced with a weathered granite statue of Sylvester Stallone.

houseinrlyeh said...

I gotta say I'd watch Grindhouse over this any day of the week, but I can understand where you're coming from.

And Stallone's statue is still better at pretending to be an actual human being than Steven Seagal. It's tragic.