Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Potted Movie Review: John Rambo (2008)

It would appear that I'm one of the all too few who not only remembers seeing the first Rambo film, First Blood (not Rambo: First Blood, but First Blood as it was then titled) at the cinema but will also admit it. At the time it was an impressive film, albeit overacted. It began a genre, that being the returned Vietnam veteran who goes slightly nuts after being discriminated against (usually for a crime that he did not commit, no apologies for gender bias here, the bulk of these movies are very male, in fact I can't recall seeing, or even hearing about, a female entry into that genre) and who then undertakes an ultra-violent response against those who have slighted him, namely a small town sheriff who generally calls the main character 'Boy' a lot, states how the war and those bright and shiny medals mean nothing back here and speaks in a drawl that'd not be out of place in an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies. The twist would generally be that the sheriff himself would be a war veteran himself, usually World War II or Korea, one of those clear cut, 'We won! Gung Ho!' types of conflicts, not the ambiguous and loathed conflict that was Vietnam. First Blood wasn't a new concept but I doubt that not many people have heard of its predecessor, Rolling Thunder, starring Tommy Lee Jones and William Devane, a movie which First Blood owes a lot to, both in concept and execution. However no-one can accuse Thunder screenwriter Paul Schrader of showing any kind of sensitivity or pathos, both of which are on abundant display in the Sackheim/Kozzel/Stallone screenplay.

Despite it's flaws First Blood has it's highpoints. The acting of Brian Dennehy and Richard Crenna are amongst them, along with Ted Kotcheff's direction. And who can forget the classic stalking scene where Stallone's character methodically tracks down and eliminates the sheriff and his deputies in the forest. Seen today it loses a degree of impact due to either repeated screenings or the viewing of the many imitators, but at the time it was some of the best ultra violence cinema had to offer. For a split second you believed Stallone when he hissed, "I could have killed them all. I could have killed you." From there the movie is downhill.

If there's one thing that ruins the movie totally it's the tacked on ending. As Crenna enters the now ruined police station one can sense that his heart isn't in the role anymore. Certainly his delivery and acting is well below what it'd been for the rest of the film and Stallone's acting just isn't up to the job. What should have been an anti-war tirade comes across as little whinge about how unfairly Stallone/Rambo has been treated in an attempt to justify why he's shot the entire city, presumably killed or at least wounded hundreds of innocent and not so innocent people and blown up a load of private property, along with stealing anything not tied down. Everyone should start screaming about being called a 'baby killer' when faced with such charges. I generally tell people to switch the movie off once Stallone/Rambo has shot the sheriff, after all he did indeed kill the deputy, so you know what's going to happen. Prison for him. If you are quick you can spot the proper ending to this movie in John Rambo - look for the scene in the flashbacks where Crenna shoots Stallone in the stomach. That's how the movie should have ended, same as the book.

After that the genre became a joke, expertly lampooned by none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger in his hilarious 1985 Commando. In this film Arnold managed to show how ludicrous the concept really was, as he managed to avoid being shot by a seemingly endless amount of heavily armed soldiers, but was wounded by none other than a scene stealing Vernon Wells (Wez from Mad Max II to you) firing blind around a corner through a haze of steam. Pure spun gold there. However where Schwarzenegger appeared aware that the genre was rapidly becoming a joke ripe for parody, Stallone kept to his guns, hiring none other than Schwarzenegger's Terminator mentor himself, James 'Titanic' Cameron, to co-script his First Blood follow-up, Rambo: First Blood Part II. Despite the presence of the returning Crenna, who now appeared to take his character a bit too seriously, the cast was fairly tepid with all too few shining lights. Charles Napier turned in his standard character actor performance, but I'd still believe it was his connection to Roger Corman that convinced Jonathan Damme to cast him in both Silence of The Lambs and Philadelphia over his performance in this film. The films only real highlight came with the presence of Steven Berkoff who realised at an early stage that this wasn't going to be a movie that'd showcase his considerable acting skills to the world at large. As such he proceeded to chew through the scenery fast and with more glee than a group of fat men through an all you can eat buffet. No-one who has seen this movie wouldn't be forgetting Berkoff performing Shakespeare or his one man shows and there's a great piece of folklore that goes as follows; one day Stallone was telling Berkoff how he could easily wipe the floor with him, physically, so Berkoff turned the tables and stated that he could just as easily wipe the floor with Stallone acting wise, and then proceeded to do just that. I've never been able to find the scene where Berkoff stops being a ham and actually does act, so it's probably best left as an urban myth. Still, the less said about this movie the better. After all it's often that anyone can assemble such talent as Cameron, Berkoff, Crenna, Napier ,George P Cosmina and Stallone himself and make such an abortion of celluloid.

Stallone milked the cash cow dry with the vile Rambo III in 1988. This movie, again co-written by Stallone, seemed to cap off the Regan era America with a certain glee and violence. That Rambo could even exist in this time period shouldn't come as any great surprise. During the 1980s America spent a lot of time, and money, either invading countries or arming local militia and then denying any involvement. The curiosity of the time must surely be the CIA funded insurgency into Afghanistan, led by none other than Osama Bin-Laden. You see, only in the 1980s could you earn a fortune that could then be channelled back to bite the hand that fed you. Rambo III was horrid. The violence and character had become a cartoon. Watching this movie you expect Stallone to begin to fly or bear his chest to allow bullets to bounce off, such is the insanity. Even the presence of Crenna, returning for his third run and become more of a cartoon himself, couldn't save the film. Rambo, the character, may not have died at the end of this movie, but Rambo, the franchise, was certainly dead. Stallone nailed the final piece of iron into the coffin a year later when his character, Ray Tango, uttered the famous line, "Rambo is a pussy," in the God-awful 'buddy cop' flick Tango & Cash (another genre sadly done right all too few times with the only really successful entries in the past twenty five years being Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines criminally under-seen and under-rated Running Scared and Will Smith and Martin Lawrence's Bad Boys). Bin-Laden be damned, by the end of the 1980s Stallone should have been arrested and tried for crimes against humanity for the films he appeared in. Gone was the potential shown by the man in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Fast forward to 2008. Stallone, riding high from the success of the last entry in the Rocky series, a fine movie that does fall flat in sections though, released the last Rambo movie, titled John Rambo. Go be honest I had no real desire to see this movie, but that was mainly due to repeated viewings of the excellent First Blood and the awful sequels. However the other night I found myself at a loss for anything to watch so I reached over, thought, what the hell, I've seen the others, might as well close it off. I approached the movie with a sense of dread, expecting nothing more than an awful film full of clichés.

I was wrong. So very wrong. Feel free to disagree with me, but I suspect that you'll be wrong as well.

To begin with this is a movie that harkens back to the realistic ultra violence of the first entry, as opposed to the almost Heckle & Jeckyl violence of the second and third entry. The violence in this movie is graphic and it's dirty. It's very uncomfortable to watch and, unlike the predecessors, the movie doesn't rejoice in violence, indeed it portrays violence as being rapid, brutal and filthy. Set in Burma and opening with a scene inspired by a passtime reportedly carried out by the real Burmese militia (forcing villagers to run across rice paddies with land mines thrown into the water - those who did ran the risk of dying by explosion, those who refused were simply shot, if they were lucky) the movie follows the adventures of a group of western (read: American) aid workers intent on bringing goodwill, love and medical assistance to the same village that was raided earlier in the movie. Essentially Rambo, who interestingly enough is never referred to by last name at all and when asked gives his name simply as 'John', one of the movies many subtle, but important, twists, is hired to be a mere boat driver and guide to take the aid workers into Burma. He attempts to talk them out of it to no avail, instead he takes them on their trip. He delivers the aid workers, after the first exhibition of his own violence, and heads back home. You can guess the rest. In another show of extreme violence the militia takes the village and the remaining westerners prisoner. Now I did say 'remaining', as the bulk are killed off in the attack in a very casual manner, well, as casual as it gets when limbs are being blown off. The very nonchalant way that death, rape and pillage is handled in this movie is disturbing to say the least as is the lack of a clear cut villain, but more on that later.

Naturally Rambo is hired to assist a group of mercenaries up the river to extract the prisoners, another of the movies twists. Rambo is hired to drive the boat only, not to engage in any activity. The mercenaries are ruthless to Rambo, they deride him as being a cowardly boat driver, and indeed this appears to be exactly what he is. There's no posturing, no removal of shirts and posing, in yet another twist Stallone keeps his clothes on for the entire movie and in doing so appears not so much as the super-fit cut muscleman of earlier movies, but more a beefier, bulkier creature. The old Rambo looked as if he spent more time in the gym and on steroids than out in the fields, this Rambo looks like he's spent the last twenty years doing physical work and exercising when it suits him. You can see he has muscles under the loose shirt, but there's more than a hint of middle age spread there as well. Halfway through the movie Rambo has an epiphany which comes in the form of a dream. This is a most effective ploy as the dream uses the standard old footage of the now deceased Crenna. In what was a useless utterly throwaway line in the third movie, Crenna's exhortations that "You can't escape what you are Johnny!" ring with more resonance than they ever did. What was a joke has become something serious, it explains the motives of the movie and the motivations of Rambo himself, and helps the viewer understand John Rambo and what drives him. He cannot escape what he is. He's old, he's tired and he's tired of being old and tired. Don't get me wrong though, this isn't a movie about someone wanting to retire and being dragged out for one last mission, this is a movie about someone who can only escape his past by breaking the cycles he surrounds himself with.

The rest of the movie is anything but standard. Rambo follows the mercenaries and attacks when they hesitate. He rescues the girl, yet leaves behind Burmese villagers to be raped. He shows concern for only one person, and shows only disgust for a militia leader who welcomes a boy into his hut. The Rambo of old would raze the camp single-handedly with a fork and his knife, this Rambo knows his limitations, indeed he's since lost the famous knife, it's nowhere to be seen. Rambo waits, takes the girl out of the camp and heads back to where the ambush of the mercenaries has taken place. Then the fun starts.

There are no heroes in this film. Rambo, as a character, is driven by his own motivations, and they're ambiguous at best. The mercenaries that are dropped in to save the aid workers are driven by money and that's made clear. The militia, well, they're militia so you know what's driving them, the villagers are victims, the Karen Rebels are as close to being heroes as you can find, but again, in this film at least, they're rarely seen and have no story at all. Then there's the aid workers. Spineless, whimpering, niave at best, moronic at worst, you come away with the all too wrong feeling that these people need a good boot where the sun isn't shining for doing what they're doing. There's no-one to cheer for at all and no 'rally round the flag boys' moments that dog the other three movies. The film is depressing and sad with no clear cut sign of who really won - everyone, including Rambo - is a loser in this film.

With this movie Stallone has shown that he actually has matured as a film-maker. There's one brilliant shot in the film, a very powerful image of Rambo rising, out of focus, behind a militia leader. What makes it so effective is that the image of the black shirted Rambo fills the screen and when he comes into focus he's filthy, yet totally blank. His face is devoid of any emotion, yet his eyes are blazing with fury. It's a shot that literally takes the breath away both as an example of directing and acting, all from Stallone. With this one shot he releases himself of decades of bad film-making and shows that he has clearly learnt one important lesson, restraint. Allow the camera to show what it sees, don't dictate to the viewer. Let them decide the emotional impact. Stallone has now learnt that lesson well and might indeed have a future in front of him as a director of fine films. I might not hand him a romance, but then who'd have hired Dirty Harry himself, Clint Eastwood, to direct The Bridges Of Madison County? Odder things have happened.

The movie essentially ends where First Blood might have started. The character, and one suspects Stallone, has redeemed himself and has come full circle. The movie John Rambo effectively bookends the genre that First Blood and Rolling Thunder started, at least until someone else comes along to revive it. And if that day comes that person will have a lot to live up to as I doubt that many will be able to top First Blood and now John Rambo. You may not like it, but this is a movie well worth watching with an open mind.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Danny,

I finally watched this film, and remembered reading your post from a year ago so I had to come and comment. Like you, I really enjoyed the first film in this franchise "First Blood". Where we disagree is "Rambo: First Blood Part II". I thought that movie was excellent. At the time (mid 80s) it fit perfectly into the action genre. I really enjoyed it. It didn't hold up as well as the first, but I did enjoy it when I was young. The third film was awful, nothing to discuss there.

Now, watching Rambo(part 4) last night, I was energized. I may have seen the trailers, but really forgot many of the scenes and what the movie was about. I could have guessed on the premise, but still was surprised to see such a well executed story, still filled with such action sequences. The violence was intense, almost too graphic, but I suppose that's the point. The cast was great. And yes, the scene where Rambo rises out of focus behind the gunner is where the movie got me. SPOILER ALERT HERE: I really thought those prisoners were going to be executed. When he rose up like that I practically jumped out of my seat to cheer.
Although the name Rambo isn't uttered by Stallone, it is referenced a few times, particularly at the end of the film. Great movie. I really enjoyed it. I want to see it again.
George "The Stooges"