Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn't impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there's I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward. And a good time.
Cultural infamy: Pretty much everybody thought it was a stupid cash-in to release another Rambo movie this late in the game. The first installment—First Blood—is fairly well respected, but star Sylvester Stallone threw away any shred of respectability by taking the nuance away from wounded Vietnam vet John Rambo and turning him into a revenge machine. Granted, Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III do have their good-time merits. I remember enjoying them thoroughly as a bloodthirsty teen, just watching Rambo blow shit up and burn his gaping arrow wound shut. The critical thrashing for part four, confusingly called just Rambo again, wasn't as severe as one might expect. It has a rating of 35 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 46 at Metacritic.com. The box for the DVD even has some positive quotes, a couple of which struck me: "The best Rambo yet!" says bloody-disgusting.com. And then from The New York Times' A.O. Scott, "Stallone gets the job done. Welcome back!" This led me to look up Scott's original review, which actually reads: "His face looks like a misshapen chunk of granite, and his acting is only slightly more expressive, but the man gets the job done. Welcome back." Notice the subtle differences, including the exclamation point?
Curiosity factor: The fact that Rambo didn't get completely slammed is almost enough of a curiosity in itself. Still, I was left with the nagging feeling that this would be another Rocky Balboa, which had fans and critics in a happy tizzy simply because it didn't suck nearly as much as its immediate predecessors. Rocky Balboa was decent, but it wasn't Rocky. Rambo doesn't have Rocky to live up to, of course, nor does it have Mr. T or Dolph Lundgren. Or that robot waiter. Or Paulie Pennino. It does, however, have Sylvester Stallone. And Sylvester Stallone in an action movie, whether it's a complete success or a total failure, will probably be worth 90 minutes. (That's right, it's shocking! This vanity project—written and directed by Stallone—is a restrained hour and a half long. Points already!)
The viewing experience: Rambo is a confused movie, and I'm convinced that every single person involved in its creation was really, really stupid. The bonus featurettes do nothing to convince me otherwise. I'm not saying I had a terrible time watching it—it's just that it wants to be something it's not, and wants to not be something that it is. Let me quote our own Nathan Rabin, who put it most excellently in his (perhaps too generous) C+ review of the movie: "A plea for international intervention in Burma cunningly disguised as a B-movie bloodbath, Rambo is paradoxically both a condemnation and celebration of mindless slaughter."
Exactly. Rambo wants to send a message of peace, then slaughter it with a .50-caliber machine gun. The movie begins with newsreel footage of the atrocities in Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar, the southeast Asian country to the northwest of Thailand). Stallone spares no blood in showing the horrific crimes of a brutal regime, setting up the viewers squarely against the bad guys (the Burmese military, led by a mustachioed commander who always smokes and looks menacing) and with the good guys (the Karen people, who have been needlessly slaughtered by the Burmese army for decades). By many accounts, Sly isn't exaggerating the horrors perpetrated there every day, so points to him for trying to do something political with his movie. (But points off for eventually admitting that he agreed to do another Rambo movie, then figured out what the topic would be.)
When we first meet Rambo, he looks like a hulking version of his former self. He's sad, working in Thailand at a deadly snake show—he catches and cares for the snakes, apparently, while also catching fish for the locals, because he's just such a nice fucking guy. A group of Christian rubes shows up, looking for Sly to guide them upriver into dangerous Burma, and giving Sly a chance to show just what a broken man he is. Watch how hard he tries to keep that frown plastered on:
You'll notice that among the group of Colorado Christians is the beautiful Julie Benz, who will of course bring him (slightly) out of his shell and convince him to help cart the missionaries to Burma. Will she be able to warm his frozen heart? Or have years of killing permafrosted his loins, and have years of steroids shrunk his nuts to the size of raisins? Benz's first scenes set her up for a whole movie of weeping and whining, which she throws herself into as vigorously as Stallone attacks Asian baddies. In their only real scene together, they have an amazing, amazing, amazingly convoluted conversation that sounds like the best Abbott and Costello routine never recorded. In case you can't watch the video, I'll transcribe some of it below.
Her: "Really? If everyone thought like you, nothing would ever change."
Him: "Nothing does change."
Her: "Of course it does! Nothing stays the same!"
Him: "Live your life, 'cuz you got a good one."
Her: "It's what I'm trying to do!"
Him: "No, what you're trying to do is change what is."
Her: "And what is?"
Him: "Go home."
Of course, this conversation—maybe it's some kind of code—convinces Sly to take the group to Burma. On the way, though, they're accosted by Burmese pirates. Things are looking very bad, but then JOHN RAMBO WAKES UP FROM HIS SLUMBER. And guess what? He blows them all away in one quick move. And what does that no-good peacenik Christian dude think about the fact that Sly just saved his life and saved his co-worker from getting raped? He's mad at Sly for killing the pirates. The missionary, played by the weaselly Paul Schulze, doesn't exist in real life, of course. He's a cipher for every no-good hippie in the world who thinks that bringing medical supplies to people in need will replace some good old fashioned ass-whomping. In real life, he would have been hugging Stallone's feet. Here, he threatens to tell on him. (Tell who? The Burmese authorities? Sly's boss at the snake-wrangling show?)
So I haven't yet mentioned the bloody pornography that permeates Rambo, have I? Here's where things get a little tricky. Ostensibly this movie is about the ugliness of violence, and how these atrocities are absolutely wrong and horrible and should be stopped. In one of the featurettes, Stallone says he had to tone down the reality so it could be shown on film. He luxuriates in the violence, though, with B-movie shots of heads exploding, people on fire, stabbings, etc. Check out these four seconds of a dude exploding, re-created on celluloid with obvious love.
And that's just the beginning. Okay, it makes sense to show the horrors of a village being massacred if you want people to understand what's going on. But everybody here is having too much damn fun for this to be taken very seriously. And then there's this admission by the film's editor—he's kinda creepy, no?—that he realizes plenty of people are just there to see some sweet, sweet mutilations. "We're back to the torture," he says, before going on to explain the appeal of this film to 13-year-old boys.
What a genius, right? And not at all sleazy. If you'll allow me to discuss the featurettes just a little more, they made me dislike the movie—or more accurately, the people behind the movie. Julie Benz gives an incredibly self-satisfied interview about how she's now working for a Burmese relief organization, while Matthew Marsden (who plays a mercenary named School Boy, whom we'll meet later) discusses how he gave an autographed Rambo poster to some actual U.S. soldiers, and how touching that was for them. He self-congratulates about the clever thing he signed on their poster: "To the real Rambos, thanks for keeping us safe." He somehow manages to say, "It's humbling," and yet paint himself as the hero in an interaction between him—a guy in a movie—and soldiers who are shot at every day in Iraq. Here, watch for yourself.
Anyway, back to the action. After Sly drops them off, our group gets kidnapped. Some sort of church official shows up, wakes Rambo from a black-and-white montage dream, and announces that he's from "Calarada." He says it like that. It's awesome. He has a group of mercenaries ready to strike, and he needs Rambo—whom he doesn't realize is a kick-ass killing machine—to take them upriver into Burma. We meet this group of mercenaries, who all have awesome mercenary accents, including the Aussie leader, who gives Sly shit about how slow his boat is. Also: School Boy, the sniper whom you met in the above clip.
When the mercenaries sit idly by while Burmese soldiers play a game that involves prisoners, machine guns, and landmines, Rambo steps in and kills the baddies with his bow and arrow. (Yeah, it's pretty badass.) He then joins the merc team—they don't stop to ask him how he got his ass-kicking pedigree—and they break into the prison camp where their friends are being held. Poor Julie Benz, dressed in white and crying all the time, is kept under a house with pigs. Oh, the indignity! Oh, I forgot to mention the movie's big tagline, which is introduced in this scene: "Live for nothing or die for something." That's it? Those are my only two choices?
We get a glimpse into the rainy prison camp, and it's a veritable orgy of badness. Imprisoned women are onstage being ogled and spit on by soldiers. One of the missionaries is fed to a pig, and of course we get to see his gaping wounds. And worst of all, in a plot point that seems totally unnecessary and weird, we learn that the evil general is not interested in ogling the ladies, because he likes to fuck teenage boys. That's right, not only does he murder for sport all day, he's a pedophile at night. Pure evil, I tells ya!
His fate will be decided later, but Rambo must first save the girl. She's been imprisoned for months, apparently, and in the middle of this party, one soldier decides to drag her off to his room. Stallone walks in on them and gets jollies the only way he knows how. Don't make Rambo have to choke a bitch! Wait a minute, make that: Don't make Rambo have to choke a bitch—and rip his neck open with his bare hands!
Once they make it out of the camp, they still have to get back to the river and escape hundreds of soldiers along the way. Would you believe me if I told you that part of the plan involves detonating a World War II bomb that's been in the forest for 50 years? You should! By the time they get to the boat, pretty much everybody except Rambo and School Boy is captured or dead. When the rest are about to be murdered, Rambo does that amazing thing where he magically rises up, as if on an elevator, to murder the .50-cal gunner and blast the fuck out of everything and everyone—except the good guys and the Burmese commander, who of course will have to get closer-range comeuppance. It's an insane bloodbath, with Rambo shooting from behind a steel plate that's covered with enemy brains.
Of course, most everybody escapes, but not before we learn one final lesson, courtesy of the peacenik missionary. When the time comes to actually defend himself or die, he learns to pick up a rock and smash somebody's fucking face in. And to enjoy every second of it. Medical supplies and prayer books are fine and dandy, but they don't beat a big ol' rock in a fight.
The swelling strings then tell us that Rambo is our hero, that the struggle is over, that Burma's oppressed are free, and that the white people will be going home safe. I expected some kind of text at the end of the film telling the world what they can do to help the Burmese people—write a congressman and encourage sanctions, give money to a particular organization, etc. But no. There's none of that. Just a smiling Sly heading back to America to reconnect with his dad. And then those featurettes to tell us what heroes our filmmakers are. It's all uncomfortable, and not in the way it's supposed to be. One minute they're talking about Burma, and the next they're talking about what a "wonderful facility" the Planet Hollywood in Vegas is for a movie première.
One more featurette quote: "Critics can write what they want, they're there to criticize. It's the people that go and watch the films that matter."
And don't get me wrong: I love a good, bloody action movie, and without all the real-life inspiration, this might've been fun. But the supposed message gets lost in all the corpses.
How much of the experience wasn't a total waste of time? This is a strange one, because I don't know if I'd characterize any of Rambo as a total waste of time. It's a briskly paced, well-shot action movie, with realistically disgusting depictions of war. There are moments that could become hilariously quotable B-movie fodder and moments that are tough to watch because they're actually intense. But it's just so morally muddled that watching it is like vigorous exercise of your brain's "on-off" switch. Maybe that's what Stallone and crew intended. But I think they just wanted to have their blood-and-guts cake and eat it, too.