Monday, 30 June 2008

Rambo IV: 'Rambo, John Rambo...John Rambo IV'

This weekend, some friends and I were transported by THE COURSE OF EVENTS to the house of a mutual aquaintance. After a delightful round of Call of Duty IV, we were invited by our host to partake of the latest Rambo movie. Despite my initial misgivings, I decided to agree. The following is my carefully considered conclusion.

Rambo IV: John Rambo is the companion piece to 2006’s Rocky VI: Rocky Balboa, and together they constitute a last-ditch cinematic combo that Sylvester Stallone probably hoped he’d never have to make. For a man who started his film career with twin Academy Award nominations (best actor in a leading role and best original screenplay), it’s presumably a disappointment to be consigned to the role of taciturn muscleman, but the numerous attempts that he’s made in recent years to expand his credentials have generally met with popular and critical indifference at best. It seems that, if the movie-going public still has a place in its fickle heart for this brawny and (ostensibly) brainy Italian-American actor, it’s in his classic guise as a mythic, victory-at-all-costs action hero.

Returning to the two iconic characters who launched his career may have been a sort of defeat for Stallone, but he seems to be making the most of it. Besides starring in the recent Rocky and Rambo movies, he also wrote and directed them, and he has fulfilled these responsibilities creditably, if without distinction. Rambo IV is a lean, muscular film, which harks back to the economical filmmaking of its 80s action-movie roots. This puts it at odds with its more up-to-date counterparts, which tend to emphasise hyper-kinetic editing techniques, mind-blowing C.G.I. effects and a general air of paranoia. Also notable is its lack of star power; Stallone is the only member of the cast I recognised. Instead of these things, it offers a very simple story arc, on to which is pinned an enormous quantity of visceral violence. Rambo IV, like all good B-movies, is a work of cinematic minimalism.

What happens is this: John Rambo (whose face now looks like a slightly melted wax model of its younger form) finds his hand-to-mouth existence as a catcher of deadly snakes interrupted by a group of Christian missionaries, who want him to transport them to Burma so that they can provide aid for victims of the military junta. He initially refuses, but is eventually persuaded by the sole female member of the group, who apparently shames him by accusing him of having no faith in humanity. Stallone does not linger on this emotional issue, he simply provides the viewer with a brief shot of Rambo’s stony face, then cuts immediately to him piloting his boat, laden with missionaries, through Burmese waterways. Rambo deposits them in their preferred war zone then leaves, only to find upon his arrival home that they have been kidnapped by sadistic soldiers, and that he must now return with a group of mercenaries to affect a rescue. I won’t divulge the whole plot here, but it’s largely irrelevant to the experience of the film. Watching Rambo IV is something like driving an F1 car around a circuit at top speed: your enjoyment will not be diminished by the predictability of the route. The film hinges on its action scenes, naturally enough, and these are sufficiently well made for it to succeed as a genre piece. Beyond that narrow criterion it accomplishes nothing at all.

Nonetheless, the film caused a stir with many critics upon its release because of the attitude towards violence that it seems to promote; the pacifist missionaries are either killed or forced to resort to murder, and Rambo is ultimately victorious by virtue of being the most effective murderer of all. However, once the bloodletting has been completed, the prevailing emotion is not one of celebration, but of fatigued indifference. Even though the Burmese soldiers are depicted as a collectivised, barbaric other (the only notable individual being their ultra-camp, paedophile commander), whose only instincts are to rape and murder, the incredible volume of on-screen death is too desensitising for there to be any catharsis in their defeat. Early on, Rambo informs the leader of the missionaries that, without weapons, he won’t have any effect on the situation. By the time the film is finished, even this is an understatement; a huge arsenal of weapons has been brought to bear and hundreds of people are dead, but it doesn’t feel like anything has happened. The F1 car ride is over, and the finishing line is the start. This is not to say that the film is explicitly anti-war, only that it indulges in its subject so excessively that it robs it of any appeal.

At the end of Rambo IV, John Rambo is seen returning to America. In the closing shot he walks up the drive of his family home, where he will soon be reunited with his father after several decades apart. One might reasonably assume that a sequel is at hand, and it seems that the Weinsteins are keen for Stallone to continue the series; apparently the fourth instalment made good on its relatively small budget. Quite what could happen after this completely un-Rambo conclusion is uncertain, but maybe Stallone has cunningly engineered a final opportunity to expand his career? Will our hero find his father in a state of distress, perhaps afflicted by senile dementia, so that the one-time war machine must reconcile himself to a life of self-sacrifice as a nurse? Or will the old man turn out to be the desiccated patriarch of a group of Texas Chainsaw Massacre-style nut jobs, with Rambo the prodigal son, returning to assume the position of an ageing, post-traumatic-stress-suffering Leatherface? Oddly enough, that would probably be closer to the spirit of the original film, and I’m sure that the highly economical Stallone could bring it off on a shoestring. He wouldn’t even need a mask.

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