Rambo (2008, Sylvester Stallone)

Rambo08

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Living off the grid in southeast Asia (still), John Rambo is hired to sneak some American relief workers into dangerous territory…

What does Stallone do? Having revisited his other major role in 2006’s Rocky Balboa, Sly next turned to John Rambo, who had been off cinema screens for 20 years. He worked on the script and later stepped in to direct the movie after another director walked away from the project late in the day. (It’s therefore the only Rambo film helmed by its star.) As we rejoin his story, John is living in Thailand and keeping his head down. When the cocky leader of some American missionaries asks for his help in crossing the border into Burma, Rambo says no – it’s far too dangerous, given the civil war going on there. But then the guy’s blonde colleague tries and Rambo says yes. He takes them upriver, and just like the similar journey in Apocalypse Now, the group soon encounter the kind of stock movie locals who are aggressive for no reason and take offense at the slightest thing. John is forced to kill them, much to the Americans’ disgust. Later, a few days after John has dropped them off and returned home, he learns that the missionaries have been captured by the Burmese army – so he agrees to show a bunch of hired mercenaries where he left them. Feeling guilt for their plight, he also insists on joining the rescue mission…

Other main characters:
* Michael Burnett (Paul Schulze) is the nominal leader of the Christian relief workers, who are an intensely underwritten bunch of characters. (Most of them don’t even speak.)
* Sarah Miller (Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Julie Benz) is the only female member of the group. She manages to pep-talk Rambo into helping them, but probably regrets her choice when she’s later captured, tortured and who knows what else by a bunch of shits I Burma.
* Officer Major Pa Tee Tint (Maung Maung Khin) is a cigarette-smoking prick in charge of a large group of soldiers in Burma. (And the film only ever calls it Burma, despite the country being known as Myanmar since 1989.) An evil, thoroughly punchable despot, he has no redeeming features.
* The most notable member of the mercenaries – because he shouts the loudest and has a Cockney accent – is Lewis (Graham McTavish). He says fuck a lot and takes against Rambo for no reason whatsoever. He and his colleagues are fairly risible and not worth cataloguing in full. They swap ‘written’ banter and shoot things.

Key scene: Having mounted a sneaky assault on the Burmese camp, John and the mercs rescue some American survivors and they all flee across country on foot – chased by soldiers and dogs. Well cut and benefiting from having no incidental music, the sequence is quite exciting.

Review: First Blood, the film that introduced the character of John Rambo, was about a Vietnam veteran attempting to reacclimatise to life back in America. So why has every Rambo sequel been set overseas? Could it be so nameless foreign locals and soldiers can be butchered for our entertainment, like they’re avatars in a shoot-’em-up video game? The opening of this film sets up the real-life situation in Burma, where the world’s longest-running civil war is being used as an excuse for some barbaric behaviour. The movie, unwisely and crassly, uses actual footage of massacres and dead bodies overlaid with hammy actors pretending to be news anchors. This harshness is then continued into the fiction, which dramatises terrified villagers being sadistically murdered. The cartoon violence of Rambo II and Rambo III, which wasn’t meant to be taken *too* seriously, has been replaced by harrowing depictions of graphic injuries, murder, child murder, rape, dismemberment (so many dismemberments), burnings, torture and corpses. These things go on in genocidal wars, no doubt, but this is meant to be a Hollywood action film. The fact that drama is non-existent means all this violence just comes off as empty and for its own sake. The money spent on the production is the only thing that lifts this film above a straight-to-video Steven Seagal flick.

Three pigs out of 10

Next: Creed

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Rambo III (1988, Peter MacDonald)

RamboIII

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Living off the grid in southeast Asia, John Rambo learns that his mentor has been captured by an evil Soviet commander…

What does Stallone do? He worked on the script, reprised the title role, and used his influence behind the scenes to have the film’s director replaced midstream… We first see John Rambo in Thailand. He’s working at a local monastery but also taking part in stick-fighting duels for spare cash. Then, just as in the previous film, his mentor Colonel Trautman shows up and asks this clearly damaged war vet to go on another life-threatening mission. There’s an area of Afghanistan, it seems, where the occupying Soviet forces are especially cruel so the US wants to do something about it. (This is therefore the third Rocky/Rambo film in a row with Russian villains. It was the 80s, after all!) John is understandably reluctant, but then Trautman goes on the mission alone and is snatched by the Soviets. ‘Can you get me in?’ asks John when he learns the news; yes, says Trautman’s colleague, but it’ll have to be an unofficial rescue mission. So John travels to Pakistan, meets up with a local guide, crosses the border, hangs out with the mujahedeen resistance, and hunts down the camp where his former boss is being held…

Other main characters:
* Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) presumably never trained any other half-decent covert agents in his military career, given that this is the second time in three years he’s sought out a mentally scared loner and begged for his help.
* Robert Griggs (Kurtwood Smith) is a diplomat who shadows Trautman when the latter arrives in Thailand to ask John to go on the mission. Later, after Trautman has been captured, Griggs returns to the monastery – which is up a mountain, a long way from any town – for a 23-second chat with John before turning round to head back home.
* Mousa Chanin (Sasson Gabai) is the US government’s ‘man in Pakistan’. Rambo finds him in a prosthetic-limb shop (it does good business due to all the landmines in the area). Chanin then acts as a guide as well as supplying information, equipment and history lessons for the audience.
* Colonel Alexi Zaysen (Marc de Jonge) is the regional commander of the Soviet forces in Afghanistan and, obviously, as they always are in action films, is a sadistic, arrogant prick. He interrogates and tortures the captured Trautman for information. Being an American, Trautman is able to resist and even taunts Zaysen, saying Afghanistan is Russia’s Vietnam (ie, an unwinnable folly). Zayzen also personally leads a helicopter attack on a local village, just to emphasise how evil he is.
* Hamid (Doudi Shoua) is a young Afghan orphan who tags along on Rambo’s mission.

Key scene: Having escaped from the Russian compound, John and Trautman end up cornered in a large area of rocky wasteland. They’re in the open, with no available cover, and an helicopter piloted by Zaysen is hovering in front of them. It’s armed to the teeth, with torpedoes, machine guns… probably even flame-throwers knowing this film. Over a loud-speaker, Zaysen warns them they have no way out. ‘What do you say, John?’ asks Trautman. ‘Fuck ’em,’ snarls Rambo and the pair start shooting. The fact that not one bullet of the returning fire hits anywhere near them is, of course, a motif of action films. The fact they suddenly find a convenient gash in the landscape to hide in is a similar stretch. But the subtext – that a pair of vastly outgunned people can get out of this situation simply because they decide to – sums up this movie’s macho attitude perfectly.

Review: After clashing with Stallone, this film’s original director, Russell Mulcahy (Highlander), was fired mid-shoot and replaced by second-unit director Peter McDonald. ‘I was intrigued by the challenge,’ McDonald later said. ‘I tried very hard to change the Rambo character a bit and make him a vulnerable and humorous person. I failed totally.’ He wasn’t wrong. Rambo III is as amped-up and unsubtle as its lead character’s sweat-glistened biceps. We get lots of worthy talk about the indefatigable spirit of the Afghan people and the evils of the USSR aggression, but for a rescue plot there’s a distinct lack of urgency. John even takes time out to play a local version of polo that uses an animal carcass as the ball. Then, after Rambo has eventually freed Trautman, the film plummets into mind-numbingly drab action: a thousand gunshots, a hundred deaths, a dozen explosions. There *is* a way of doing this kind of story. Compare Rambo III with the superficially similar Arnold Schwarzenegger film Commando (1985) and you can see a gulf of difference. The latter is just as violent and simplistic. It also has a weak central performance and a naïve political attitude towards foreigners. But it’s also knowing and genuinely flamboyant and a lot of fun. Rambo III, on the other hand, is just empty-headed, jingoistic drivel.

Two worst nightmares out of 10

Note: In the three years since the previous Rambo flick, one of the more bizarre spin-offs in pop-culture history had hit TV screens. Animation production company Ruby-Spears decided to produce a kiddie-friendly cartoon version, Rambo: The Force of Freedom, which ran for 65 syndicated episodes between April and December 1986. John Rambo and Colonel Trautman were carried over from the films, sans any mention of PTSD, and were now complemented by zappily named characters such as Edward ‘Turbo’ Hayes, Katherine Anne ‘KAT’ Taylor and TD ‘Touchdown’ Jackson. As a team, these heroes battled terrorists called SAVAGE (Specialist Administrators of Vengeance, Anarchy and Global Extortion). None of the film actors took part.

Next: Rocky V

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985, George P Cosmatos)

RamboFirstBloodPartII

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

War veteran John Rambo is coerced into a dangerous mission, one which involves returning to Vietnam…

What does Stallone do? In the early 1980s, James Cameron – then known as a behind-the-scenes boffin who’d directed a dreadful B-movie called Piranha 2: The Spawning – was offered two writing assignments on the same day. Needing money, he accepted them both, so was working on a sequel to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic Alien at the same time as a draft for a follow-up to the Rambo film First Blood. When he then had to shift focus to his own film The Terminator (1984), Sylvester Stallone took over the First Blood sequel script and made several changes. He removed a techy sidekick character, he beefed up the action, and he underlined the political subtext with some cloying dialogue about patriotism. Although George P Cosmatos is the credited director of the movie, the rumour mill says that Stallone was the real power on set… When we check in with John Rambo (Stallone) a few years after the events of his debut film, we find him breaking rocks in a prison camp. But his old mentor, Colonel Trautman, then offers him a way of cutting short the sentence. Despite the Vietnam War having been over for a decade, it’s rumoured that Americans are still being held there as prisoners of war – and Rambo is required for a covert reconnaissance mission. Parachuting into the jungle, he soon finds an illicit camp and confirms that POWs are in fact there. But despite being on a recce only, he can’t resist helping one of the Americans escape. Things go badly, however, and both men are captured. Rambo is tortured but escapes, then tools-up for a one-man assault on the compound…

Other main characters:
* Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) shows up at Rambo’s prison and tells him his name has been selected by a computer as the ideal man for a dangerous mission. That’s right: the powers-that-be want to arm a war vet with PTSD and return him to Vietnam. ‘Do we get to win this time?’ deadpans Rambo. While John is on his mission, Trautman butts heads with the guy running it…
* Marshall Murdock (Charles Napier) is the arrogant bureaucrat in charge of the op in southeast Asia. He has lots of fancy computers, but no compassion or decency; to him, this is just a box-ticking exercise. When John finds the prisoners, Murdock abruptly aborts his extraction and the sordid truth comes out: the mission was always intended to fail, so money could therefore be saved by not committing to any rescue attempts. Napier is sufficiently weaselly in the role.
* Ericson (Martin Kove from The Karate Kid) is one of Murdock’s lackeys, who acts like a Mafia boss’s bodyguard. He also flies the plane when Rambo is dropped into ‘Nam. Another goon is Lifer (Steve Williams), a perma-sunglassed prick who pulls a gun on Trautman at one point.
* Co-Bao (Julia Nickson) is Rambo’s in-country contact. She helps him cross the jungle and later poses as a prostitute so she can sneak into the enemy camp and rescue him. As often happens in these kinds of films, we’re first told the character’s name in a gender-neutral way so Rambo assumes he’ll be meeting up with a man rather than a hot 20-something woman. Nickson and Stallone have virtually no connection at all in their scenes – it’s like the actors have never met before – and Co-Bao is a nothing character.
* Lt Colonel Podovsky (Steven Berkoff) is a sadistic Russian military type, who arrives in the camp after Rambo’s capture and tortures him for information. The hammy Berkoff had recently played a not dissimilar character in the James Bond film Octopussy (1983).

Key scene: One of the few subtle moments of this movie comes when Rambo breaks an American called Banks (Andy Wood) out of the POW camp. Banks is weak and thin and has clearly been through hell. He asks Rambo what year it is and looks devastated to learn he’s been in captivity so long… The notion that Americans assumed to have died during the Vietnam War were actually being held as POWs was a live political issue in the mid-80s. Given the sheer number of servicemen whose remains were unaccounted for, a lot of people believed the Viet Cong had captured them and were keeping them alive. Subsequent governmental reports, however, concluded that there’s no compelling evidence for the notion being true.

Review: Sometimes a movie’s sequels drift off-topic to such a degree that the series takes on a new reputation. The first Fast and Furious film had none of the cartoon action and Bond-style supervillains of later films, for example. The opening Carry On was a gentle, innuendo-light comedy. The original Friday the 13th doesn’t even have Jason Voorhees in it, let alone a hockey mask. Well, here the stripped-down economy and social satire of First Blood has been abandoned and we’re into the stuff that came to typify the Rambo brand. Part II is a dumb, on-the-nose, right-wing, tough-guy war movie. You half expect Chuck Norris to wander in at any point. When the scenes aren’t dominated by gunplay, stabbings, explosions and nameless foreigners being killed, the drama is patience-testingly basic and empty. In the plus column, composer Jerry Goldsmith and cinematographer Jack Cardiff – classy men with many films of a *much* higher quality on their CVs – are working very hard to lift the material. So it’s not total preposterousness. But it’s not far off.

Five rocket launchers out of 10

Next: Rocky IV

First Blood (1982, Ted Kotcheff)

First Blood

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A former Special Forces soldier is harassed by a small-town police sheriff so decides to fight back…

What does Stallone do? When offered the lead in a new film based on a novel by David Morrell, Sylvester Stallone agreed if he could also work on the script. Sly’s contribution was largely to make Vietnam veteran John Rambo a more sympathetic man. In Stallone’s draft, for example, unlike in the book, the character avoids directly killing people… Rambo is a former Green Beret and a winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Like Stallone’s other key character, Rocky Balboa, he’s also fundamentally a decent guy. But as the story begins, he’s depressed that so many of his old army buddies have died. He wanders into a small town looking for somewhere to eat, but his rough appearance and long(ish) hair rile the local sheriff, who promptly arrests him. Then, during a humiliating booking procedure, John suffers flashbacks to his time in ’Nam. (He was tortured by the Viet Cong and now clearly has post-traumatic stress as well as physical scars.) He snaps, attacks several cops, and flees into the massive woods outside the town. Fashioning improvised weapons and traps, John then evades a manhunt and defends himself when the police get too close… Stallone gives a stoic and largely silent performance based on stillness and stealth (at least until an over-the-top emotional scene towards the end of the film).

Other main characters:
* Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) knows everyone in his small town. But his affable manner with the locals hides the fact he’s a wannabe Dirty Harry. He sees himself as the law incarnate, a man who can dish out summary justice. So when he spots a glum stranger looking slightly unkempt, and fears he might be a troublemaker, Teasle tries to shepherd the guy out of town. A defiant John Rambo ignores the advice – so a pissed-off Teasle arrests him for vagrancy. After Rambo beats up several policemen and escapes custody, Teasle leads the chase into the forests. He thinks he can hunt his prey down, but John is far too well trained – and even sneaks up on the sheriff at one point (with a knife to his throat, he asks him to ‘let it go’). Dennehy – a bear of a man with steel in his eye – is terrific in the role. Teasle’s not a nice man, but neither is he a moron, and the actor plays both elements.
* One of Teasle’s officers is a twatty brute called Art Galt (Jack Starrett). He’s the ringleader who treats John so appallingly when he’s arrested – beating him, blasting him with cold water, generally treating him like scum – then later falls fatally from a helicopter while trying to shoot his nemesis in the woods. A young David Caruso is one of the other cops.
* Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) shows up when the manhunt gets underway. He’s John’s former Special Forces CO and knows full well how dangerous he can be. ‘I didn’t come here to rescue Rambo from you,’ he tells Teasle when the two men butt heads. ‘I came here to rescue you from him.’ He can’t at first convince his protégé to come in, but later confronts him when John returns to the town… (Kirk Douglas was initially hired to play Trautman, but then quit soon into filming: creative differences, it seems.)

Key scene: After hiding in the woods for more than 24 hours, Rambo is eventually flushed out and returns to the town of Hope, Washington (or ‘Jerkwater, USA’ as Trautman sarcastically calls it). Before this point, First Blood has been a grungy, down-and-dirty drama; now it takes on an expressionistic, mythical feel. The town has become a hellish reflection of Rambo’s state of mind: it’s night-time, it’s deserted, and thanks to John’s covert diversion tactics, there are fires rages at several locations. The stage is set for a showdown…

Review: This efficiently directed movie – no fuss, no fat – takes place in the Pacific Northwest of America, so there’s plenty of low cloud, mountains, mud, rain, woodland and mist. But despite this setting, which obviously echoes the kind of terrain John Rambo will have crossed in Vietnam, the plot is straight out of a Western. John is the iconoclastic stranger of few words who wanders into a new town and clashes with a powerful figure – akin to Clint Eastwood in, say, A Fistful of Dollars (1964) or High Plains Drifter (1973). Teasle is obviously the corrupt sheriff. (Additionally, like many Westerns, First Blood has no interest in female characters.) Barrelling along, with both action and a bit of subtext about how society treats its ‘heroes’, this is an entertaining and well-made film. Whether the brave, emotional finale hits home will depend on personal taste, however. Perhaps Stallone’s manic, garbled delivery when Trautman elicits a cathartic breakdown from Rambo is appropriate for a man so traumatised by a savage war. Or maybe it’s just bad acting.

Eight water hoses out of 10

Next: Rambo: First Blood Part II