Watching Sylvester Stallone dust
off his iconic characters and parade them across the screen one last
(?) time is like watching term-limited or retired politicians
worrying about legacies, with similarly mixed results. 2006’s
“Rocky Balboa” was the Jimmy Carter of the “Rocky” series – so good
in and out of retirement that it seemed more proficient and
admirable than much of the career that preceded it. In contrast,
“Rambo” is more like George W.’s recent trip to the Middle East –
somewhat inevitable, mostly futile, and something which probably
should have happened years earlier.
In “Rambo”, armed with a few
arrows and even fewer words, John Rambo is talked into ferrying a
small group of Christian aid workers upriver from easy-going
Thailand into war-torn Burma (Myanmar). We know this is a bad idea
that won’t change anything because he clearly tells them it’s a bad
idea that won’t change anything. So it’s no real surprise that his
next scenic boat ride clients are mercenaries hired to rescue the
aid workers, unless of course you’re surprised by the apparent ease
with which a church leader can hire mercenaries.
However the plot, or what little
there is of it, is not the key to this travelogue. In making a
statement about uncivil war in Burma, Stallone manages to make an
even bigger statement about violence in cinema, with one of the most
brutal movies I can recall. This is extraordinarily graphic imagery
and, just as the villains are defined by their propensity for
butchering villagers, we get to watch John Rambo slaughtering
troops, many of whom are captured villagers themselves. The only
winners seem to be the special effects artists who made all of the
severed arms, legs and heads.
I’ve enjoyed Stallone and his
movies for years. And I admire and envy him for his ability to
produce, write, direct, and act in the movies that he wants to make
in exactly the manner he wants to make them. But “Rambo” is all
about fatalistic carnage where “Rocky Balboa” managed to focus on
the character rather than the action – and even that action is less
satisfying when John Rambo goes from honed killing machine to simply
killing with machines.
So what next? “Rocky”
progressed with “Rocky II”, “III”, “IV”, “V”, and most recently
“Rocky Balboa”. Any further sequel has about equal odds of being
“Rocky VI”, “Rocky VII”, or “Rocky Balboa II”. Meanwhile, John
Rambo kills better than he counts, going from “First Blood” to
“Rambo: First Blood Part II” to “Rambo III” and now simply “Rambo”.
If we ever get “Rambo II: First Blood Part V”, the title may be more
interesting than the story.
Tony Sheppard is a
Professor at Sacramento State University and Co-Director of the
Sacramento Film & Music Festival