“When you’re pushed, killing’s as easy as breathing,” says John Rambo.
One of the main reasons Sylvester Stallone wanted to make 1988’s Rambo III was to raise awareness of the ongoing Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that took place during most of the 1980s. Unfortunately, by the time the film was released, the invasion was coming to an end (thanks in part to a secret influx of American weapons to the Afghan rebels) and tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were improving (the Berlin Wall came down the following year and soon after the end of the Cold War). It seemed that we had seen the last of John Rambo on the big screen, dooming him to become a relic of 1980s action cinema. However, there was a renaissance of sorts in the 2000s of iconic cinematic characters: Arnold Schwarzenegger returned as the Terminator in 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Bruce Willis as John McClane in 2007’s Live Free Or Die Hard, Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones in 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Jeff Bridges as Kevin Flynn in 2010’s Tron: Legacy, and Stallone as Rocky Balboa in 2006’s Rocky Balboa. With Rocky Balboa proving to be a critical and commercial success, Stallone turned his attention to that other iconic cinematic character he’s famous for: John Rambo.
One of Stallone’s main goals for the new Rambo film was ensuring that it would be relevant to what was going on in the world. Burma (aka Myanmar) was chosen as a setting due to its military government (called the Tatmadaw) conducting what is essentially a genocide of the Karen people (a group of Burmese from the Karen State who continue to fight for independence). The film’s opening images (taken from real news footage) sets the tone for the rest of the movie. The story revolves around a group of missionaries who are making their way to Burma. They encounter John Rambo in Thailand. Rambo, who’s been making a living capturing and selling snakes as well as ferrying passengers on his boat, is asked to transport them to Burma. He refuses at first, but is later convinced by Sarah (Julie Benz), one of the missionaries, to do so (she’s also the first person to treat Rambo like a normal human being in years). He brings them to Burma, where they will deliver medicine, education, and other supplies to a Karen village. Some time later, their pastor (Ken Howard) visits Rambo and informs him that the village was attacked and the missionaries were taken hostage by the Tatmadaw. He asks Rambo to transport a group of mercenaries to Burma so that they can rescue them. Along the way, Rambo finally confronts what he is and fully re-awakens the killing machine that’s inside.
First Blood author David Morrell has noted that this was the first Rambo film whose tone matched the one of the original novel. This film was released in the U.S. simply titled Rambo (despite a promo reel at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival showing the title John Rambo). Rambo finally comes full circle, embracing the man he is after all those years of hating himself for the killing machine that he was. It is through Sarah’s kindness that he is able to find a reason to live rather than just exist, although much of his cynicism towards the world still remains (perhaps rightfully so). I was amazed that Lionsgate screened the film for critics in advance of its U.S. release (they usually don’t screen their crappy movies for critics). I was disappointed to see a lot of negative reviews get posted despite all the positive buzz that had been building up to its release. Upon reading the negative reviews I realized that no one had actually made the argument as to why this was a bad film (no one has). In fact, the basis that critics used for saying that the film was “bad” was that it was the most violent film ever made (which made me wonder how many violent films these critics had actually seen, and were they, perhaps, raised by Mormons).
I had expected a good film for the latest Rambo adventure, and it was even better than I had hoped. Although there was a lot of violence, it’s important to remember that it was based on actual violence that occurs in Burma; in fact, the violence had to be significantly toned down for the film because the real-life violence is so much worse. Once you look beyond the film’s violence, you’ll find the continuation of a character study of a mentally wounded Vietnam vet that had begun more than 25 years earlier in 1982’s First Blood. It’s a shame the film wasn’t better received when it first came out, but thankfully it’s found its audience over the last few years. Stallone even released a director’s cut on Blu-ray (titled John Rambo) with eight minutes of additional footage. Instead of more action, the new footage offers additional character moments for Rambo and Sarah, strengthening the story even more. It also offers an extended discussion between Rambo and the pastor (which had been previewed in the 2007 Cannes promo reel). 2008’s John Rambo provides closure for the legendary character as well as redemption for his metaphorical soul. And one more note: although no one can replace composer Jerry Goldsmith (who scored the first three Rambo films and passed away in 2004), Brian Tyler delivers a Rambo score that Maestro Goldsmith would’ve been proud of.
RELATED ARTICLE: First Blood (1982)
Promo reel shown at 2007 Cannes Film Festival:
Official U.S. trailer: