In the ‘fourth part of the trilogy’ tradition which brought back the likes of Die Hard and Indiana Jones in the 2000s, this basic ‘film by Sylvester Stallone’ revives the writer-director-star’s other iconic character (after Rocky Balboa, who came back a year before) in an excessively violent comic book action movie with glum footnotes. It opens with news footage of the true-life, appalling situation in Burma and a capsule summary of the sixty-year struggle of the Karen people to survive virtual genocide. Though it’s probably a good thing that this film put an underpublicised situation on the multiplex map, Stallone might remember that Rambo III made a similarly black-and-white statement about Afghanistan which plays awkwardly after subsequent developments in the region; there’s also a sense that Stallone has scanned the headlines of the world searching for a conflict in which there really are appalling villains and suffering goodies who need a Rambo to buck them up. Shot and partially set in Thailand, there’s even an echo of the many anti-Burmese films made in that country (Born to Fight, etc) though sadly, and despite a commitment to carnage which goes far beyond contemporary Hollywood, Stallone doesn’t call in the stunt teams and effects people who have done so many astonishing and dangerous things in Tony Jaa movies.
Necessarily as old as the star (61) because of his ‘Nam backstory, Rambo wears a sleeveless t-shirt rather than baring an oiled chest but has musclebound arms of Popeye proportions and a thicker neck than when we last saw him. He’s slumped into peaceful retirement hunting snakes and running a small boat, but gets back in action first when medical missionary Sarah (Julie Benz) and her smugly obnoxious fiancé Michael (Paul Schulze) need to be smuggled upriver on a regularly scheduled mercy mission to dispense doctoring and prayer books among the Christian Karens. Rambo kills some river pirates to save Sarah from gang rape and decapitation, but Michael still prattles that killing is never justified (which inevitably means he later, after much suffering, has to personally bludgeon a thug with a rock). The missionaries are captured by fiendish Burmese commander Tint (Muanh Muang Kinh), whose depredations include forcing villagers to run through paddies seeded with bombs, extensively mortar-bombing and machine-gunning fleeing unarmed peasants, tolerating the mass rape of captive women by a roomful of jeering squaddies and molesting a dour little boy; NB: Kinh is a former Karen rebel, who took this role in order to display his hate for the Burmese enemy, though the casting must have been a mixed blessing for him. A minister (Ken Howard, in one scene) hires Rambo to shepherd a boatload of mixed mercenaries on a rescue mission – which, of course, he takes over, using his warbow, knife and the odd commandeered machine-gun to slaughter hordes of uncharacterised villains for his old schtick of rescuing a few bedraggled survivors.
In the old days, the mercs would all get killed to leave Rambo to fight alone – but here they tag along as part of the hero’s team, going from jovial contempt of the’Boat Man’ to macho admiration of his slaughtering skills. Instead of cavalry, ‘the Karen rebels’ show up for the final battle – but the film’s commitment to realism doesn’t extend to showing any reprisals the oppressive regime might inflict after this story is over. Rambo gets a few of his trademark bursts of action and Stallone wisely has the hero keep quiet as motormouth mercs (including Brits Graham McTavish and Matthew Marsden) taunt him before they find out just what a warrior he is – but there is a tiny thread of sentiment as Sarah nags him about why he hasn’t gone back to America after all these years in exile. A dream montage of snippets from the earlier films allows Richard Crenna’s much-missed Colonel Trautman a voice here, and the last scene restages of the opening of First Blood with Rambo ‘coming home’ to a never-before-mentioned father with an idyllic homestead (if this character was around, the whole plot of First Blood needn’t have happened), though it’d have been a stronger finish if an unwelcoming Sheriff were around to hassle the hero and start the whole cycle up again. Minimally-plotted and maximally violent, this doesn’t quite have the mood-of-a-nation tone of First Blood and Rambo: First Blood, Part II, but it’s a stronger, less pretentious, more brutally efficient finish than Rambo III.
Now, could someone please do a tough, horrific, faithful adaptation of David Morrell’s outstanding novel First Blood?