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Category:    Home > Reviews > Action > Rambo (2008/Theatrical Film Review)

Rambo (2008/Theatrical Film Review)


Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz

Director: Sylvester Stallone

Critic's rating: 6 out of 10


Review by Chuck O'Leary



In the 1987 movie Heat, a wimpy young multi-millionaire (Peter MacNicol) receiving self-defense lessons from a human lethal weapon (Burt Reynolds) asks his new teacher, "I guess you're probably a violent man by nature?," to which Burt's character responds, "No, I'm not. I'm just good at it."  That line is also applicable to John J. Rambo, a Vietnam veteran and former Green Beret who just wants to brood away in peace and tranquility, but always finds himself pulled in perilous situations where he's forced to unleash his deadly skills. 


When we last saw John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), nearly 20 years ago in Rambo III (which was released in theaters on May 25, 1988), him and his only friend, Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna), were leaving a battlefield in Afghanistan where they had just helped Afghan rebels defeat a good-sized regiment of the Soviet army.  Rambo and Col. Trautman's final words as they rode off together we're something to the effect of "maybe we're getting a little soft."


But in Rambo's belated fourth adventure, which is annoyingly being called just Rambo despite the fact the second film in the series was called Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rambo is anything but soft when we meet up with him again.  As he was at the beginning of the third, he's still living in Thailand at the start of the fourth, now catching poisonous cobras and ferrying people up and down the river in his boat.


Col. Trautman is apparently dead since the actor who played him, Richard Crenna, died of pancreatic cancer on January 17, 2003.  Just mentioning the loss of Trautman would have been sufficient enough explanation to Rambo's unhappy disposition, but Trautman only appears briefly in a flashback sequence and is disappointingly never mentioned by name.  But for whatever reasons, Rambo is as stoic, isolated and cynical as ever at the beginning of the latest Rambo -- will somebody please stop this nonsense of not numbering sequels as if audiences are too stupid to know what installment of a franchise they've reached. 


Rambo's fourth adventure begins when he's approached by a group of Christian missionaries seeking to bring aid to neighboring, war-torn Burma.  Warning them that "Burma's a war zone" and without weapons "you ain't changin' nothin'," Rambo initially refuses to ferry the missionaries up river.  But even a guy as remote as Rambo is evidently a sucker for a pretty face, and after some cajoling and hand-touching by Sarah (Julie Benz), Rambo relents and agrees to take the missionaries into dangerous Burma.


Of course, the missionaries are soon taken hostage by brutal Burmese forces.  When Rambo gets word of the situation, he agrees to ferry a group of mercenaries, hired for a rescue mission by the church leader (Ken Howard), up river to the place where he left the missionaries off.  But as we already know, this is no ordinary boatman at the helm.  Guess who'll soon be dusting off the old bow and arrow?


Rambo IV is the first in the series directed by Stallone himself, and it's Stallone's first stab at directing full-fledged action -- other than four of the Rocky sequels, Stallone's only previous forays behind the camera were the likable Paradise Alley (1978) and the notoriously bad Saturday Night Fever sequel, Staying Alive (1983).  Stallone does a competent job with most of the action, and provides what's easily the most graphic violence in the series.  And he again brings considerable stature and intensity to his second most famous character.  Stallone was 60 going on 61 when Rambo IV was filmed in the winter/spring of 2007, and he's still in remarkably good shape.  The fact that he never takes off his shirt in this one is the only hint of age.


While this is the least of the four films, and Crenna's presence is sorely missing, the fourth Rambo gets a passing grade as an old-style mission movie stripped down to the bare action-flick essentials.  It was co-written by Stallone and a guy named Art Monterastelli, who also co-wrote William Friedkin's The Hunted (2003), another stripped-down, cut-to-the-chase action film obviously inspired by the film that introduced John Rambo, 1982's First Blood.  But like The Hunted, Rambo IV seems too stripped down with too little character development.  All of the supporting players (the missionaries and the mercenaries) are one note, while the Burmese enemy soldiers are really of no note at all except for their brutality.  They're merely stick figures to be blown apart.  At least, II and III had Soviet commanders and a big henchman or two whose nastiness we could cheer against, but there are no such hissable figures here.  And I'd have also appreciated a few more details about what Rambo has been doing (or not doing) for the past 20 years.


Rambo obviously needed a better enemy to fight this time, and even though it's again a cop out not to have Islamic extremists as the villains, the fourth Rambo is a lot more entertaining in its old-school, no-nonsense, bloody action than the fourth Die Hard was with its CGI overkill.  At least the R-rated Rambo IV delivers on a purely action level, which is a lot more than I can say for most of its modern-day, watered-down, PG-13 counterparts.


The fourth Rambo runs barely 90 minutes -- after 15 minutes of trailers, our showing began at 12:30 p.m. and we were already back in the parking lot at a few minutes before 2:00 p.m.  I don't know how much control Stallone had over the final cut of his film, but the Weinstein brothers are listed as two of the film's many producers, and Harvey Weinstein has sometimes been called Harvey Scissorhands due to his chopping down of running times.  If there's a longer director's cut of Rambo IV, hopefully it will surface on DVD.


The end result of Rambo IV is akin to that of The Dead Pool (1988), the fifth (and probably final) Dirty Harry movie.  Yes, it is the least of the series, but years later, fans of the character will be glad it exists.


On a final note, another key player in the Rambo series was the late, great composer Jerry Goldsmith -- he died on July 21, 2004.  Rambo's exploits seemed more exciting when they were accompanied by Goldsmith's alternately moody and rousing musical score.  Composer Brian Tyler recreates some of Goldsmith's themes, but not nearly enough.  Tyler's original music, which accompanies most of the action here, is a lot more nondescript.


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