For years, if a director was trying to get an R rating from the MPAA instead of the box-office-death NC-17, he or she was not allowed to cite precedent (i.e., “Hey, that movie showed a severed head rolling down three flights of stairs — why can’t mine?”). But now that filmmakers can cite precedent, their go-to movie will likely be Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo, possibly the most violent movie ever to get an R rating and a wide release in America. All horror directors should now genuflect towards Stallone for enabling them to indulge in stabbings, shootings, body parts spinning through the air, intestines spilling out, children bayoneted, people’s heads skewered with arrows, bullets literally blowing people in half, and people reduced to red chunky bits dripping down the shield of a mounted machine gun. Not necessarily in that order.
Stallone, of course, will tell you that the violence in Rambo — much of which is perpetrated by the film’s bad guys, vicious Burmese soldiers, and is therefore not intended as gory entertainment — is meant to shed light on the real-life genocide presided over by Burma’s military junta. But really, in terms of how the movie works, the Burmese army are just the baddest bad guys Stallone could find. They make good, guilt-free target practice. Card-carrying liberals have nodded grudging approval to Stallone and Rambo: The movie delivers. As a piece of crude, ejaculatory guerrilla pulp, the movie is at the head of its class (or lack thereof). It takes the psychopathology of vengeful carnage about as far as it can go. Just as Rocky Balboa was Stallone’s back-to-basics gift to Rocky fans, Rambo is a bloody valentine to devotees of the glumly apolitical Vietnam vet who has a talent for ushering dozens of his enemies into the next life.
Rambo is busy catching snakes in Thailand when he’s tapped to bring a group of American missionaries into Burma. At first he declines, but Julie Benz is among them, and since Rambo is secretly a Joss Whedon fanboy, he agrees. Almost as soon as his boat drops them off, the missionaries are captured by Burmese soldiers. Julie Benz is isolated and saved for sexual satisfaction by one soldier who particularly enjoyed her work on Angel. Rambo hears of this and leaps into action, accompanied by several mercenaries led by the lead singer of Right Said Fred. People die. Lots of people die. 3.04 people per minute, according to a chart making the internet rounds, which means Rambo almost achieves action-movie Pi. Or something.
We’ve discussed how Rambo is as a Rambo movie — in its way, it’s as genuine and heartfelt a throwback as Rocky Balboa was. How is it as a movie in general? As a director, Stallone does interesting things; his recent efforts are rather dour and fatalistic, but with a glimmer of hope, building to the climax the fans came to see, and ending on a note of renewal. Rambo certainly has more going on between the lines than, say, Live Free or Die Hard. Stallone takes these two mythological characters at opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum — the simple-minded, good-hearted Rocky and the embittered, cynical Rambo — and walks them through fables in which the hero regains his relevance by being true to himself.
In style, though, Rambo is pretty much a slasher flick. You want to see Rocky win, and you want to see Rambo kill, just like Michael Myers and Jason. Stallone, to his credit, gives Rambo an extra helping of grumpiness — he doesn’t want to kill again, he’s perfectly happy spearing fish in Thailand and staying out of everyone’s business. Circumstance forces his brutal hand — that, and Stallone’s desire to follow up one comeback with another. (Rambo barely lost first place to Meet the Spartans on opening weekend — which is still a step up from Rocky Balboa’s #3 debut.) In the end, I fall back on one of my filmgoing mantras, adapted loosely from Oscar Wilde: A movie like this can be well done or badly done. Rambo is well done, though it looks more like very rare steak.