by Tony Dayoub
Though Sylvester Stallone left the ending open enough to allow for even more sequels, this deserves to be the last Rambo film. The movie's final scene ends the series on a graceful note, a subtle reference to the first scene in First Blood. And even though the violence and gore is the most brutal that this series has ever seen, it is evident Stallone is commenting on both the political and artistic baggage which has often weighed down the character.
The film picks up 20 years after Rambo III. Rambo is still living in Thailand, though he is no longer living in a monastery nor stick-fighting to support himself. He has now retreated further into Thailand's jungles where he runs a small crew that sells snakes to a local snake-fighting showman. Thought he couldn't verbalize the demons haunting him before? He is even less prone to talk now. Which is why when a group of missionaries call on him to ferry them up to Burma, rife with the destruction of a genocidal civil war, he wastes little time in his monosyllabic refusal to take them up there. But when one of the missionaries, Sarah, connects to him on an emotional level, he gives in. He journeys up the river, evoking images of Apocalypse Now, for this is Rambo's heart of darkness we are voyaging into. Ten days after he has dropped his passengers off, Sarah, and her fellow missionaries have disappeared, possibly being held captive by the Burmese army. Guess who must rescue them?
By setting the film in Burma he manages to be topical without hitting on the head with allusions to a present-day conflict as he did in Rambo III. That backfired, as evidenced by the ending title card that dedicated the movie to the Afghans. 20 years later we are locked in a war with the Afghans, a war seeded from our intervention in their conflict with the Russians in the 80s (the time of Rambo III's release). The Burmese army represents a clear-cut enemy that the Iraqi insurgents, for example, would not have. The Iraqi conflict is one whose blame may not be so easy to pin down. The brutality of the Burmese soldiers against the Karen refugees of the film is horrific. Every blown off leg, chopped arm and murdered child is indelibly burned in one's mind.
Rambo's retribution is even more brutal. This is Stallone, who directed the film, letting you know this is not Reagan's Rambo, celebrated savior of forgotten vets. This is the Rambo that shares a lot in common with the very cobras he collects. Like the cobra, pushed the wrong way he will kill, for it is in his nature to kill. And when the damage he's done at the end of the picture is surveyed, there is no sense of gratitude for the rescue he achieved. There is only a lingering regret that, as his mentor Trautman warned him in the last film, it is only when he accepts his true nature as a killer that he'll be able to leave the killing behind.
Make no mistake, the violence and gore in this movie are far from the cartoonish, clever, or patriotic displays of the previous films in the series. Stallone is aware of how the depiction of violence has changed in the torture porn (Hostel, Saw) era of film, and post-Private Ryan treatment of battlefield war films in particular. He cunningly uses the excesses of such violence to respond to the criticisms often lobbed against the Rambo films, movies whose enjoyment in their portrayal of violence has little consequence past the next frame. This movie is much smarter and more cynical than I expected it to be.