The Sylvester Stallone nostalgia tour that began with another “Rocky” continues with this fourth “Rambo.” Although Stallone plays it completely straight, the mere idea of the aging action star strapping on the bandana again is risible enough to let the movie play like a comedy too, albeit one with an unusually high body count. So while much of the audience will show up to admire what armored-piercing weapons do to human flesh, others can giggle at the notion of Rambo’s return in a movie that doesn’t risk gumming up its carnage with much of a plot.
Based on “Rocky’s” scorecard, box office should be initially robust, which will be welcome if only to compensate the movie’s 11 executive producers — evidence of the business contortions required to engineer Rambo’s comeback, with Stallone as co-writer and director as well as reprising his starring role.
In a sense, the timing is strangely appropriate, inasmuch as “Rambo” wound up being a kind of referendum on Vietnam, advancing the theory that the war was winnable if only we’d let Rambo do his job, leaving him to pay (and pay and pay) for all his countrymen’s sins back home. Given the current debate over Iraq, this latest bloodbath perhaps wisely steers clear of those landmines, though they remain unavoidable subtext to anybody who knows the character’s history.
Although Rambo made his debut in 1982, he was last seen 20 years ago fighting alongside the Afghan Mujahadeen against the Soviet incursion — “Charlie Wilson’s War,” if you will, with more explosions and less dialogue.
The new film — which goes without a “IV” anywhere — finds the ex-Green Beret killing machine living in Thailand and paying the rent by capturing snakes, looking leathery and sounding gravelly on those occasions where he deigns to speak with something more than a weary, withering stare.
Recruited to ferry a church group of idealistic doctors on a humanitarian mission to Burma, he balks at first, citing the dangerous civil war there. Indeed, the Burmese in the movie largely break into two barely human categories: cannon fodder; and sadistic butchers who graphically slaughter entire villages of men, women and children, the better to unleash the righteous wrath of you-know-who.
Among the missionaries is Sarah (Julie Benz of Showtime’s “Dexter”), who in a brief exchange melts Rambo’s heart enough to prompt him to guide them upriver and into No Man’s Land. When Sarah and her companions are taken prisoner, he agrees to return with a small mercenary force, setting up a battle sequence against impossible odds. It spoils nothing to say that while the opposing army is said to number 100, roughly 10 times that many seem to die, often losing limbs in showers of gore.
Despite being set in the jungle and lensed in Thailand, the movie has an oddly washed-out look, and some sequences look like they could have been shot in Griffith Park. Multiple scenes, moreover, are staged during driving rainstorms, which, like the modest running time (roughly 80 minutes before the credit scroll begins), perhaps helps obscure a limited budget.
Then again, the world of Rambo is equally dreary, a place where a do-gooder doctor (Paul Schulze) who says “Taking a life is never right” is clearly due a rude awakening. As for Rambo, he not only knows killing is justified but, after a gauzy flashback, grudgingly accepts that it’s the only thing he really does well.
Stallone (who looks fit but mostly keeps his shirt on) has no intention of bogging the action down, but it’s still a notably cheerless exercise, without knowing winks or stabs (pardon the expression) at humor. It is in all respects, rather, a completely workmanlike effort, providing just enough background on the Burmese thugs to pave the way for their comeuppance.
Watching Rambo pilot his boat and ragtag crew down the river, in fact, brought to mind a line from the atmospherically similar “Apocalypse Now,” albeit slightly altered for the occasion: He wanted a movie, and for our sins, they gave him one.