Saturday, March 29, 2008

Movie Review: John Rambo

The original suicide weapon is still full of surprises

John Rambo: When you’re pushed, killing is as easy as breathing.

I dare you. Go into this flick expecting a formula. Go in with a preconceived notion about how appalling violence is. Sit down and make up your mind that Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is about as bad as the worst Steven Seagal/Jeanne-Claude Van Damme stuff you’ve ever been dished up. Happy? Pretty soon you are going to be eating humble pie, but watch that you don’t get your face splattered with blood.

Nobody says it better than Rambo himself. Fuck the world. He’s fed up with the world, and he has damn good reasons to be. But c’mon, are you going to sit around in the backwoods all day, or do something. “Go home,” he implores. It’s like saying, “Walk out of the movie. You don’t want to see this.” But we do, don’t we? And that’s the question: why do we want to see this?

The movie is set in Thailand, Chiang Mai in particular. The initial scenes in nature are delicately primeval. The rain, the trees, the dirty faces of the natives, the snake handling and woodsmoke all add up to John’s Life. This is life; the hard life of the Third World. He says he has lived this way for a ‘long time’.

It’s always interesting, just from a purely escapist point of view, when movies literally transport you to faraway places. We find Rambo as the everyman in exile, eeking out a living catching snakes, and otherwise proving his finesse as a hunter. This is powerful stuff for the office worker who silently rages against his boss, who is stifled behind a desk. The primitive hunting streak is something every boy is born with, and some men never outgrow it. Even Rambo tries to shed his skin. At one point he guiltily admits to himself, “You didn't kill for your country... you killed for yourself.” At some level there is bitter satisfaction in this process.

Rambo is approached by a group of American Christians (including Julie Benz as“Dexter”), who ask him to pilot them across the northern border, taking the Salween River into the Burmese civil war. Rambo isn’t interested. But the tagline says it all, doesn’t it: ‘Heroes never die…they just reload.’

While some will recite all the clichés about Rambo movies, this is a lesson that bears repeating: it’s a big bloody mistake to get involved in foreign wars. Revenge, survival, and antagonism – these drives came across powerfully. And it is often religious beliefs that compel us to ignore the obvious dangers.

Lewis: God didn't save you, we did.

We are all born with an innate sense of indignation. Hurt me or my people long enough and you will pay the price with interest. Is it coincidence that one of the characters is Mike Burnett (the same name behind the survivor series?)

This film is about atrocity but probably not in the way many people expect; it is visceral and bloody, but John Rambo holds back until what feels like the last moment. The insuing carnage is vicious and disturbing, in ways that illict the grittiness of Saving Private Ryan, except the screen literally spatters with blood.

Although many will slate this movie (Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 3/10), and many will be dismissive, I found it very well done as a critique on war, but not only a critique – it allows the viewer to probe their own attitudes towards violence (and satisfaction through violence). Blind idealism sometimes seems sensible, even good, but the real world is often merciless. Somehow John Rambo’s simple words do ring true, now more than ever (especially with Afghanistan and Iraq echoing over the news). You can’t change the world. You can only change your world.

Rating: 7.5/10

Running Time: 91 minutes.
Rated R for strong graphic bloody violence, sexual assaults, grisly images and language.

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