In the Rambo franchise, the 4th installment, gracing us with its blood-smeared presence 20 years since the last, is one that fits the most loosely amongst its brethren. The serious character themes of the first are missing, the second was shite anyway, the third was an all-out popcorn blow-up, and this one often remains confined in its action. Even so, the film is likely to please fans of the franchise, provided of course that they still have the same tastes as to want to see such a film.
Rambo is a veritable dinosaur in action films - old school, gory and gritty. The movie is obsessed with the amount of blood, limbs, innards, and plain and simple carnage that it can make fly at you. Stallone admittedly is effective as John Rambo, the one-man killing machine. Unlike Rocky, the other franchise that Stallone revisited, Rambo is not about relationships and the effect his ageing has on him. In Rambo the age is immaterial, as long as he can blow a %@#$&* to hell.
At their best, the Rambo films are a guttural cry of pure rage and hatred. And this is where Sly takes it upon himself to polish that formula even further. As the movie opens, we are provided with an update of the Hollywood version of the situation in Burma (people are being slaughtered just for fun, little boys are being raped by evil Colonels, and good White people are in much danger).
Amongst this veritable evil and cruelty lives Rambo, a grunting, hulking snake wrangler. Enter a bunch of Christian missionaries, in a mission to pass on help and Bibles to the people of Burma. They want him to help them take a river journey, but he refuses. But Rambo sees a pretty woman (Julie Benz as Sarah), and is filled with testosterone once again. Before they are eventually kidnapped by the Burmese army and Rambo has to wreak holy vengeance on them, there are also the perils of a river journey where Rambo saves the girl from getting raped by evil pirates. Arr!
If the plot could be any more chauvinistic and hardcore testosterone-laden, it would be a fat bulldog mutt with a humping problem. So in true Rambo fashion, Rambo returns to Burma very nearly immediately with a bunch of mercenaries hired by the Church (you read that right) in tow. He kills, maims, eviscerates, beheads, rips and plain blows up every Burmese b@$#%^d he lays his eyes on. Surprisingly, the mercenaries are not just cannon fodder; they join in on the blood fest too.
With a strange ending tacked on, and a lot of running around staring at Burmese dudes from behind foliage before the action starts, it almost feels like that the action setpiece of a really heavy body count was imagined first and the rest of the film was constructed around it. That kind of makes the movie a bit of a disappointment purely in terms of a Rambo film.
Rambo 4 is not a film you compare with other films anyway, because the plot doesn't make sense, but Rambo films can't be bothered by that, and the body count is not to justify a necessary plot element, but to justify the audience's expectations of the film. No sir, comparing Rambo to movies outside of the Rambo universe is rank stupidity.
But even compared to the other Rambo flicks, this one falls short. It's not the best (that would be no. 1) and it's not the worst (my money is on no. 2), but being squarely in the middle is no way for a film revisiting something after 20 years to go.
Rambo is as effective as ever because I think Sly can play these characters in a coma, and the rest of the cast doesn't have much of an individual presence, something that I am totally okay with in a cult of personality-like films such as this. No, the problem is that the paying public goes to see Rambo wreak havoc, plain and simple.
Unfortunately, then, there aren't enough Rambo moments. Sure, Sly spends a lot of time in the jungle staring down his dagger at evil people, but there are not enough signature bow-and-arrow moments, or simple Rambo slicing and dicing people moments into the film.
The climax tries to make up for it, but it doesn't feel as personal or visceral as we want it to be, gory as it may be. This is because Rambo spends quite a lot of time behind the rigger of his favored .50 caliber machine gun. While in the earlier film picking up the .50 cal and running with it was the height of machismo, simply pointing it at small Burmese men is Bond villain territory.
Another gripe I have with Rambo 4 is that it is so gloomily directed, it comes across as a jungle thriller, which as we all agree, a Rambo film is not. It's very hard to see what is going on in the screen with the murky camera work. Despite the dubious moral high ground the film's plot wants to tread, however, and despite all shortcomings in the action department, this Rambo as gritty and as gory as it gets. Strictly for fans.