It’s been 20 years since Congressional Medal of Honor winner John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) last butchered hordes of America’s enemies, and things have changed quite a bit. The Cold War ended, taking with it the hatred of godless Communism that fueled the last two flicks, and Rambo himself subsequently retreated further from public scrutiny than ever. As “Rambo” opens he’s eking out a living in Thailand, running a modest water taxi service and catching cobras for the local snake show. The solitary existence would appear to suit the ex-war hero, which is why we know it won’t last.
Sure enough, a group of Christian missionaries show up, requesting passage up the Salween River into Burma. Their mission is to bring medicine (and Bibles) to the Karen people, who continue to be victimized by the Burmese military. With the arrogance so peculiar to those who claim to act in the name of Jesus, they ignore Rambo’s warnings about traveling into Burma. However he’s finally convinced by the virginal Sarah Miller (Julie Benz), who successfully appeals to his long-dormant sense of humanity. They set out, and even an encounter with a gang of would-be rapist pirates (who are efficiently dispatched by Rambo) isn’t enough to deter them. Eventually he drops them off near the village.
The events that follow – soldiers murdering most of the Karen villagers and kidnapping the missionaries – are more than enough provocation for Rambo to get his rampage on. More than that, this latest atrocity in a life full of them finally forces our main man to fully accept who he really is. At last the mealy-mouthed jingoism and apologia for a lost war are tossed aside. Rambo is, simply put, a born killer, and it only took 26 years and three movies for him to realize it. Even the missionaries, initially full of platitudes about the sanctity of life, come to realize their god is no match for Rambo.
What comes next is some of the most comprehensive ultraviolence ever seen in a mainstream Hollywood release. Rambo is joined by a band of mercenaries hired by the church to recover the missionaries, with expected results. Hundreds are shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, and blown up. More people shuffle off their mortal coil here than in the previous three installments combined, and the attendant exploding heads, perforated torsos, and showers of gore weave a tapestry of bloodshed that is something to behold.
This heightened viciousness is a natural by-product of these turbulent times. The earlier movies, the second one in particular, had high body counts, but like other action movies from that decade the violence had a glossy feel to it. Scores died, but Stallone and company never rubbed our faces in it. The relatively clear demarcations signifying the days of US-Soviet détente are long over, and perhaps nothing reflects this sea change more than the 61-year old Stallone himself. Gone is the lean, tapered torso of yesteryear; this Rambo is a hulking brute. The botox in the face is a bit off-putting, no doubt, but he certainly put all that HGH to good use. 1980s Rambo might have been able to run a half-marathon without breaking a sweat, but this one looks like he could crush your skull in his bare hands.
In keeping with his decades of isolation, Rambo is particularly reticent with the other characters. Even the lead merc’s attempts at provocation are met with sullen contempt. The only one who comes close to cracking his beefy façade is Sarah, and he risks life and limb to rescue her from the enemy’s clutches (the Burmese women captives, on the other hand, are left to be abused and violated by the soldiers). Even so, he’s incapable of dredging up even the rudimentary affection he felt for Co Bao in “Pt. II.” Watching Rambo and Sarah on screen together, one is reminded less of Rick and Ilsa and more of Kong and Ann Darrow.
But then, the bad guys naturally come off the worst. We’ve gone from redneck Americans (“First Blood”) to ruthless Soviets (“II” and “III”) to sleazy Burmese. It’s telling that these are the only “Rambo” villains that Rambo himself never deigns to speak with directly, preferring to do his talking with a machine gun, or a knife. And in keeping with the more primitive theme, his signature blade this time around isn’t a custom, sawback survival job, but a quasi-machete that Rambo forges himself.
“Rambo” is a straight-ahead exercise in brutality. The past movies’ glorification of combat is somewhat lessened, even if one can picture Rambo muttering, “God help me I do love it so” as he surveys the carnage in the film’s penultimate scene. Stallone is too old and tired to play it cute these days, making his latest effort (which he both co-wrote and directed) supremely satisfying, in the most visceral sense of the word.