I love John J. Rambo.
My first reaction after seeing Rambo at the cinema was that if there was a new Rambo movie every year, I would be one happy boy. Such was my absolute delight in seeing every brooding and brutal second, that my life felt more complete having John Rambo back in it, and if you think this is high praise you should be aware of how strong my Rambo fanaticism is: the end of First Blood can bring me to tears and I even love Rambo 3. That’s right, I said Rambo 3.
Now, before I lose all credibility, I think it’s worth reminding people that the character of Rambo, much like Sylvester Stallone himself, is often tarnished by his own reputation and never really given enough credit in terms of depth or cinematic strength, so just as people forget that Stallone once wrote the Oscar™ nominated screenplay for Rocky, they also forget that Rambo is a character who has smiled, cried and loved (albeit not for very long). That said the contemporary Rambo, who we join twenty years later, is completely cut off from the world, living a self imposed life of exile, full of self hatred after never coming to terms with who he really is, yet he still remains a figure of tragic sympathy having never really readjusted to a normal life after enduring and exercising so much suffering and death.
People have criticised the film for being too slow at the start, spending too much spent sailing up and down a river with very little else happening, but I found the pacing perfect for the very lean 91 minute run time, for although the first half is interspersed with the most brutal war atrocities you’re ever likely to have seen up to this point on screen (I’ve never seen blood look so red), the real pace should be monitored by the actions of Rambo himself. Each act of violence he commits builds in its visceral impact, from a few quick gun shots, to the use of his trusty bow and arrow and culminating in one gigantic exercise in meat grinding.
I am aware that like so many action movies, particularly from the 80s (The Running Man is always a favourite example) the film asks the audience to deplore violence committed on the innocent, then cheer when the hero is decimating the bad guys and revel in every death, but that was always a part of those films and with the new Rambo I actually found it refreshing to see a totally unflinching depiction of action violence. I don’t think there is even a remote chance that the film can engage the audience in the middle, such is the strength of the brutality, (and don’t get me wrong, even I found some of it shocking and that doesn’t happen very often) but for me that works to its credit – when was the last time an action movie made you question your love of the onscreen violence (for the record I don’t count A History Of Violence, even despite my affinity for Ara… um, Viggo Mortensen as a hero, the film was far more about the impending threat or unexpected explosion of violence for me) or presented any form of moral challenge?
Due to the film’s violent nature and particularly the political content surrounding the war in Burma, the special features are far more relevant and enlightening than on most DVDs, as all the issues are addressed by everyone from the filmmakers, to the cast and even the aid workers involved in raising awareness of the plight of the Burmese people. Consequently I’ll break them down and allow each one to raise its own points:
It’s a Long road – Resurrection of an Icon (19mins)
Curiously Stallone talks about the original idea for the new film having Rambo back in America, getting him involved in trouble in Mexico while attempting to find a girl who went off for a holiday and never returned. The pitch had me think of Rambo meets Man On Fire, which to be honest would have me bouncing off the ceiling with joy, throw in Denzel Washington for Rambo 5 and I’ll dance naked through the streets of London, throw in Christopher Walken and I’ll… er… never mind. There have been rumblings from Stallone about another Rambo sequel, though not of the action/war genre and this idea would be good enough to warrant a fifth outing as more of an urban thriller (with lots of violence).
As with all the featurettes, the views from the cast and crew come across as honest. No one has any illusions that they are making anything other than an action movie, but simply by placing the action in Burma means that everyone, including the audience, can’t help but become more aware of the war. At various points Stallone, amongst others, states that if just a handful of people come out of the movie and decide to help or get more involved in raising awareness, then that is no bad thing and certainly more than he could ask from his movie.
A Score to Settle – The Music of Rambo (6mins)
A brief introduction to composer Brian Tyler, which also acts as an affectionate reminder of the sad passing of Jerry Goldsmith in 2004, as Tyler points out the parallels in their respective careers having both worked on Star Trek and Alien scores. Also of interest for the explanation of how Tyler added two new recurring themes to Goldsmith’s existing three. I was initially worried about having a Rambo film without Jerry Goldsmith’s score but the fusion of the two composers works as beautifully as it did with John Ottman’s Superman Returns soundtrack.
The Art of War – Completing Rambo (7mins and 3mins)
Split into two sections, one for the editing and the other for sound.
Mostly the first section is a chance for the editor to offload the pressure he was under to cut an immense amount of footage as quickly as possible, especially as Stallone was using up to eight cameras just to film the dialogue. He also informs us that the original cut submitted to the MPAA was expected to receive an NC-17 certificate, but much to everyone’s surprise got an ‘R’ so there was no need to release an unrated or director’s cut of the film – what you see is what they shot.
The sound section raises the issue that without music being added to the machine gun scenes at the end, certain scenes would be completely free of entertainment as the constant barrage of machine gun fire would become too real and cease to be entertainment.
The Weaponry of Rambo (14mins)
A joy to anyone who wants to know more about Matthew Marsden’s awesome sniper rifle, a next generation gun which has a three mile range, a muzzle flare of fifteen feet on either side and is capable of blowing heads off. It also features a key alternate scene for any Rambo fanatic involving the fate of his iconic knife…
A Hero’s Welcome – Release and Reaction (9mins)
A short but life affirming featurette which notes that although the box office takings for Rambo and Meet The Spartans were virtually tied, that there were reports of $2 million ticket sales for Spartans actually consisting of kids buying their tickets and then sneaking into Rambo instead – excellent stuff but for the fact it will encourage more from the spoof stable…
It also features yet more humility from those involved, in particular the increasingly affable Marsden, who describes himself as a poxy actor, while telling how providing a small token to some troops in Iraq meant the world to them. I’m now starting to become more and more of the opinion that if the roles hold out Marsden deserves and should become more of a star.
Legacy of Despair – The Real Struggle in Burma (10mins)
The film itself is banned in Burma. Being caught watching it can result in a 10 year prison sentence, anyone caught selling it could be given life – or even death. The actor who plays the main villain in Rambo was in fact a hero of the Karen rebels and was aware that just taking the role could result in his family in Burma (the film was shot in Thailand) being imprisoned, but such was his desperation to raise more awareness for the plight of his people that he took it.
It’s such a strange thing to be such a fan of the Rambo franchise, to challenge yourself over how violence in cinema can affect your viewpoint and then to be informed so briefly, but intelligently over how things exist in the real world. The atrocities depicted, as shocking as they may be in a fictional film, have still been toned down, Stallone at one point on the commentary describes the real events as “inconceivable to the Western mind”. As always, shots and stories of real violence and injury are far more horrifying, especially when presented with facts such as the Burmese army being encouraged to rape by being handed awards for doing so, but by far the oddest mixture of fiction meeting fact is that the line from the film “Live for nothing, or die for something” while merely another cheesy one liner to us, has actually become an inspiration to the Burmese people.
Deleted Scenes and Director’s Commentary
Despite the lack of direct commentary on the deleted scenes, they are all mentioned during the feature commentary by Stallone who is as informative as he is self deprecating. The four deleted scenes all involve the relationship between Rambo and Sarah (the excellent and much under used Julie Benz), the second of which Stallone says he regrets cutting and rightfully so as it contains a great philosophy on Rambo’s view of the world: that war is natural and that peace is an accident. For me though the best aspect to the commentary, aside from some amusing anecdotes is the insight into the character of Rambo that Stallone is able to give in virtually every scene as both the actor and director of the character, which is a fantastic insight into his mind, especially when so little is actually spoken by Rambo himself.
Overall as a fan of the franchise I really couldn’t have asked for more in a sequel, especially twenty years down the line and I’m just glad that after all this time, that my first chance to see a Rambo film on the big screen still had the same adrenaline-filled impact that the original films had on me all those years ago.