Monday, January 28, 2008
Rambo: The Reaction
I've had fun being "excited" for Sylvester Stallone's Rambo, but I honestly didn't have much hope to like it. My enthusiasm has been enhanced by nostalgia, but also by an old-fashioned sense of sarcasm.
Rewatching the older First Blood films, I've realized though every one is enjoyable on its own terms, there's not a great film in the bunch. You have the brawny-and-dumb original, the brawnier-and-dumber second one, and the brawniest-and-not-quite-as-dumb-as-the-second-one third one. A lot of brawny, a lot of dumb, and sometimes a lot of fun - but that's it.
So calling Rambo the best of the First Blood films isn't necessarily the highest praise. But after just one viewing, I'm also prepared to say it's one of the best action films I've seen in years, and maybe the most purely fun moviegoing experience I've had in the same span.
It's really unbelievable what Stallone has pulled off here. He's taken a character dormant for 20 years and infused him with a wholly believable sense of purpose. I've read many surprised positive reactions to the film, most of them saying they loved it "for what it was." Meaning, of course, they weren't willing to give the film credit for being anything other than a blood fest. It is more, though.
Yes, there's an absolute orgy of bullets, hacked-off limbs, freed bowels, poofs of blood, ripped-out tracheas, and even the occasional stabbed child. It's not for everybody. But at the same time, the film's story is so involving you're infused with the guilt-free bloodlust of the main character. Stallone has done such a superb job fashioning a plot that supports this carnage - you legitimately hate the bad guys, and each act of comeuppance is an adrenaline-fueled rush. And the heartfelt moments actually work this time, when in previous Rambo films they teetered on the edge of parody.
It's funny, but the movie is really just a boiled-down remake of Rambo III. Rambo gets approached about a mission set in a real-world hot zone, turns it down, mission fails, and Rambo is sent in for the rescue. But the difference in the final products really show Stallone's strength as a filmmaker. This is the first Rambo film he's written and directed, and definitely the first one he's been this emotionally invested in.
Most importantly, he straddles the character's realistic and superhero aspects better here than in all the previous films put together. Even though Rambo always seems to be in the right place, and never takes that fatal bullet, we are forgiving of any such logic stretches. He also shows enough respect for the true plight of the Burmese people - even opening the film with documentary footage - to avoid any real accusations of exploitation. The film actually works in some regard as a civics lesson.
Stallone's rebirth with 2006's Rocky Balboa was a safer bet. The Rocky series features a more likable lead character, has an easier-to-digest formula, and has two bonafide classics and two more all-time crowd pleasers already in its history. There's no single John Rambo film with even the pedigree of Rocky IV. Until now, of course, as Stallone has solidified his (at least) two-movie comeback. I'm excited to see what this filmmaker has for us next, as he seems to have learned from the excesses of his past.