Universal Soldier

Twenty years later, our one-man military machine's still going Rambo.

A fourth Rambo? The question isn't why; it's what took him so long. Was America's avenging angel of meat just planning to sit out Fallujah and what we're cooking up for Iran and Syria? (Oops — pretend that last part was redacted.) Okay, sure, last time we saw John Rambo, 20 years ago in Rambo III, he was fighting Charlie Wilson's war in sunny Afghanistan without UN sanction or authorization or Aaron Sorkin's snappy patter. Nope, all he had were his pecs, a dwindling ration of monosyllables, and a few of those ragtag, uh, whatchamacall'ems? Oh yeah — mujahideen. So long, Rambo, and thanks for all the covert-ops inspiration.

C'mon, people. We can't hold a lone renegade on the warpath responsible for all the bad stuff that followed. Not when the evidence points to Tom Hanks. Besides, you need only to look at today's Rambo to tell he's sorry for something. First seen toiling sullenly in his current home, a Thailand depicted as just another generic Human-Life-Is-Cheapistan, the big lug can't even enjoy his job gathering death-fight cobras. Not to worry. This being un film de Sylvester Stallone, the former heavyweight champ of grudge-match cinema, John Rambo will get a title shot at redemption and a chance to bust heads to boot.

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Directed by Sylvester Stallone. Written by Stallone and Art Monterastelli. Starring Stallone, Julie Benz, Paul Schulze, and Maung Maung Khin.

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What a strange, feverish, spasmodic movie Rambo is — though not really much stranger or clammier than Stallone's other movies of late as actor, writer, and director. After the knuckle-headed hubris of clanking vehicles ranging from Cobra to Judge Dredd, the plaintive moroseness of 2006's Rocky Balboa gave his 30-years-after sequel a flop-sweat musk more affecting than its go-the-distance theatrics. The hero spent most of the movie wandering old haunts that no longer exist, rehashing old glories that bore everybody, missing all the dead people once in his corner. "This is who I am!" has never sounded more like "This is all I was?"

Rambo gives off an even danker reek of desperation and resignation. Gorier, meaner, and uglier than anything Stallone has made, and as such damnably effective in rousing your bloodlust, this wind-up groin kicker of a movie seems initially as wary of being pulled back into a dirty job as its reluctant hero. Once committed, though, Stallone and his embittered he-man mean to prove that nobody alive can explode more heads, aerate more guts, and perforate more evil ethnic extras. Want to accomplish good works on the other side of the world? Stallone sez: Pack heat.

So when Christian humanitarian-aid workers interrupt Rambo's busy day of cobra-wrangling, hoping to hitch a boat ride upriver to strife-ravaged Myanmar, the older, heavier, no-longer-shirtless ex-action hero agrees. Sure, at first he plays hard to get. Without weapons, he warns the do-gooders, they won't change anything. That prompts one to chide him, in the tone South Park's Kyle uses to scold Cartman: "Thinking like that keeps the world the way it is." "Fuck the world," Rambo sneers as convincingly as a motivational speaker setting up his stemwinder. But the group's lone woman, doe-eyed Sarah (Dexter's Julie Benz), stirs his inner peacenik as well as his latent gallantry.

As soon as the group's baby-faced pacifist spokesman (Paul Schulze) tsk-tsks Rambo for offing some scumbag rapist river pirates, you know these weaklings are torture bait. Sure enough, once Rambo drops them off, they're soon in the clutches of ruthless warmonger Tint (Maung Maung Khin), the Strother Martin of Southeast Asia, whose idea of diversion is much like co-writer-director Stallone's: footraces through rice paddies studded with landmines. Rambo agrees to ferry in a rescue team of mercs, whose skepticism about their scowling boatman ends around the time he wipes out an entire Burmese detail with just a bow and arrows.

Revenge-movie law insists that the bad guys must justify the severity of the Big Payback, and Stallone doesn't pussy-foot through the genre mechanics. The leering, pillaging, NAMBLA-reject Burmese hordes are depicted with a vehemence that makes World War II slap-the-Jap propaganda look pensive. The pit-of-hell prison camp, awash in red smoke flares and stocked with carnivorous pigs, resembles nothing so much as Stayin' Alive's infamous "Satan's Alley" number. The movie's fire-sale production values only heighten its hallucinatory Cannibal Holocaust nastiness.

But the human-rights abuses of Myanmar's real-life ruling junta have at the very least suspended its right to fair representation in a Sly Stallone joint. And so Rambo climaxes with a neck-breaking Howitzer barrage of a montage as hundreds of enemy soldiers, hopelessly outnumbered by Rambo, go down in a battery of extra-squishy beheadings, explosions, and mutilations. By that point, even the movie's love-thy-neighbor wimps are ready to pound skulls with rocks. The message? If killing is what you do best, make sure you kill the right people.

Justifiable excess backed by moral righteousness — boy, do we need it now. A strong case can be made that the ritual-torture component of post-Seventies action movies — the hero's rite of purification through physical agony — comes straight from Stallone's heavy mitts. The twin faces of his screen persona, after all, are a lovable pug who spends fight after fight getting pounded into scaloppine, and this punishment-junkie vet who seems magnetized to pain. But Stallone's imperviousness to irony as both star and director gives Rambo a gritted-teeth conviction that makes it difficult to laugh off, and equally difficult to take seriously. In the end, the movie's efficiency is best measured in the terms of the awestruck dude sitting behind me: "That was one cool gutting."

 
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