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Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2008 10:34 am

New low in taste, new high in carnage

Rambo returns with more guts and gore

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Rambo Running time 1:33 Rated R ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East
There are many perks to being a film critic, and one of them is the built-in excuse for seeing certain movies that you couldn’t normally justify wasting your time on. I was able to tell my wife that I had to see Rambo over the weekend, something that the powers that be at Lionsgate Entertainment did their best to prevent, because they did not screen Sylvester Stallone’s latest testosterone-fueled action epic for critics before general release. My guess is they didn’t want to go to the expense of providing us all with raincoats for the screening. To be sure, Rambo elicits a disturbing response from its audience: It has you cheering on its beleaguered, woeful hero as you resist the urge to turn away from the carnage it cranks out with precision and a degree of gruesome grace. Whereas the first three entries in the series relied on standard wartime violence, the horrors on display here set a new low in taste and new highs where the body count is concerned. (One viewer reported counting 236 deaths in the film. How he could count that fast is beyond me.) Evil Burmese pirates and soldiers don’t simply fall over dead when they’re shot here. Rather, their limbs are torn from their bodies; others’ torsos are torn in half, and heads explode with a wet splat whenever Rambo’s precisely placed arrows pierce them. This is Stallone’s first foray as a director in the wartime genre, and I’m guessing that he felt that he had to up the ante, what with young audiences’ penchant for sadistic violence (Saw, Hostel, etc.). What’s ironic is that these exploitive elements wind up detracting from the film’s power. The journey Rambo takes from reclusive nihilist to reluctant savior provides the movie with a surprisingly poignant foundation that Stallone mines perfectly with his weary gait, wounded eyes, and strained efforts at civility. The movie is nothing if not a model of economy. A group of naïve missionaries, including the idealistic Sarah (Julie Benz), commission a reluctant Rambo to take them into Burma so that they might deliver supplies, medical aid, and the word of God to the forsaken caught in the crossfire of a civil war. When the group goes missing, Rambo’s warrior trigger is tripped and Rambo enlists a group of mercenaries to help bring the missionaries home. Surprisingly, the film takes a rather leisurely pace during its first hour; Stallone firmly establishes a sense of place in portraying Burma as a primitive locale where women and children are treated worse than the animals that toil in the fields and horrific violence is a way of life. It’s violent, but pales in comparison to the last half hour, which features rape, pedophilia, throat-gouging, and mangling of bodies in every way imaginable. What elevates the film above its exploitive aesthetic is Stallone’s ability to underscore the tragedy of John Rambo. Yes, the sight of the innocent villagers mangled beyond recognition is horrible, but the effect of violence on those programmed to dispense it is the true message here. “When you’re pushed, killing’s as easy as breathing,” Rambo says when he decides to step into the fray. The tragedy lies in the fact that this warrior is unable, despite his best efforts, to resist his worst impulses and regresses into a subhuman beast. There is a look of regret in Rambo’s eyes once the dust clears, and Stallone sells it with little but a nod and glance. The actor is often knocked for his ability, but here his subtle touches speak the loudest amid the turmoil. Though I wasn’t sold on the film’s final scene, there’s no question that Stallone’s heart is in the right place. After all, every warrior should be allowed to put down his weapon for good.