|In his fourth film, John Rambo (played by Sylvester Stallone) is recruited to save a church group being held captive in Burma. (karen ballard/lionsgate)|
When last seen, 20 years ago, John Rambo, that steroidally buff, bandana-wearing killing machine, was out-mujahideening the mujahideen in fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Now he makes his living catching snakes in northern Thailand. "Too many cobras! More boas!" his boss yells at him.
"Rambo" has been directed, cowritten, and stars Sylvester Stallone. A little more than a year ago he came back as Rocky. Now it's Rambo's turn. He gets around in a rust-bucket motor launch that might be a hand-me-down from "Apocalypse Now." Also, his bow and arrows are no longer the scariest thing about him: He appears to have had an awful lot of bad cosmetic surgery. It's a face only the international box office could love.
A Colorado church group asks Rambo if he can take them upriver, to Burma, to make their annual delivery of medical supplies and Bibles. Sizing them up for the self-righteous annoyances they are (the movie has a rather remarkable anti-clerical streak), Rambo declines. But when the sole female in the group (Julie Benz, not bad in a thankless role) asks, beast bonds with beauty and Rambo grunts his assent.
A good thing, too, since he has to save them from river pirates. Not that the church folk appreciate this. "Taking a life is never right," the group's sanctimonious leader (Paul Schulze) sniffs at Rambo. Clearly, he has no idea who he's talking to, and rejects Rambo's offer of help once they reach their destination.
Faith can move mountains. It can even move Rambo. It cannot, however, move the Burmese army, which shoots up the village where the group sets up shop. The surviving members are taken prisoner.
The church's minister (Ken Howard) shows up on Rambo's doorstep and asks him to take upriver a group of mercenaries he's hired - sometimes you turn the other cheek, and sometimes you just don't - in an effort to rescue his parishioners.
It's pretty easy to figure out the rest.
"Rambo" isn't dull. It is, however, often murkily directed, a real shortcoming in an action movie. In the big rescue-the-prisoners sequence, it's very hard to keep track of who is doing what to whom where. There's a silly flashback montage in black-and-white (hey, there's Richard Crenna!) for filmgoers who've missed the previous three Rambo movies. And the violence level keeps ratcheting up, to near-sickening effect: limb removal, decapitation, disembowelment. Much of "Rambo" could be a recruitment video for abattoir work. The idea of anyone under, say, 16 seeing this movie is insane.
None of this is beyond what you'd expect - or fear - from a Rambo movie. What is inexcusable is the moral self-congratulation the movie trades on, attaching itself to the plight of the Burmese people. Or has Stallone been holding out on us all these years, and John Rambo is secretly a member of Amnesty International?
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.