A 'Rambo' Without a Cause?

The Action Hero's Return Isn't So Heroic -- Just Very, Very Gruesome

Sarah (Julie Benz), one of the captives in Burma, is captivated by her killing-inclined rescuer, Rambo (Sylvester Stallone).
Sarah (Julie Benz), one of the captives in Burma, is captivated by her killing-inclined rescuer, Rambo (Sylvester Stallone). (By Karen Ballard -- Lionsgate)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 25, 2008; Page C06

"Rambo" follows the action movie's time-honored tradition of having it both ways -- ratcheting up our moral outrage at the oppressors of this world so we can enjoy the spectacle of turning them into mincemeat.

The movie, which marks Sylvester Stallone's fourth appearance as the bow-bending angel of death, urges us to appreciate the miserable plight of the Burmese (timely), just before our laconic hero kills, maims and -- in one gruesome shot -- decapitates them. Of course, the movie presents John Rambo's wholesale killing as a response to social injustice. He's icing the bad Burmese who, led by a chain-smoking sadist in mirrored sunglasses, rape women, torch babies and force their victims to run through mine-rigged rice fields.

So when Mr. Reflector Shades captures a group of American aid workers that Rambo just boated into Burma, it seems that all killing rights -- for hero and audience -- have been morally greenlit. There's a romantic justification, too: One of the captives, played by Julie Benz, is a fetching blonde who, despite her holy mission, can't take her eyes off Rambo. (This seems like the right time to mention that Stallone directed, co-produced and co-wrote the movie.)

But Rambo seems reluctant to play the hero. When he does lead the inevitable assault, the effect is strangely unrewarding, at least for us. His motivation seems more psychotic than noble. Jaded and destitute in Thailand, he's a terminal moper, wrangling cobras for snake shows in the jungle and sulking beatifically in his riverboat. (His hair is excellent; so is his skin.) Trained, essentially, to smoke indigenous people whenever called upon, he seems to be waiting for the right excuse to indulge his twisted passion.

This inherent cynicism works well in a postmodern action-noir such as 1992's "Unforgiven," in which Clint Eastwood's character's gunslinging felt more like a rebuke for the audience than vicarious gory-glory. But the Rambo we got to know during the Cold War era -- when the world seemed arrayed in black hat/white hat relief -- is nowhere in sight. This muttering boatman seems to have lost his old-time heroism. No longer is Rambo killing for a cause, but for kicks. And his portentous blather, even by "Rambo" standards, becomes unintentionally hilarious.

"When you're pushed," he tells one of the religious workers, "killing's as easy as breathing."

Who is this guy? R imbaud ?

Equally laughable is the movie's crocodile-teared agenda to make us aware of the misery in that country (with documentary images, at the beginning, of soldiers brutalizing the citizenry), but also to show us how awesome Burmese bodies look in computer-generated imagery as their heads and limbs somersault through the air. Instead of giving us that gung-ho clarity of righting wrongs in one of the world's most despotic corners, we just feel as though we got sold down the river.

Rambo (93 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity, graphic violence, grisly images and sexual assaults.

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