When a group of Christian missionaries needs someone to guide them into Burma so that they can provide medical supply to the oppressed Karen people, they approach John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone). The missionaries think that Rambo is just an American living in Thailand who makes a meager living as a snake catcher and a boat guide. Because we’ve seen the previous Rambo films, we know that John Rambo is actually a Vietnam vet who, after destroying the town of Hope, Washington, was recruited by the government to rescue POWs in Vietnam and fight the Russians in Afghanistan.
At first, Rambo tells the missionaries that it’s foolish for them to go anywhere near Burma and that he wants nothing to do with them. It’s only when Sarah Miller (Julie Benz) asks him personally that Rambo agrees to ferry the missionaries up the Salween River. Rambo isn’t doing it for the missionaries. He’s doing it to protect Sarah.
Unfortunately, on the way to the village, Rambo is forced to kill a group of pirates and he is rejected by the pacifist missionaries and, after he drops them off at the village, they order him to leave. However, after the village is attacked and Sarah is taken prisoner by the Burmese military, Rambo returns. This time, he’s with a group of younger mercenaries who, like the missionaries before them, don’t know what Rambo is capable of doing. Rambo soon proves that he might not be as young as used to be but he’s still just as deadly.
During the final 11 minutes of this movie, Rambo kills over a hundred people but fortunately, they’re all bad. It’s excessively violent and gory and it’s also totally awesome. When you go to see a Rambo movie, you’re not expecting to see Shakespeare. You’re expecting to see Rambo blow away the bad guys and, on that front, this film definitely delivers. Even more than the previous films in the series, Rambo is up front about what happens when someone gets shot by a machine gun or blown up by a bomb. It’s not pretty picture. The violence is so gruesome that Rambo could almost pass for an antiwar film if the people that Rambo blows up weren’t all portrayed as being almost cartoonishly evil.
Rambo is also upfront about what that type of violence would do to a man’s psyche. This film features one of Stallone’s best performances. Eschewing the comic book heroism of the 2nd and 3rd films in the franchise, Rambo reminds us that, when first introduced in First Blood, John Rambo was portrayed as being a seriously damaged and bitter man, someone who hated what the war had done to him and who felt that he no longer had a home in the normal world. Stallone was 62 when he starred in Rambo and he surrendered enough of his vanity to actually allow himself to look and sometimes act his age. In this film, Rambo may start out as bitter but he finally accepts that his pain doesn’t have to define his life. “Live for nothing or die for something,” Rambo says, a line that has subsequently been picked up by the real life Karen National Liberation Army in Burma.
Of the four sequels to the original First Blood, Rambo is the best. It has the biggest action sequences, the best Stallone performance, and it alerted people to very real atrocities being carried out against the Karen people. Coming out shortly after Rocky Balboa, Rambo was one of the films that reminded audiences that Sylvester Stallone still had it. Rambo was a box office success and, 11 years after its release, it was followed by Last Blood. I’ll be reviewing that one tomorrow.