Karen Ballard/Lionsgate
Sylvester Stallone/United States 2008

It’s hard to believe that audiences were first introduced to John Rambo back in 1982. A rousing populist fable that reflected the public’s growing discontentment with the political establishment, First Blood told the story of a disenfranchised Vietnam vet who took on an entire Oregon town after being falsely imprisoned. The film went on to become a worldwide box office hit, inspired two (progressively ridiculous) sequels and turned its lead, Sylvester Stallone – fresh off Rocky – into a bona fide superstar.

Now, almost 26 years later, Rambo is back. And what is perhaps the biggest surprise of all, he’s looking as good as ever!

Rambo (Stallone) has dropped out of life and now lives an isolated existence in northern Thailand where he runs a longboat up and down the Salween River. Just miles away, on the Thai-Burmese/Myanmar border, a brutal civil war between the country’s ruling military junta and the minority Karen tribe has entered its 60th bloody year. (Rambo has the good fortune to be released mere months after massive pro-democracy protests in Burma/Myanmar and the subsequent vicious military crackdown made international headlines.) The Karen face a brutal and systematic genocide at the hands of the Myanmar government, and when a group of missionary doctors, appear at Rambo’s doorstep asking for passage into Myanmar so they can deliver medical supplies and food, Rambo’s solitary life is shattered.

Sincere but hopelessly out of their depth, Rambo is at first unwilling to aid the missionaries on what he is sure will be nothing more than a suicide mission. In the end, however, their passionate idealism wins him over. But less than two weeks after he drops them off near a refugee camp, Rambo finds himself back in the jungle, leading a team of hired mercenaries to rescue the Americans who are being held captive by the Myanmar army. Although Rambo long ago gave up a deplorable life of violence, he finds he must take it up once again if he is to rescue the relief workers. Besides, killing is what John Rambo does best.

What follows is essentially one, long pitched battle (the film lacks an effective third act) in which Rambo almost single-handedly takes on the might of the entire military junta. Surprisingly effective and tense, Rambo succeeds despite what can only be described as a natural predisposition to dismiss the film before the first frame.

Do not take Rambo’s R-rating lightly. It is, perhaps, the most graphically violent film I have ever seen. Bodies are not simply eviscerated by bullets and knives – they are carved into pieces, hacked to bits and torn limb from limb. All of this over-the-top carnage is sure to inspire yelps of glee from some and waves of nausea from others

Stallone, who is 62 but has the rugged, gnarled physique of a man in his 40s, wrote and directed Rambo just as he did last year’s Rocky Balboa. It would be easy to suggest that Sly is a man living on the fumes of yesteryear and certainly this duo of films gives credence to a washed up actor’s last-ditch attempts at reviving a flagging career. And yet, the truth is not as simple as all that. Rocky Balboa was well-received by critics and audiences alike, and while Rambo is certainly not a great film and not for everyone, it succeeds at being exactly what it sets out to be – a nostalgic, action-packed, gore splattered ode to the anti-hero of a bygone era.

Rambo is an old-school action film with an old school action hero. Rambo is the stuff of mythology, the reluctant hero who shuns the modern world but comes to its rescue when called upon. Instinctual and primitive, Rambo forges his own weapons, overpowers armies with nothing more than a bow and arrow, and operates on an unwavering belief that the weak should be protected and evil punished.

Imagine what this film would have looked like if it had been titled: Rambo and the Hunt for Bin Laden.

© 2008 Brandon Fibbs. All rights reserved.

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