I walked into Rambo expecting to be greeted by Phase II of Sylvester Stallone's Master Plan to Make Me Love America Again. Rocky Balboa's formula, after all, made it a perfect Phase I: underdog considers one last comeback; underdog's idea is near-universally panned; underdog does it anyway; underdog does that thing where he technically loses but effectively steals the limelight from his rival and reminds us that a little good old-fashioned American determination can still turn a has-been into a people's champ. Given that set-up, I expected Rambo to be a remake of Field of Dreams starring Stallone, a plucky, multicultural Little League baseball team from the wrong side of the tracks, and a puppy.
I walked out of Rambo feeling as though I had been shot in the gut, field-dressed the wound myself with remnants of an old shirt and some gunpowder, and rested for about a minute, only to realize that I still had a sewer to crawl through and a few hundred more enemy soldiers to kill. The baseball field I expected was a series of mine-filled rice paddies, the plucky Little League team was replaced by bloodthirsty (though interestingly enough, still multicultural) mercenaries, the puppy had been rewritten as a pack of bloodhounds, and the feel-good "America! Fuck yeah!" ending I bet the farm on was usurped by one of the most protracted scenes of guerrilla-warfare violence ever put to film. Rambo has the potential to do this to a lot of people—Balboa grossed $150 million, after all, and I can't be the only one who was excited about the prospects of Stallone's other big-name character getting the Balboa treatment.
The plot of Rambo was stamped from a cookie cutter. The third sequel to First Blood trades in the part-time warrior-monk thing from Rambo III for a Thai version of Pigeon Forge's live-bear shows. John Rambo's still in East Asia, still in seclusion, and he's still having nightmares about alternate endings to past Rambo movies. The nameless Burmese pillage-and-rape military types aren't Soviet occupiers or Viet Cong troops, but they're in the jungle and they're evil. Missionaries on a medical-aid mission aren't Vietnam-era POWs or Colonel Trautman, but…you get the idea. Details are for mere mortals. For Rambo, they're just a slow boat ride on the way to the ass-kicking.
And how does Johnny Boy kick ass, you say? With dramatic effect. Rambo kills five Burmese pirates with only a concealed pistol and a death wish for dramatic effect. A Burmese village is razed and the villagers killed in imaginatively horrific and surprisingly explicit ways, all for dramatic effect. Rambo forges a dagger out of a length of rebar and uncharacteristically soliloquizes about the violent nature of man for dramatic effect. The nameless Burmese commander, not content to merely twirl his mustache while his men conduct daily peasant-minefield races, he also has a shocking secret! Why? Dramatic effect. A couple of these sharp sticks (See also: First Blood) would have been fine, but Rambo is propped up by them like a rickety Burmese watchtower.
Halfway through the movie, I wanted to go outside and scream, "We get it! In these politically uncertain times, points have to be driven home about the characters in a Rambo movie if it's going to be relevant 10 years later! That doesn't mean we have to actually see the children being bayoneted to understand that the guy with the bayonet needs to die! Nobody blames you for the whole mujahedeen thing! They were fighting the Soviets, for Chrissakes! Quit overcompensating!"
Despite all the drawbacks, though, there are certain things that Rambo does right. Rambo's mercenary sidekicks aren't exactly likable, but at least they aren't the throwaway red-shirts I expected. The buckets and buckets of gore at least look realistic, and although watching both sides systematically disassemble massive quantities of human anatomy isn't in my top-five ways to spend an afternoon, I can't help but feel that was the point. Watching people being crammed into a box and shot isn't fun, but it definitely makes you not want people to be crammed into a box and shot; and while sending $8 to the Red Cross might be a better way to make that happen than buying a ticket to Rambo, it at least gives you something to think about.
And who knows—maybe this will just be the second in a series of not-horrible revisits of Stallone franchises. I'm personally hoping for Demolition Man II. Stop, or My Mom Will Shoot! II might be a bigger box-office draw, but Sandra Bullock's a little dreamier than Estelle Getty.