Friday, January 25, 2008

Film Review: RAMBO - His Hell Is Our Playground.

How does one review a movie like Rambo? It is a blood-soaked, brutal exercise in pain, sadism, and aggression without a hint of irony. To say that it does it better than almost any action film I've seen is almost beside the point. It takes the violent stakes set by First Blood Part II and Rambo III and decapitates them with Panzer tank shells. So, let's start with a look at the Rambo legacy, as it were.

I was fortunate enough to attend the 7+ hour Rambo Marathon at the Scotiabank theatre in lovely downtown Vancouver yesterday evening, where I revisited the entire saga. It's curious the way the series started, with the sad, and dare I say gentle, First Blood. With its meagre kill count of 1, First Blood was a psychological study in thriller trappings. Sure there are some explosions and gun-fights, but ultimately it is a study in one tormented man's personal demons and inability to fit into human society. It's almost comical how Rambo: First Blood Part II takes him to Vietnam and has him wipeout an entire generation of Viet-Cong. It seemingly goes against everything the first film was saying, and embraces the type of gloss that the age of excess demanded. Rambo III is so far over the top that it becomes a droll study in overkill. A fun one, to be sure, but so far removed from its humble beginnings that it's bizarre. After re-reviewing them, however, it is important to note that they are all consistently enjoyable films with nicely understated work by Stallone, and brilliant technical efficiency. So, how does the newest film fit into the established world of John Rambo?

Well, Rambo is, without any doubt, the goriest and most stomach-churning of them all. It also, on the flip side, restores the sadness so well exemplified in the series' first entry. John Rambo is a man constantly in pain whose only ability is to stop evil through sheer, relentless savagery. He's the anti-John McClane. No sneaking around air-shafts for this guy.

Rambo opens with news reel footage of the human rights atrocities in Burma, where the Karen Christians have been systematically slaughtered over the last sixty year (The longest civil war in history!). This real-life touch is both staggering and problematic. The previous Rambo sequels, while they did make use of current political situations, were always in some sort of heightened reality. This opening grounds the film in the real. We then witness the horrific massacre of a tribe of villagers by the Burmese military, and it is stunning. Director Stallone lingers over the violence, making us witness the unspeakable. It is, frankly, shocking.

The basic plot then kicks in. Rambo has been living in Thailand as a snake-wrangler for the last twenty or so years. He is found by a group of Christian relief workers (led by Julie Benz (left with Stallone) and Paul Schulze), and they plead with him to drive them by boat into war-torn Burma so they can aid the suffering. After some coaxing by Benz, he begrudgingly agrees and takes them over. Before you can say "Ballistic Carnage", the group are captured (and also their entire village gruesomely raped/decapitated/torched/shot/exploded/ vivisected/gutted/severed/you get the picture). Back at Rambo's home (and by home I mean hammock), a priest comes and pleads with Rambo to take a group of Church-paid mercenaries to the relief workers' destination so they can extract the workers and get them home. After a soul-searching montage, Rambo suits up and leads the team into action. Much vivid butchery follows.

What I really liked about Rambo was the simplicity of it. It's much like last year's Rocky Balboa, in that it is a lean 90-minute piece with a minimum of plot that relies on the mythic essence of the title character. The plot is a clothes-line and while in many other films that is a major problem, here it is to the films benefit. The characters are mainly archetypes with a minimum of detail, and the villains are mostly faceless. I appreciated the ways in which the mercenaries are sketched out. We know next to nothing about them, other than a few passing bits we get through behaviour. It makes sense. Hired mercenaries are men who thrive on secrecy. They don't communicate with each other more than what is necessary. Much like Rambo himself. As played by the 61-year-old Stallone, he has settled into a nice quiet gruffness which is perfectly suited to the material. Stallone is without question a limited actor, but he is under-appreciated in the ways he can create an internalized character and communicate everything through silence and eye gestures. He plays John Rambo as well here as he did in '82 with First Blood.

As for the action, it is numbing. The human atrocities presented here make the gruesome material of Schindler's List look like gentle ribbing. The villain's are so far past monster status that it is almost uncomfortable. In a sense, by immersing the viewer in their deeds we begin to better understand the psyche of John Rambo. He has witnessed horrors so severe that he has emotionally shut down and lost touch with humanity. Well, after witnessing what the villains do here we share that mindset. The world is an ugly place and sometimes violence is necessary. Whether you agree with the message or not, Stallone makes his message clear and concise. We are so filled with disgust that we want to see Rambo decimate this group beyond reason. The final firefight, which surely is a nod to The Wild Bunch, is roughly twenty minutes of grisly catharsis. Disgusting or not, it delivers exactly what one hopes for after the momentous killing sprees of Rambo's 2 & 3. The ending is a brief downbeat nod to the first film that leaves us with a poetic sense of relief after the exhausting visceral experience we've just undergone.

Many will hate Rambo for being such a blatantly sadistic (and obvious) exercise in brutality. But, it is exactly what it has been marketed and intended to be. That it does it so well is nothing short of commendable after years of PG-13 action-lite extravaganzas. Sylvester Stallone has crafted a mean little film that, while it will never get much critical respect, is a relentlessly pure experience that leaves you breathless and numb by the end. To enjoy it is almost not an option. It is meant to be endured, and I can't help but thank Stallone for creating an action-film that actually made me feel something. It's a fitting end for John Rambo, and a film-going experience I won't soon forget.

4 out of 5

P.S.: While it is odd to have Rambo follow Rambo III, the title fits
the film. It's simple and hard-hitting. Again, much like Rambo himself.

P.P.S.: Richard Crenna's presence is missed, but doesn't detract from the film. Something tells me that even Trautman would have been throwing up his hands halfway through events of this film.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

R.I.P. Heath Ledger (1979-2008)

I don't usually write up obits for celebrities who pass on, but this one struck me surprisingly hard. Maybe it's because we're basically the same age, or perhaps because I've followed him from the beginning of his career to now, I'm not sure. Most likely, however, it is because I've watched him transition from clever work in teen-oriented films to full-fledged brilliancy as a character actor and it is a shame to see so much promise disappear so quickly.

I recall seeing Mr. Ledger first in 1999's 10 Things I Hate About You. It was a surprisingly amusing teen comedy in which Ledger stole the show from his cast-mates (With actors like Julia Stiles and Joseph Gordon Levitt, that is actually a pretty mean feat.), and could have easily coasted through the rest of his career doing the heart throb stuff. But that was too simple.

His role opposite Mel Gibson in The Patriot hinted that he could very well have the same career as his older co-star. Like Gibson, he was an electric performer who chose to play down his sex appeal in favour of more character-based work. A Knight's Tale was a fun jaunt, that dared to try something different with the genre, and not follow conventions, and his performance in Monster's Ball was darkly heartbreaking.

While he hit a bit of a slump in the early '00's, 2005 signalled the emergence of a full-formed professional with the potential of a young De Niro or Day-Lewis. He was far and away the best thing in Terry Gilliam's The Brother's Grimm, and achieved a career high with his Oscar-nominated performance in Brokeback Mountain. The ways in which he altered his voice and mannerisms were stunning, and he ultimately is the reason the film is the masterpiece it is. He is the heart of the film, and there was no reason to not expect an amazing career to follow. I used to like to think the reason he didn't win the Oscar was because the Academy had faith he'd be back.

This was likely the year that he would have hit the big time. The Dark Knight is tracking as the most anticipated film of the year, and that is about 99% (with a 1% margin of error) due to his shocking transformation into the Joker. I just hope he took some comfort in knowing that, despite all early objections, the fans were truly excited and behind him, as he looks to have created a terrifying performance (Not to mention a definitive Clown Prince of Crime) that will be long held in the annals of great on-screen villainy.

He was an exciting actor in a time where there is little to no mystery left in our assorted cardboard superstars. I was always eager to see where he was going to go next because I knew it wouldn't be what I expected. Allas, another great talent has burned out too soon, leaving a sense of frustration for what might have been... But I'd just like to thank him for what he accomplished while he was here. May his family find peace, and may he live on forever in the wonderful films he made.