The key to why the film RAMBO exists may well boil down to something a mercenary says to the title character. I’m only here because of my ex-wife and three kids. Which is to say we all have bills to pay and responsibilities to meet and why should Sylvester Stallone be any different? The mercenary, of course, delivers value for money. Sly, on the other hand. . .
There are mercenaries on board this RAMBO sequel, fourth in the series and the first in 20 years, and this is important because they serve as a point of reference. They kill and maim without remorse for money. The title character kills and maims without remorse for other reasons. One is that he was programmed to do that by the Army back when he was just an idealistic soldier fighting for his country in Viet Nam. This time, though, he is also doing it for the pretty, blonde missionary lady (Julie Benz) who oh so sweetly asks him to take her and her companions from the relative safety of Thailand to war-torn Burma so that they can deliver medicine and the Word of God to the unfortunates there. She’s asking Rambo because since his last burst of mayhem, he’s taken to living a quiet, monosyllabic life on one of Thailand’s more remote rivers. He owns a boat for hire, traps poisonous snakes for the local reptile show (performances every day in a place where the locals can see the poisonous snakes for free in the bush), and broods about his past in flashbacks that are seen as clips from the earlier films.
At first Rambo rebuffs the pretty, blonde missionary lady and her companions, but when she stands in the rain to ask him one more time, well, he changes his mind. Naturally, all the dangers he warned her about happen, as well as a few, such as river pirates, which he didn’t bring up for some reason. Rambo being Rambo, he is forced to kill the pirates in ways that are bloody and gruesome, much to the chagrin of the missionaries, who decide to take a land route back after their mission is done.
End of story? Of course not! As the pretty, blonde missionary lady and her companions are dispensing medicine, books, and pity on the unfortunate natives, the Burmese army arrives to shoot, bomb, and machete them all into oblivion. The pretty, blonde missionary lady and her companions, despite running around like screaming meemees through it all, don’t get a scratch on them. They do, however, get taken captive by the Burmese army, locked up in bamboo cages next to carnivorous pigs with a penchant for human flesh, and left there in the rain to think about why they didn’t go home when Rambo told them to.
Speaking of Rambo, he finds out about all this from the Pastor of the pretty, blonde lady’s church, who is in this remote part of Thailand hiring amoral mercenaries to go save his flock. He needs Rambo to take them to the spot they were last seen, and so the stage is set for the orgy of explosions, flying body parts, and gratuitous bloodshed that is the raison d’etre for the film.
As an actioner, that’s pretty much all anyone can or should expect, except that the action here is repetitive, derivative, and clunky. Then there’s the subtext, which embodies enough jingoistic Imperialism to make Kipling puff up his chest with pride. It lacks, alas, Kipling’s skill as a storyteller. The poor natives are just so much fodder for slaughter or pity, depending on who is rolling through their neck of the jungle. In either case, they have a tendency to weep weakly and passively at whatever it is that is lobbed at them. As for the ragtag Burmese army of forced conscripts, though armed to the teeth and showing a lack of respect for life that would make a psychopath giggle with glee, they are no match for the half-dozen or so crack, western mercenaries that are sent in to face them down and save the pretty, blonde lady and her companions. She like all the good heroines of a jingoistic Imperialist tale, needs to be saved not only from death, but also, and perhaps more importantly, from the Fate Worse Than Death. Then again, all the women in the film need to be saved from that, as the film can find little else for them to do but weep helplessly and passively at their imminent FWTD and even more helplessly and passively as it is happening to them. And who better than Rambo, still dark of hair, firm of jawline (mostly) and pumped up to within a millimeter of what human muscle tissue can withstand, to save them while muttering in his trademark monosyllables? He can take out a squad of bad guys with just a bow and arrow. He can rig a vintage bomb so that it goes off with a mushroom cloud. He has veins popping out of those stressed muscles so emphatically that they can be seen clearly when his shirt is plastered to his manly thorax with sweat and/or rain.
As the symbol of jingoistic Imperialism, RAMBO is a crowning achievement in a great leap backwards. As filmmaking, too, it is an achievement, but crowning isn’t the word that comes to mind. Razzie is.