For Rambo, I have come out of my self-exile, which, by the way, I spent much like Rambo: forging steel by hand, stick-fighting, and generally stewing.
There are several reasons why I have been... shall we say, preoccupied with the new Rambo: 1.) it's a big, percussive action movie; 2.) it propels this peculiar wave of Hollywood nostalgia forward; and 3.) it is one of those absurd sequels that I love so much. There is something quixotic about making a sequel to a franchise no one really thinks much about anymore.
Short and lumbering (not unlike Stallone himself), Rambo satisfies, but falls well short of the success of Stallone's other recent resurrection, Rocky Balboa. Of course, Rocky is a more beloved character than is Rambo, but if that's inherent to the franchises, it's not Rambo's true flaw.
Rambo's major flaw is--so help me, even I can't believe I'm saying this--is that it's not silly enough. As writer, director, and star, Stallone takes this one too seriously--and from the very beginning. He opens the film with actual stock footage of the actual atrocities actually taking place in the actual Burma. Perhaps this was meant to stoke my desire for some of Rambo's righteous retribution, but it doesn't. It makes me feel ashamed that I'm sitting in a comfortable theater with stadium seating and $4 bottles of water, about to gorge myself on fantasy.
It's a bit odd, this Rambo, in that it's the most self-important of the series, but the least obsessed with Self. Maybe it's Stallone's aging, but this movie, like Rocky Balboa before it, is much less an exercise in sheer narcissism than the films of both series were before. This maturation serves Rocky Balboa well. Not so much here. In Action Speaks Louder, I quote a critic who said of Rambo III that the movie is "loony with self-love." That absurdity, that cartoonishness, is what I missed most in this fourth installment.
Rambo also does little to pay off the 20-year stretch the franchise spent dormant. One pleasure of a good sequel is that the audience catches up to where the characters have been moved since--by--their last adventure. Geographically, sure, but really, psychologically. James Cameron (ironically enough, an original writer on Rambo: First Blood Part II) is uncommonly good at this. So was Stallone with Rocky Balboa. But again, not so much with Rambo. Indeed, Rocky Balboa is a story that could only work after a great passage of time; Rambo, on the other hand, could have just as easily been made in 1991.
But while the movie is entertaining enough, where it really comes alive is in its use of the late Jerry Goldsmith's score from First Blood. And not only does Stallone pay tribute to Goldsmith throughout the film, but he saves the best tribute for last: the movie ends with an end title cue Goldsmith recorded for First Blood, but which was replaced by the ballad sung by Dan Hill, "It's a Long Road." So now, 26 years after Goldsmith composed it, and 3 1/2 years after the composer's death, the cue is finally heard issuing out of a movie theater sound system.
The movie certainly has its moments. John Rambo can still stalk like the best of 'em, and his dream sequence is dizzying (in a good way, not a Cloverfield way). And at the risk of validating the ridicule I sometimes attract as a scholar of action movies, I am compelled to say this:
Rambo has one of the best explosions in recent memory.
I'm not talking about size, here, but truly about technique. Not only is the effect and the photography of it great, but the aftermath--a whirlwind of leaves ripping through the jungle--is a spectacular bit of business, and feels more authentic than any of the series's action since First Blood.
But for me, the most striking moment was this: during the opening credits, several rows ahead of me, someone was recording the movie on his cell phone. Until he got caught by the theater management, I could see the compositions on the big screen and on his little display at the same time. I wouldn't have thought about it at Cloverfield or Transformers, but it gave me pause during Rambo. In 1988, when the last Rambo movie was in theaters, no one would have imagined such a scene. Pirating a movie with a portable phone?
The world really is changing. Maybe it's for the better that Rambo does not.