It’s easy to forget that the story of John Rambo began 36 years ago with a novel by Canadian author David Morrell, whose distaste for the Vietnam War fueled his vision of a shell-shocked veteran on a murderous rampage in the Kentucky backwoods. Morrell painted Rambo as a merciless killer whose harrowing tours of duty had left him despairing and emotionally comatose. He was a menace, a savage unleashed on a hostile society, and in the end he took his own life.
Sylvester Stallone, who used Morrell’s novel as the inspiration for 1982’s “First Blood,” chose to spare Rambo the indignity of suicide, but cast him as a pariah in his homeland, spurned by the government that trained him to kill. As a commercial gambit, it paid off brilliantly: Rambo became an American icon whose righteous indignation and stern sense of justice guided his famously lethal fists.
Whether as a reflection of Stallone’s resurgence or of America’s ongoing military campaign in the Middle East, Rambo has awakened from his 20-year slumber, and though the political landscape around him has changed, the grizzled vet remains defiantly the same. He is a man of few words, and what little he does say is notable for its comic simplicity. His dialogue is a heady mix of the profane and the unintelligible, and when he tells us that “killing’s as easy as breathing,” it’s a sure sign that someone is due for a bone-crushing comeuppance.
Here, his target is an ultra-violent faction of Burma’s ruling military junta, which has been accused of burning as many as 3,000 villages to the ground and slaughtering the inhabitants. “Rambo” depicts the junta’s genocidal fury with an unflinching eye, as peasants are seized and summarily tortured. Though the Guinness Book of World Records credits “Rambo III” as the most violent film ever made, this latest installment seems intent on raising (or lowering) the bar.
It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Stallone’s musclebound avenger, whose sullen posturing gives way to manic bravado as soon as he finds a cause worthy of his biceps, that Rambo annihilates his enemies with no regrets. He is still the killing machine Morrell envisioned, only charged with a nobler task — in this case, rescuing a group of Christian missionaries (led by Julie Benz, of “Dexter”) from a vicious gang of soldiers.
There is an audience for the cartoonish mayhem “Rambo” is selling, and you know who you are. Those with an aversion to severed limbs and punctured torsos would be wise to keep their distance. But give Stallone credit for resurrecting a franchise whose demise seemed foretold by the end of the Cold War. “Rambo” is pure adrenaline, a frenzied rush into the heart of a jungle where the prevailing darkness is far more horrific than anything Kurtz could have imagined. Exhilarating from the start, its sensibilities are unapologetically primitive — Wild West in the Far East — and it is Rambo’s most riveting adventure since “First Blood.”
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Matthew Marsden, Graham McTavish, Rey Gallegos
Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone
Running time 1 hour 33 minutes