Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Film Appreciation - Live for Nothing or Die for Something

Cody Hamman has had Film Appreciation for Rambo since seeing it opening day in 2008.

I'm not sure whether I feel like it was a shame that it took Sylvester Stallone twenty years to make another Rambo movie after Rambo III, or if I'm glad that there hasn't been too many Rambo movies, thus the character hasn't strayed from the core of who he is. If there had been a bunch more sequels, if Rambo just went off on random missions, he probably would have lightened up along the way and just become a generic action hero. There was a touch of that in Rambo III, with Rambo and his former commanding officer Samuel Trautman wondering if they were going soft. When this sequel catches up with John Rambo twenty years down the line, he definitely has not gone soft.

There were frequently rumblings that a Rambo sequel was in the works in the twenty years between films. Franchise production company Carolco went bankrupt in the mid-'90s, so the Rambo sequel rights were picked up by Miramax Films in 1997 - a surprising move for a company that was known for arthouse dramas at the time. Miramax developed a sequel for a while, but Stallone didn't seem very interested, so they eventually sold the rights to Nu Image/Millennium Films. And that's when things really got rolling.

As soon as Nu Image/Millennium got their hands on the rights in 2005, it was announced that Stallone was set to star in a Rambo IV that would have been quite different from the one we got three years later. Stallone was planning to make something along the lines of Straw Dogs and Deliverance, with Rambo having become a family man who had "assimilated into the tapestry of America". When he moves to a small town, the local white supremacists aren't pleased to have this part-Navajo man around, so they kidnap his 10 year old daughter. See, that's exactly the sort of the sequel we didn't need to get, because who wants to see Rambo as a well-adjusted family man? Thankfully, Stallone ditched that idea.

There was an idea to have Rambo battle Mexican drug cartels, but that was saved for the next sequel. For this one, Stallone decided he wanted to drop Rambo into a real-life war, like he had done with the Soviet-Afghan War in Rambo III, one that needed awareness drawn to it. That's when he learned about the civil war of Burma (or Myanmar), which has been going on since 1948.

Stallone has co-written all of the Rambo films, and wrote this one with Art Monterastelli, whose credits include The Hunted (which was similar to the David Morrell novel First Blood was based on) and episodes of the Timecop TV series. Stallone didn't intend to direct this film, as he hadn't directed any of the previous Rambo movies, but when things didn't work out with a director who had been hired Stallone decided to step up and take the helm himself. It was a good decision, as he did a fantastic job.

After titles like Rambo: To Hell and Back and Rambo: Pearl of the Cobra were considered, even announced, Rambo IV ended up simply being called Rambo, or John Rambo on the extended cut. First Blood, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rambo III, Rambo... who needs the progression of titles in a series to make sense?

The Rambo in this film is the opposite of how he would have been in that Straw Dogs/Deliverance story. He has not integrated into society. He's still living in Thailand, as he was in Rambo III, but he's not enjoying a peaceful life at a monastery anymore. He's living on his own, working as a charter boat captain and catching snakes for a snake charmer show (that's where the Pearl of the Cobra title came from, unfortunately it had nothing to do with the Stallone movie Cobra), and he's more bitter than ever. He keeps to himself and has taken on a "f*ck the world" attitude... he even says that phrase at one point.

Rambo's miserable life is disturbed, as he is always getting disturbed, when a group of missionaries from the Christ Church in Colorado come to him asking for a boat ride into the neighboring country of Burma. He refuses to help them at first, but changes his mind when missionary Sarah Miller (Julie Benz) is able to get through to him during a rain-soaked conversation where she tells him, "Trying to save a life isn't wasting your life."

The missionaries get their boat ride into Burma, and they're not even deterred when Rambo has to kill a group of pirates who attack the boat. They have made a commitment to help people in Burma, and they're sticking to it. Rambo drops them off, and of course things go terribly wrong. The missionaries are captured by a group of Tatmadaw Army soldiers and held prisoner at their base. These soldiers are led by Major Pa Tee Tint, and we don't get to know much about this guy except to see him watching over his soldiers as they do horrible things. The character is played by Maung Maung Khin, who was not an actor - he was a veteran of the Burma civil war, a member of the Karen Rebels, and he agreed to be involved with this production in an effort to get the outside world to take notice of what was going on in his home country.

Stallone did not hold back on showing how awful things are in the Burma conflict. Soldiers force villagers to run through fields they have dropped mines in, blowing them up and gunning them down. They massacre a village, shooting people of all ages. Children are seen getting shot in this movie, and there's even a moment where a soldier takes a young child and tosses them into a burning structure. Villagers get stomped to death. A severed head gets stuck on a pike. It's shocking that this movie made it through with a R rating, the sights it features can be so appalling.

When the missionaries are ten days late, the pastor of their church comes searching for them. He hires a team of mercenaries to save his people, but he needs Rambo to give that team a ride to the exact spot where he dropped off the missionaries. Because he had bonded with Sarah, he agrees to help advance the rescue operation... and then takes things a step further. The mercenaries had no intention of engaging Burma soldiers in a battle to retrieve the missionaries. If the situation looked dire, they were just going to leave. Rambo forces them to engage. The mercenaries are just watching as a group of soldiers torment some villagers. Rambo arrives on the scene with his bow and arrow and wipes out the entire group of soldiers very quickly.

The base the missionaries are being held at has 100 soldiers stationed there, with more scheduled to arrive the next day. If Rambo and the mercenaries aren't able to infiltrate the base and extract the missionaries quickly, they're going to be in a war where they are greatly outnumbered.

They do end up fighting that war.

There are five mercenaries to fight alongside Rambo in this mission, and most of them are just presented in broad strokes, we're not meant to feel a deep connection with these guys. Reese, a.k.a. Tombstone (Jake La Botz), En-Joo (Tim Kang), and Diaz (Rey Gallegos) are along for the ride and you get an idea of who they are, but it's Lewis (Graham McTavish) and School Boy (Matthew Marsden) who really stand out. Lewis is a total pain in the ass, always complaining and talking tough, and he would have fit right in if he had been in the werewolf action-horror movie Dog Soldiers. A skilled sniper, School Boy is the most likeable of the group and also the most helpful to Rambo.

Rambo was the first film in this franchise that I got to see in the theatre, and I can remember the day I went to see it. It was released on January 25, 2008, the day after it was announced that Quantum of Solace would be the title of the 22nd Eon Bond film. I saw it opening day, and thought it was very cool that I was getting a chance to see a Rambo movie on the big screen. It had been so long, Rambo III came out when I was 4 years old. Now I was 24, and here he was again.

I was hyped once the film got to the point where Rambo and the mercenaries infiltrate the base. This movie is sort of like a darker take on Rambo: First Blood Part II, and I was feeling some major '80s nostalgia while looking forward to seeing some large scale action kick in. I couldn't wait to see Rambo mow down an army of enemies. And when the action did kick in, it didn't disappoint. I was in awe.

In line with how the soldiers' attacks on villagers are presented, the scenes of Rambo and the mercenaries fighting the soldiers are brutal and bloody. Bodies are reduced to pieces, there's blood flying everywhere and guts spilling out, limbs falling off, heads getting severed. Most of the blood is CGI, and I'm not a fan of using CGI for blood splatter, but it's the way things are often done now so I shrug and go with it.

There's a lot of action in the second half of Rambo, and some great moments within that action. The aforementioned scene where Rambo wipes out a group with his bow and arrow. The sight of School Boy sniping enemies. A massive explosion when Rambo manages to detonate a Tallboy Bomb that was dropped in the jungle during World War II. And the most famous part of this movie, the climactic sequence, when Rambo and the mercenaries are joined in their fight by the Karen Rebels and Rambo does his part in the battle by getting his hands on a Jeep-mounted .50 caliber Browning Machine Gun. The huge bullets fired by that gun make a mess of the enemy soldiers.

Rambo was exactly the sequel we needed for this franchise after two decades of being dormant. It gives us a great representation of Rambo, digging into his troubled mindset, treating him seriously, making sure he has depth. It has an emotional element with the Sarah connection. It has despicable villains, and it's a thrill to watch Rambo, the mercenaries, and the rebels take them down. It draws attention to a real conflict and the atrocities being committed during that conflict. Sadly, the fighting continues in Burma, despite some steps toward peace in recent years, and there was a possibility that Maung Maung Khin could face criminal charges for his part in this film, since it defamed the Myanmar army. I'm not sure if he was actually charged or not. Although Rambo was banned in Burma, some of the rebel fighters were able to see it and took on Rambo's line of "Live for nothing or die for something" as their motto.

This is a great film, and could have been the perfect ending for the franchise, since it ends with Rambo finally returning to the United States. Walking down the road in a shot reminiscent of the beginning of First Blood as the music of "It's a Long Road" plays on the soundtrack, Rambo goes home to his family ranch in Arizona.

It could have ended there, but it didn't. Rambo would be back again, eleven years later.

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