Thursday, March 13, 2008

Review: Rambo 4

  • Directed by Sylvester Stallone
  • Starring Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Matthew Marsden, Paul Schulze, Maung Maung Khin
  • Released in Thailand cinemas on March 13, 2008
  • Rating: 3/5

Twenty years since the last Rambo film, not much has changed with the newest installment, Rambo 4. The hero, Sylvester Stallone's Vietnam War veteran John Rambo, is still embittered and cynically stoical. And he still wants to be left alone.

Where better than to live out a life of isolation than Thailand? It's along the Thai-Burmese border on the Salween River where the ex-Special Forces soldier is working as a snake hunter, capturing cobras for a tourist-trap snake circus, and practicing his archery skills by bowfishing, and donating the catch to local Buddhist monks. He's roused from his idyllic life by a group of American missionaries who want him to take them upriver and into Burma, where they hope to bring aid to the Karen people under siege there.

Rambo is unwilling, telling them, if they aren't bringing any weapons, they aren't going to change anything. But a woman (Julie Benz) among the group persists, and so Rambo reluctantly agrees.

Sure enough, the missionaries are abducted and taken prisoner in a raid by the Burmese junta's troops. Their church hires a band of nasty mercenaries, and Rambo feels compelled to once again take up arms and join them in the rescue operation.

Violence ensues. And it is glorious, the kind of non-stop, explosive orgy of blasts and gunfire that isn't seen much these days. About the only thing different in this throwback to 1980's-style mayhem is that the bloodshed is mostly CGI, which if anything means it can be more graphic. Men are literally cut in half by a hail of bullets from an extremely large machine gun. Heads explode on the impact of a sniper's shell. Blood and guts splatter out by the bucketful under the big, sharp knife of Rambo.

Filmed in 2006 in Chiang Mai Province, with a Thai crew and cast of extras, Rambo 4 could be a Thai action film if not for the presence of Stallone, who directed, and the rest of foreign cast, with Benz and Paul Schulze among the missionaries, Ken "White Shadow" Howard as a concerned clergyman and Matthew Marsden, Graham McTavish, Reynaldo Gallegos, Jake La Botz and Tim Kang as the mercenaries.

Burmese actor Maung Maung Khin portrays an evil, sneering, cigarette-smoking, boy-buggering Burmese junta major, the leader of the bad guys.

Thai actor Supakorn Kitsuwon has a prominent role as a Karen rebel fighter who guides the mercenaries. He heroically gets to roll in the dirt and let loose a rocket from a shoulder-fired launcher, much the same as he did in Tears of the Black Tiger. There are Thai stunt actors, Thai explosions and Thai people. It could be Born to Fight, Ong-Bak or even a higher-octane remake of Salween, M.C. Chatrichalerm Yukol's 1992 snapshot of the same area where Rambo 4 was shot. Even more retro, it hearkens back to the 1970s Thai action cinema -- the raberd poa, khaow pao kratom ("bomb the mountain, burn the huts") films.

The setting is perfect for Rambo, a relic of an old war, for the Karen conflict has been going on for 60 years, which some horrific documentary footage from inside Burma at the beginning of the film explains, is the world's longest-running civil war. Little has changed in Burma in decades, so it still seems like the '80s there. Not much has changed with Stallone, either, except that he's bigger and more grotesquesly sinewy, with some heaping doses of human growth hormone to add bulk. On the big screen, he's kind of scary, even when he's not ripping out a guy's throat with his bare hands. Rambo 4 is the right framing for Stallone and his muttering, mumbled delivery.

"Live for nothing, die for something," he says to a mercenary at one point. It's the catchphrase that most of the reviews of this film have picked up on, but in the context of the film, it comes at a time that I least expected it, and the only reaction the mercenary could possibly have is "what the heck does that mean?" Though he doesn't say it.

Continuing with the theme of change, or the lack thereof, this film will do little to change what is really going on along the Thai border and inside Burma. Some Burmese anti-junta activists have piggybacked on the film's release to highlight their cause, and in the wake of the bloody crackdown of last year's anti-government protests, Stallone seized upon the headlines to comment on the abysmal conditions along the Thai border, and get an early start on promoting the film. Critics say this film trivializes the plight of the Karen people in Burma, as well as the non-violent struggle by the movement of detained democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. The film won't free The Lady, nor will it make things easier for the Karen. The junta's response was to ban the open sale of pirated DVDs of the film, which only makes people want to watch it more. Meanwhile, the generals cash fat royalty checks from their natural gas reserves, play a few more rounds of golf and live high on the hog while the rest of the country starves. All along, the junta has been dismissive of diplomatic efforts and international sanctions. What makes anyone think a Hollywood film will change anything?

Rambo 4 is entertainment, pure and simple, and as it unspooled on the screen at Major Cineplex Bangna in all its (apparently uncensored) glory, a big smile came across my face that I couldn't wipe off, no matter how grim and bloody the action was onscreen, or how clunky and contrived the dialogue became. Rambo 4 isn't a film for anyone, but action fans should be more than pleased.

(Cross-published at The Nation Weblog)

1 comment:

  1. Comments from Catch22, via The Nation Weblog: "It's all very well for us outside Burma to make the junta look bad, but it's not necessary because most people, especially the people living inside KNOW how the junta works and know they are evil. If the film had been made long after the fall (if ever) of the junta - OK, but not whilst they still have supreme power, total paranoia and seek revenge in ways you don't realise.

    "I go to Burma appx every 5-6 weeks for about 2 weeks at a time - that's all I can tell you.

    "The Karen are the most despised ethnic group (by the junta) because they, represented by the KNU are the only non-ceasefire group in Burma. Whilst the KNU (Karen National Union) generals sit pretty and relatively safely in Mae Sot - stirring up as much trouble as they can inside, the Karen villagers inside are being hounded mainly as a consequence of the KNU and the western bullshit.

    "Any propaganda film such as this, especially one which involves the junta's hated enemy, now supported supposingly by America, will only serve to further marginalise and isolate them as the enemy of the state. The national daily The New Light of Myanmar have run their views on this movie long before it was released and made a point of telling the people how bad the west was trying to portray them.

    "The repercussions for such propoganda BS such as this can have serious consequences for Karen villagers living inside. The junta aren't rational thinking people they react like wounded animals.

    "I have just returned from Burma and the people inside have dreaded the release of this film.........but hey, but never mind we like to see a bit of action whilst sipping coke and munching popcorn in our comfortable cinemas don't we.....what's a few more dead and maimed Karen villagers to us?"


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