Picture the scene: Sylvester Stallone riffling through a box of old photos, getting misty-eyed for his ’70s and ’80s salad days. But where most men might scan a handful of fading 4x6s and be inspired to email an old flame, Sly’s able to relive his megastar youth in hi-def and widescreen. And why not? Before D-Tox, before Driven, before – shudder – the Get Carter remake, Stallone sculpted not one but two iconic movie characters, and there are plenty of film fans queuing to join him on a trip down memory lane.
In 2006, Stallone’s boxing alter-ego Rocky Balboa made a modestly triumphant return to the ring after 16 years. It’s been even longer since we last saw John J Rambo, whose war-weathered bulk proves trickier to slot into a 21st Century mould than Stallone may have realised. By opening the movie with gruesome real-life footage of atrocities in Burma – currently enduring the longest-running civil war in history – the writer/director/star is clearly asking to be taken seriously. Stallone’s been highly vocal about wanting to draw attention to the acts of genocide committed by the Burmese; about wanting to keep the fourth (but apparently not) First Blood relevant, raw and real. Sadly, while his intentions may have been noble, conscripting Rambo to the carnage feels like an exercise in raising adrenaline rather than awareness.
When we’re re-introduced to the one-time Green Beret, he’s a shadow of his former self; an emotion-free husk of a man, living in Thailand where he seems to have little more to do than track and capture snakes for the local cobra-fighting ring. Then a group of missionaries asks him to bus them into Burma on his boat so they can bring medical aid to the oppressed. The answer’s no… until a pretty blonde ( Julie Benz) tells him, “Maybe you’ve lost your faith in people, but you still must care about something.”
He does: the box office. So John J escorts his do-good crew up-river, where they promptly get kidnapped. Time for a rescue mission, our bandana-sporting hero teaming together a motley band of mercenaries, among them a cartoon-angry Englishman (Graham McTavish) of the “They come over ’ere…” black cabbie variety and former soap star Matthew Marsden, who’s somehow managed to navigate an even more treacherous journey – from The Rovers Return to Rambo...
What ensues is bloody, shocking and bloody shocking. Women are raped; children viciously slaughtered. Bullets don’t just kill a man; they tear off his limbs and reduce his head to pulp. Knives spill guts to the ground and machetes slice heads messily from shoulders in a shaming shower of gore porn. While something of a technical achievement, by riffing off genuine outrage, it plays as downright and dirty exploitation.
On one level Rambo delivers what you're expecting: hard-to-hear dialogue married to hard-to-watch action. But this outing is uncomfortably gruesome and blatantly manipulative. Despite grander aspirations, only leather-tough mayhem-lovers will be satisfied.