For the fourth “Rambo” film, simply titled “Rambo” (2008), director/co-writer Sylvester Stallone taps into one of the world’s longest-running civil wars. The Burma (aka Myanmar) military’s attempt to extinguish the Karen ethnic group has been going on since 1949, right after Burma gained its independence from Britain. What better location for the most violent “Rambo” film than a country whose entire independent history has been perpetual violence?
In a voiceover, Rambo (Stallone) notes that killing is now “as easy as breathing” to him, which is good, because “Rambo” has to be the bloodiest movie ever (surpassing “Hot Shots! Part Deux,” perhaps). Watching the first three “Rambos” is no preparation for this one.
Making “Rambo III” (1988) look like a cartoon in comparison, the stunt and special effects team do an incredible job making bodies explode into red mist from the army’s machine guns and mines, or showing people cut in half or body parts flying through the frame. This is what modern military weapons do to a human body. This is the type of film where Rambo can gut a particularly nasty bad guy with his sword/knife and we think he got off relatively easy.
There is an “oh my God” spectacle to the bad guys’ evil, including soldiers betting on which prisoner will win a race across a minefield, and pigs feasting on the corpses of prisoners. The film comes as close to showing rapes of imprisoned women and boys as it can while maintaining an R rather than NC-17 rating. Aside from the killings and corpses, a jaw-dropping sequence illustrates the perpetual misery of the Karen prisoners: Three women are forced to perform a strip show for throngs of crazed soldiers, who are increasingly unsatisfied, and eventually the women are dragged off to be gang-raped.
With Art Monterastelli co-writing, “Rambo” has the series’ deepest character roster. Colonel Trautman is gone, Richard Crenna having died in 2003, so “Buffy’s” Julie Benz is asked to shoulder the load of Rambo’s connection to humanity as Sarah, a Christian missionary.
This propulsive film – evocatively shot in Thailand, which in real life contains 200,000 Karen refugees – is often driven by a flurry of emotions more so than a plot. Because she displays those emotions, Sarah is the audience surrogate, even though there’s also a squad of colorful mercenaries who help Rambo. Probably Sarah is raped 50 times off screen while in captivity, and after she’s rescued by Rambo and the mercs, she is a blubbering shell of a person.
When Rambo commandeers a vehicle-mounted machine gun and mows down Burmese soldiers, the grimly entertaining spectacle often cuts back to Sarah’s horror. Her side is winning, and she’s going to get out of this alive, but the reality of warfare will scar her forever – and it will scar viewers at least until they chase a “Rambo” viewing with something light and fluffy, like a “John Wick” film.
It’s interesting to note that “killing’s as easy as breathing” isn’t merely a catchy one-liner. The previous films have plenty of hints that Rambo has a human side, including he and Trautman joking that they’ve gone soft at the end of “Rambo III,” but here Rambo is unbothered by what he does. Weirdly, he might finally be at inner peace – he looks content as he walks toward his father’s farm in Arizona over the epically long closing credits – but that question is deferred until 2019’s “Rambo: Last Blood.”
If one wants to pick “Rambo” apart, there are nuances that go untouched. For example, the Burmese army conscripts Karen boys as part of its raid of villages wherein it sometimes kills everyone else. At the very least, the commander announces that he’ll kill anyone who comes after the boys. So this army actually includes innocent conscripts – or at least people who start out that way. And Rambo is killing them.
But the point of the movie is to set Rambo down on a part of the globe where he can cathartically unleash a magically unending stream of ammo and be sure to hit only the most purely evil people. We aren’t given time to think that some of these soldiers don’t want to be there.
Obviously, no movie – particularly one that portrays fictional events (even if it’s against a nonfiction backdrop) can match real-world shell shock. But “Rambo” gives us a taste of what it’s like.