Monday, January 28, 2008

Burmese Hell and the Resurrection of a Genre


Sylvester Stallone’s latest directorial effort, Rambo, is, simply, the greatest action film I have ever seen. With a runtime of 93 minutes, the film’s breakneck, skullfuck, brainbash pace makes it seem like half an hour. The film, Stallone’s second recent visitation, from behind the camera and in front, with one of his iconic characters (after the solid Rocky Balboa) is an absolute masterpiece of thrilling, shocking, hot-blooded, and vibrant filmmaking. On par with Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Ultimatum, Rambo is a return to REAL action filmmaking, without any sort of bullshit political polemics and overt self-conscious insecurity. Rambo is about the Iraq war without ever telling you that it is about the Iraq war. It is about post-war psychology and impacts without the self-importance that results in spoon-feeding the audience tear-stained diatribes about war-induced feelings of nihilism, moral confusion, and terror. Rambo simply IS nihilism, moral confusion, and terror. Stallone has made a film in the moment, not after the fact. The audience is in war. There is no lengthy training or acclimation, nor any post-carnage philosophizing. The film expresses the conflicting moralities, difficult realities, and necessary violence humanity is faced with when confronted with war and diplomatic impossibility. That is not to say that conflicts with Iraq, Iran, or any other country is bereft of diplomatic hope, but Rambo reveals the harsh actuality of a conflict past diplomacy, or perhaps pre-diplomacy, if diplomacy can only really occur after a conflict had been decided, which is a whole other issue unto itself.

One of the most startling things about Rambo, amidst its intense carnage and violence, is the minimalism and sparseness of its form. Although there are reportedly 236 deaths in the film, Rambo is a film without excess. Every shot, scene, and rare portion of dialogue is necessary. In fact, every death is necessary. Rather than films abiding by taste by showing graphic violence in far shots or editing around the more brutal elements of war, Rambo and Stallone understand that war is not tasteful. War is severed limbs, brutality, act-or-die circumstances, and, perhaps most importantly, lacking any sort of transcendent oversight that edits out the nasty parts. The film’s premise is even remarkably simple: a past-his-prime John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is hired by a group of Christian do-gooders seeking to give medicine and care to the people of rural Burma, to guide them through the country’s dangerous and claustrophobic jungle. After delivering the naïve missionaries to their desired village, in which many of them are slaughtered by the ruthless Burmese military in perhaps the most intense, terrifying massacre ever filmed, Rambo is asked by the group’s American-based leader to go on an expedition with a small band of mercenaries to discover their whereabouts and retrieve them. Like a hemorrhaging, rippling, vein-popping version of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Rambo progresses with blistering intensity and cinematic gusto oozing from every frame.


More visceral, challenging, and horrifying than any piece of journalism I’ve seen regarding the Iraq war, Rambo details a situation in which force is necessary and must be used. It is not a liberal fantasy of hocus-pocus speeches converting entrenched rebels or miraculous deeds of trans-cultural kindness bringing people into their right minds, nor is it a masturbatory imagining of patriotism, traditional morality, and Western culture correcting a perceived wrong. Instead, Stallone’s film is a clear-headed depiction of the Darwinist realities of violence, power, and authority. In fact, Rambo is as detached from conservatism as any of the pseudo-intellectual “I read serious articles in serious newspapers about serious issues” films that flooded cinemas last year, such as Lions For Lambs, Redacted, In the Valley of Elah, and Rendition. John Rambo is not an American hero. He is a bitter, tattered expatriate drowning is disillusionment from his country’s grand pants-shitting known as Vietnam. In one scene, Rambo is asked by the female leader of the Christian group, Sarah (Julie Benz), why he hasn’t moved back to America; Rambo replies that he doesn’t need to because nothing ever changes. This prompts Sarah to comment that many things have changed – but, have they? Aren’t we still in a bullshit war that’ll probably create more Rambos than we need? Rambo’s stance is ultimately a rejection of America, perhaps rightfully so.

Likewise, the film espouses a rejection of God-given entitlement and morality. In one particularly abrasive scene, the most cynical member of the mercenary group, Lewis (Graham McTavish), comments to the recently rescued Michael (Paul Schulze), a man who earlier in the film condemns Rambo for killing a group of pirates, claiming that killing is never right, “God didn’t save you, we did.” The statement is a brilliant summation of the film’s fantastically understated nihilist themes, which sidestep, rightfully, the extraneous presence of morality in the struggle for survival. Survival is an act of self-control, autonomy, and individual agency that is liberating in its ability to deliver to people responsibility for themselves and potential control of their own destiny. The film is, in a very sly way, a proponent of the American dream, of individuals taking charge, without sugar-coating the difficulty of actualizing the American dream. Rambo is an American film at its core, despite its searing criticism of America’s shortcomings. It is a film of pragmatism and flexibility, essentially about adaptation. Discarding the limited, strict philosophies of political correctness and clean-cut liberalism or conservatism, the film is about dealing with situations as they happen, without the overtly-theoretical responses posed by knee-jerk right-wing or left-wing absolutists who might, like Michael, stand on a shiny pedestal and say that killing is never justified or acceptable. Rambo is a film smart enough and in-touch enough to realize that all war, Iraq included, and all life, is unfair. Those who survive are those who adapt. The film’s most stunning example of this is the transformation experience by Michael. Formerly a black-and-white thinker, when faced with a life-or-death predicament, Michael rises to the occasion and, with astonishing ferocity, defeats a deadly attacker by bludgeoning his face in with a rock. Michael is thrust into the reality of war and of humanity, like this stunned and overwhelmed reviewer was.

by Brandon Colvin

8 comments:

Jeremy Richey said...

Absolutely excellent piece on a fantastic film. I gave you a link over at Moon In The Gutter. I hope it brings a few more people to this. Really greart job.

Brandon Colvin said...

Thanks, Jeremy. Your comments are always appreciated.

It's good to see "Rambo" get some well-deserved love. I really hope people give it a chance and have an open mind about it. I basically saw it expecting an easily digestible slice of action schlock, but, man, was I surprised.

Steve Langton said...

Picked up on your review via Jeremy's excellent blog. Great piece of writing that makes me want to see this film in the next few minutes. I'll install your site on my favourites.

Brandon Colvin said...

Thanks for the comments, Steve. An additional thanks for the add to your favorites. Enjoy Out 1.

Anonymous said...

Brandon, I play Lewis in the movie and was asked to look at your review. I wanted to say how glad I am to see that you understood the movie so comprehensively. Thanks for watching, and great job. I will be sure to check in to your site regularly.

Brandon Colvin said...

I believe Lewis was played by Graham McTavish, so if it is indeed you, Mr. McTavish, thank you so much for stopping by the site and giving my review a read. I'm glad you enjoyed it and I'm glad to have you as a potential regular reader. It really means a lot to have someone involved in the making of the film praise my review. Once again, thanks.

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

What makes you think that this film is necessarily about Iraq and not a plea for U.S. involvement in other places in the world like the Sudan-- or Burma.

Scott B Walters said...

Great review. Jacob told me a bit about it before we went to see the movie, so I went into it with a bit more of an open mind.

Just proves that if a movie like Rambo can do so much, what excuse does the rest of the mindless Hollywood BS have?