I know we're supposed to be all nostalgic about the '80s these days. Ronald Reagan has become a "transformative" and "dynamic" figure, to be slavishly copied by Republicans and nebulously praised by Democrats. John Rambo, Sylvester Stallone's iconic Vietnam-vet action hero, has a similarly slippery political valence. As the casualty of an unjust American war who was ignored by an uncaring government and goaded by brutal cops in the original film, First Blood, he's vaguely a hero of the anti-war left. In the sequels, as an unequaled kicker of Communist ass, he's firmly on (and in) the right. Now that he's been resurrected in a fourth film simply called Rambo, Stallone's protean warrior has a whole new overseas conflict to symbolize. Rambo is nothing if not flexible; he's capable both of ruing the harm that man inflicts on his fellow man, and inflicting it by the monster truckload.
When we first see him again, Rambo (Stallone, still granite-faced and massively muscled at 61) is living in semi-seclusion in the Thai jungle, piloting a riverboat and capturing live cobras to sell to snake wranglers (hey, it beats telemarketing). Decades of suffering have tempered him like iron (which, as we learn in the opening scenes, he also knows how to forge by hand). Rambo is approached by a group of American missionaries who want to be taken to Myanmar (formerly Burma) to deliver aid to the oppressed Karen tribespeople (a Christian minority in the country). At first he flatly refuses, sneering at the group's desire to do good: "Nothing ever changes," he tells the group's blonde, Sarah (Julie Benz). But something about Sarah—her blondness? Her goodness? Her complete lack of character traits other than goodness or blondness?—compels him to ferry the group upriver against his best instincts.
After a brief and bloody encounter with a Burmese pirate ship, Rambo leaves the missionaries at their destination and returns to his nihilistic snake-trapping existence. But Burmese soldiers soon storm the Karen village, slaughtering all the natives and taking the missionaries prisoner. Their pastor (Ken Howard) flies in to beg Rambo to lead a team of mercenaries to rescue the group, and soon Rambo's headed back upriver with a sketchy crew of international soldiers of fortune. When they finally storm the hideout where the army is holding the captives in bamboo cages—well, Katy bar the door. Not that barring the door will do much good when Rambo is on the other side with a crossbow.
Rambo combines an unapologetic return to the grand action-movie tradition of blowing stuff up (one explosion is so big, it leaves behind its own miniature mushroom cloud) with a Saw-era interest in close-ups of human viscera. The problem is that the moral meaning of the gore keeps changing. The airborne organs of a helpless Karen villager are supposed to make us scream, "Rambo, right this injustice!" while the splattered guts of a Burmese army officer are meant to evoke a reaction along the lines of, "Aw yeah." But no matter how realistically rendered and lovingly framed in slow-mo, guts are just guts, and they tend to engender the same reaction: an ethically neutral "ew." If you like seeing people blown in half, beheaded, and impaled, have a ball (but don't sit next to me on the subway home, please). If you don't, the horror of these images is hardly going to leave you pondering the plight of the Karen in Myanmar. Stallone has said that he hopes the film will raise awareness of the civil war there, but his use of actual news footage of Burmese atrocities as the film opens seems like a pious canard (and an invasion of privacy of the real people whose deaths we witness).
The Rambo franchise is a fantasy of total war whose very power derives from its nonspecificity. The only consistent message from film to film is "Rambo kills meanies with extreme prejudice"; whether those meanies are cops (First Blood), Viet Cong holdouts (Rambo: First Blood Part II), or Soviet troops in Afghanistan (Rambo III) seems like a matter of pure historical chance. * I don't doubt that Sylvester Stallone feels for the people of Burma. Still, setting his film there is a convenient way of allowing us the satisfaction of a righteous victory without finding a way for John Rambo to intervene in Iraq, where (at least for American audiences) the moral math is far harder to do. Saving blond missionaries and innocent Christian villagers from oily, swaggering rapists is a mission anyone can get behind. Figuring out how to bring peace in the Middle East through the application of overwhelming force? That may be a job for Rambo V: Last Blood (No, Seriously).