Logic would say that the first film in a franchise focused on one character would just have that character’s name as the title. If you knew nothing of the series of movies about Vietnam veteran and former Green Beret John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), you might assume that Rambo (2008) is the first. Here is where logic gets tossed out the window, ran over by several cars, washed into the sewers, drained into the ocean, eaten by a fish, pooped, and turned into whatever serves as fodder for free floating bacteria. Actually, that sequence of events is far more sensible than most anything you will see in this movie, one made over a quarter of a century after Rambo: First Blood (1982), and twenty years after we last saw the character in Rambo III (1988). Confused yet? Here is another log to add onto this bizarre fire of illogic: Rambo is probably the best in the series. This has more to do with a personal taste for a limited aspect of the movie, but it is something.
As they do, Rambo sets the stage for what will ultimately become the title character’s next mission. In Burma, a brutal military regime begins imposing its will on the people. In a remote area, we see the tragedy unfold as a unit of Burmese soldiers, led by the sadistic Major Pa Tee Tint (Maung Maung Khin), slaughter villagers, force the boys to join their forces, and take the women hostage as sex slaves. We then shift to Thailand, where Rambo is working for a riverside attraction that shows the country’s many deadly snakes off to tourists. He is soon approached by two Christian missionaries, Michael Burnett (Paul Schulze) and Sarah Miller (Julie Benz), from the United States seeking to head into Burma to one of their mission villages. They want him to guide them as he knows the river. Rambo is clearly jaded at this point in his life, underscored when he tells them that unless they are bringing guns into Burma they are changing nothing. Nonetheless, they are insistent that they understand the risks, and later Sarah appeals to Rambo’s sense of duty, which changes his mind. The next day they leave, and though they have a run-in with pirates along the river (yes, they still exist in some parts of the world), he successfully delivers them to their destination. Unfortunately, it is not long before Major Tint and his men attack the village, killing most of those there, and taking those who came with Michael and Sarah hostage. This prompts a visit to Rambo from Arthur Marsh (Ken Howard), the reverend of the Colorado church that sent the missionaries. Like Michael and Sarah, Arthur has learned of Rambo’s knowledge of the river and seeks out his services to ferry a group of mercenaries he has hired to rescue the hostages. Remembering Sarah’s convictions, Rambo agrees to do it. The soldiers for hire are a diverse group of rogues that do not think much of the aged man steering their boat. Once they get to the spot where Rambo had dropped off the missionaries, they are met by a local guide, Myint (Supakorn Kitsuwon), who will take the mercenaries to the shattered village. Rambo is going to come, but the mercenary leader, Lewis (Graham McTavish), is adamant that Rambo stay with the boat. When the mercenaries discover how many Burmese soldiers stand between them and their objective, they are suddenly not so keen to be risking their lives no matter the financial gain. As doubt creeps in, Rambo appears, and he begins to do what Rambo does best: murder his enemies. His resolve seems to buoy the mercenaries, and they support his efforts to get Michael, Sarah, and their companions out of their imprisonment. Rambo is separated from the others in going after Sarah, but eventually they are all head back towards the boat by daybreak. Of course, this is when the Burmese soldiers wake up to the fact that they have been infiltrated, and take off after the interlopers. Rambo does his usual thing, too, in setting boobytraps and thinning out the herd, handing Sarah off to the mercenaries. The Burmese soldiers catch up with the mercenaries, and many are wounded. There are two things that save them. First, Rambo finds his way into a vehicle mounted machine gun and lays down a withering hail of bullets that take out many of the Burmese soldiers. The other one is the arrival of Myint and his fellow rebels, turning the tide of the battle. Rambo and the others limp back to the boat, and are able to get away. We close with Rambo finally leaving Southeast Asia and returning to the United States, stopping at a farm in Arizona with his family’s name on the mailbox.
The ending of Rambo marks at least some character development, finally, for one that has had none in three previous films. He is presented as an embittered veteran who is just trying to mind his own business. The lynch pin for his change, and what gets him to finally let go as he had been asked in the last film, is Sarah. Though she is not a love interest, being engaged to Michael, she reminds him that there is a world beyond Thailand. So, kudos to Rambo for seemingly leaving the past behind. This is a familiar theme in films, however, and while a welcome change from its franchise predecessors, not the main reason I liked it more than the others. Instead, it is the bravery of the missionaries. Being a major Hollywood film, they had to make Michael somewhat of an overzealous jerk about his desire to head into Burma, as seen in the naïve way he treats Rambo after killing the pirates. Nonetheless, their desire to do what God has led them to is admirable. Rambo is wrong when he says that the only way to make a difference in a place like Burma, or Myanmar as it is called under the very real military dictatorship that rules it, is to hand out weapons. It is true that there has been a lot of history decided by the sword. More lasting are the effects of the work of people like Michael and Sarah. God asks of us to be constructive rather than destructive, and following this general rule makes you co-creators with His will. It also takes courage to go into a warzone armed only with the Word and supplies to help those in need. For centuries, Christian missionaries have been doing this very thing, and the Catholic Church has a special place for those who suffer martyrdom in such a cause. Though Michael and Sarah do not meet this fate, I am at least pleased that they were not made to be the villains of this story.
Not that these slightly positive aspects of Rambo are a reason to watch it. In fact, in many respects I would warn you away from this one even more so than the others in the franchise. The action in the first three, while certainly violent, is silly enough at times to be somewhat bearable. For whatever reason, they decided to go more realistic in this latest iteration. This is my interpretations, anyway, when I see a great deal more blood and gore. As such, avoid if at all possible.