A little over a year ago, Sylvester Stallone pulled off an impressive feat for Hollywood. He shook off the cobwebs of "has-been" that were beginning to collect on him and his most famous character by writing, directing, and starring in an impressive return to the Rocky franchise.
The PG Rocky Balboa's success with critics and audiences probably made his pitch to bring back his second-most-popular character, Rambo, a much easier sell to studios. Certainly they were willing to back him with much more money (a reported $50 million compared to $8 million), even though the action film centers on a little-known war (the Burmese civil conflict) and a little-understood group of people (missionaries).
Perhaps because appealing to Christian audiences was a significant element in making Balboa a success, Stallone seems to be trying to follow the same pattern with Rambo. Part of the marketing campaign of the first film centered on highlighting the main character's faith, including extended scenes showing the aging boxer praying and reading Scripture. During interviews before the last Rocky's release, Stallone explained that he has always considered himself a believer, and that he tries to write themes of temptation and redemption into his scripts.
He couldn't very well pitch Rambo directly to religious outlets, rated R as it is for graphic violence, sexual assaults, grisly images, and language. But the plot does center on the rescue of a group of Christian missionaries who have entered Burma's war zone in order to minister to persecuted believers and spread the gospel.
Unfortunately, this is where the similarities end. While Rocky Balboa deepened and expanded an iconic character, Rambo creates an even bloodier caricature of the one-man army many viewers remember.
The film opens with actual news footage of the strife, providing audiences a quick lesson on the world's longest-running civil war. The violence of these opening scenes-painfully, shockingly real-create an unflattering comparison with the rest of the film that seems to revel in ostentatiously spilling guts and tearing out throats. The little dialogue spoken is of the clichéd "live for something or die for nothing" variety. And though the missionary work briefly portrayed on screen is treated with respect, those minutes contribute nothing to the emotion of the movie.
The missionaries' work seems an afterthought to the blood-spattering steps Rambo takes to save the missionaries. He doesn't learn something from them, but they learn from him how to savagely bash in heads. Of course, there's a place for violence in self-defense and in defense of innocents, but the violence here is so painstakingly rendered, with such creative methods, that it feels like a celebration of it, not a defense.
One interesting note is that Rambo seems to be dividing critics across the country along gender lines. While nearly every major female reviewer lambasted Stallone for his over-the-top hacking away at human parts, many male critics, including those at The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, and San Francisco Chronicle, gave it a thumbs up. Is that because men more often enjoy action movies, because they have a greater ability to accept necessary violence, or because they have a greater susceptibility to blood thirst?