Christian missionaries: in the movies, they always make trouble. That much is clear when a small group arrives in Thailand, looking for Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), a man they’ve heard will transport them upriver to a village in Burma (Myanmar in the world beyond this movie). But their earnest pleas for help don’t move Rambo. “Burma’s a war zone,” he informs them. Actually, corrects Michael (Paul Schulze), “more like genocide than war. This is my fifth trip in.” With this pronouncement — of expertise, self-confidence, do-gooding privilege and arrogance — Michael earns Rambo’s utter disdain. Unless they’re bringing weapons, he sneers, the group won’t be “changing anything.” Michael tries once more, suggesting that Rambo should be invested, like him, in doing something about the state of the world. That tears it. Rambo turns away: “Fuck the world.”
So now you know. Rambo’s personal jungle hell — he makes a meager living collecting cobras for a small mesmerize-the-snakes show in a remote Thai village — brooks no intruders. Twenty years after his adventure in Afghanistan, the gnarly Vietnam War veteran has resigned himself to hating everyone, a brief montage of black-and-whited shots from the previous three films suggesting just how mad he is, not only at the U.S. government that made him a killing machine and abandoned him, but at the world that doesn’t appreciate his sincerity or skills. The fact that these memories include a frightening version of Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) doesn’t help: Rambo’s effort to hole himself away, an effort to escape these memories and forget what he’s lost and especially, what he’s done, is plainly futile. Just when he thought he’d escaped, he’s sucked back in.
His decision to return is not, however, instigated by that smart aleck Michael, but by his significant other, Sarah (Julie Benz). She suggests that Rambo should be interested in life beyond himself, that he might even wonder what’s “changed” back in the States. “We’re here to make a difference,” she says, her banal plaints made nearly beatific as she stands before John in the rain. “What you’re trying to do is change what is,” snarls Rambo. Ah, she comes back, all zen and blond, “What is?” Rambo’s answer is succinct: “Go home!”
Duly crushed, Sarah departs. Cut to the next scene, Rambo piloting this boat with the missionaries aboard. It’s a bad idea. He knows it and you know it.
Even as they’ve been jawing, the film has been cutting to the casual atrocities committed by the Burmese Major Tint (Maung Maung Khin), abducting Karen boys for military conscription (and, it turns out, his own sexual pleasure, such desire underscoring his abject deserving of Rambo’s brutality), shooting adult men, raping women, and tossing babies into flames. This short but effectively horrific scene lays out all the movie means to tell you about the 60 years of civil war raging in Burma, the backdrop for Rambo’s self-acceptance, after all this time. His quick dispensing of a boatload of murderous pirates (to save the clueless missionaries) incites Michael’s remonstrance (“I know you think what you’ve done is right, but taking a life is never right!”, a belief you just know he’ll rethink) and Sarah’s odd sort of respect. (She’s an old-school action hero’s girl, all gasps and averted eyes, fearful and quivering when the real blood starts spurting.) And with that, Rambo drops the group at the Karen village and chugs away, pausing briefly on the way home to set the pirates’ boat ablaze.
Not so fast. That bad bad major takes his next step toward hell by abducting the missionaries, a bit of news Rambo hears from Ken Howard, playing the shadowy pastor of the Colorado church that sent these misinformed Samaritans in the first place. Poor Rambo just can’t retire. “War is in your blood,” he mutters in voiceover, “Don’t fight it. You didn’t kill for your country, you killed for yourself.” Amid bright orange sparks and black shadows, Rambo hammers a gigantic machete, his broken face and formidable figure resembling a mightily weathered Hephaestus. And at last, he gives in to himself: “When you’re pushed, killing’s as easy as breathing.”
And so he’s off, heading back upriver with a crew of mercenaries assembled by the pastor, the sort of one-from-every-food-group crew that appeared in Predator. While team leader Lewis (Graham McTavish) is precisely the sort of blustery bastard who needs comeuppance, Rambo actually impresses the sniper named Schoolboy (Matthew Marsden), for his tacit wisdom as much as his obvious affinity for killing. As Lewis spouts off throughout their initial journey, Rambo remains silent, staring ahead with his hand steady on the tiller. Try as he might, Lewis can’t get a rise out of Rambo, whom he calls, derisively, “Boatman,” as in, “The Boatman stays with the fucking boat,” or, following Rambo’s startling display of crossbow prowess, “Who are you, Boatman!?”
In spite of himself, Lewis poses the existential query the Rambo movies don’t really mean to answer. Rambo is who you need him to be, reflecting a zeitgeist of distrust and outrage. On his first appearance, back in 1982’s First Blood, Rambo confronted stateside authorities (the ignominiously named Sheriff Will Teasle) whose rejection of his seeming strangeness took an especially violent form. Given his training — his creation by the Green Berets, his reformation by his time in Nam — Rambo’s resistance was at once tragic and rousing, not necessarily tied to the film’s reactionary politics. The resurrection now is politically simplistic, set against another jungle backdrop left mostly unexplored (the bad Burmese are drunks and rapists, the good rebels are hapless victims) while Rambo is once again called on to rescue beleaguered white Americans (in the second film, he rescued American POWs; in the third, Colonel Trautman). Though Rambo announces his own meditative maxim — ”Live for something,” he instructs the mercenaries, “or die for nothing” — it’s hard to say exactly what the something is, in this case, apart from the weepy blond girl locked in a box.
However you parse the character’s evolution, Rambo the film shows a peculiar understanding of changes in the industry. Drawing on the first film’s gritty look (as opposed to the more expensive second and third films’ relative gloss), Rambo also updates its representation of violence. Where the earlier installments offered heroic acts, ritual and even symbolic injuries, this one is all about harrowing effects, inviting visceral responses: limbs fly off, bodies explode, heads are ripped from necks and guts spill from torsos. Hectic and brutal, the fast cuts, handheld camerawork, and despondent hero all borrow from Bourne, another product of a treacherous system. That Rambo is by now too old to recover or start again only underlines the film’s ultimate point: no one wins this time.