Friday, June 6, 2008

Callin' Me Baby Killer And All Kinds Of Vile Crap

Sylvester Stallone has spent the last few decades ambling (some would say lumbering) down an unusual career path. The majority of the second half of Stallone’s filmography was spent frittering away his once-considerable action star cache on a string of expensive flops (capped by the incalculably awful Driven) that landed him in the direct-to-video doghouse, where the far more interesting D-TOX was unceremoniously consigned. When word came down in 2007 that the aging action star – turning an unimaginably fit 62 next month – was initiating a tandem resurrection of the Rocky and Rambo franchises, it was like hearing that Gary Busey was arrested for stealing clothes off Buddy Holly’s corpse. But Rocky Balboa was an unexpectedly engaging picture; light and funny (adjectives rarely associated with Mr. Stallone), yet heartfelt and genuinely moving. People had been wrong, and most were pleased to admit it. The confusingly titled Rambo was up next, and in spite of a really, really fabulous poster (see above)the film underperformed. I missed its theatrical engagement, and had low expectations when firing up the new DVD; the ramshackle collection of clips that hit the web in the weeks before release made the film look cartoonishly violent and cheap – almost embarrassing, as if Stallone had forgotten the basics of movie assemblage. Well, that was my mistake; it turns out that Stallone knew exactly what kind of film he was making.

Using one of the world’s lesser known hot-spots for a backdrop, the picture picks up the story of John Rambo living out his days on the Salween River in Thailand. He’s approached by a group of missionaries who want him to ferry them up the river into Burma (Myanmar, if you’re nasty) to help the minority Christian population who are suffering near-genocide at the hands of the corrupt military government. Rambo first refuses, telling their leader, Michael (Paul Schulze, memorable as the jerky Chappelle in 24 and lascivious Father Phil in The Sopranos) that without weapons “You’re not changing anything”. But the big guy is softened up by the achingly earnest Sarah (Julie Benz) and reluctantly agrees. There will be no prizes offered for guessing what comes next; the missionaries are captured and Rambo leads a team of mercenaries (paid for by what has to be one of the wealthiest churches in America) to rescue them.

Now, before our protagonists even get close to the border, we’re treated to several lengthy scenes of mind blowing mayhem as the Burmese military slaughters helpless villagers with a medieval savagery that left this viewer stunned. In my life, I’ve seen just about every celluloid horror imaginable, from Italian cannibals, to German corpse rutting, to Indonesian fetus sucking, and I had thought myself immune to depictions of violence on-screen. I was wrong. I don’t know if it was the sight of the first body blown into moist chunks in a minefield, or the first pregnant mother shot in the stomach and rocketing back 50 feet, or even the infant skewered on the end of a bayonet and thrown into a fire that shocked – but I do know that after the 20 minute mark any thoughts about Stallone the director not knowing what he was doing were long gone. Sly, without telling anyone what he had in mind ahead of time, went ahead and made a glorious throwback to the Eurosleaze grindhouse pictures of the 70s and early 80s! Imagine a cocktail made of equal parts Cannibal Holocaust and The Last Hunter, mixed with Hollywood money and a major star sidecar. There’s a scene near the end where Rambo commandeers a machine gun turret mounted in the back of a jeep, and begins to systematically tear what seems like the entire Burmese military to shreds; limbs are torn off and bodies are sent flying through the air as if shot from a cannon. Whether this is pure exploitation, or an honest attempt to show what actually happens when a .50 caliber bullet encounters the human body is, in the end, unimportant. Rambo is very mean and admirably lean (clocking in at only 91 minutes including end credits!) with Stallone showing an economy in his direction that this viewer has never seen before. While there is lip service paid to the very real problems of the people of Burma/Myanmar, the film wisely keeps the focus on Rambo’s more “intimate” revenge story, with careful attention paid to more small scale action beats, such as the fate of one unlucky Burmese officer who seeks to violate Sarah.

The first two sequels to First Blood (the best picture of Stallone’s career, and a damn near perfect action showcase) suffered from increased scope and diminishing returns. Rambo III in particular was a famously troubled production that sought to dominate with sheer size, pitting Rambo against the entire Soviet Army in Afghanistan, and turning him from an emotionally crippled outsider fighting against the police and National Guard into a symbol of American power and intervention. Rambo goes a long way towards restoring the character to author David Morrell’s original vision.

Earlier in the evening, our group suffered through Lucker the Necrophagous, a shatteringly boring Dutch horror, notorious for its graphic depiction of murder and subsequent rape (very subsequent). The film ran just over an hour and left everyone in the room feeling like their own corpse had been violated over a similar length of time. Not because the content was EXTREME, but because it was a dull, amateurish mess that should have stayed on the bootleg tables at horror conventions where it belonged. Rambo came next, and if you had told me that the film that would set my ass on fire that evening would be the Hail-Mary sequel by a nearly has-been Hollywood action star in his early 60s, I’d have thought you mad.