Dir: Sylvester Stallone. US. 2008. 91mins.
Cynically using the decades-long Burmese civil war as a backdrop for grisly and unremitting violence, muscle-headed action flick Rambo comes off as a sad and empty attempt to be politically relevant.

Coming almost two decades after the last series entry, and on the heels of the successful commercial and critical reception of 2006's Rocky Balboa, which located fresh narrative terrain and provided a perfect emotive bookend to multi-hyphenate Sylvester Stallone's other signature franchise, this sloppy, nihilistic effort feels especially sour and out of step with modern convention.

Picking up Vietnam veteran John Rambo's story some 20 years later, Stallone posits the character as psychologically unable to return home, now living a solitary, monastic lifestyle in south east Asia. That would be fine, except that this element is pure window dressing - an excuse for a parade of brutality (including bayoneted kids) that does nothing except showcase several dozen different ways to take a life.

Starting with 1982's First Blood, the Rambo films, which collectively pulled in $615 million worldwide, always grossed as much or more overseas as they did domestically, with 1988's third installment pulling in over 70 percent of its box office take from international territories. Rambo seems constructed to try to play to that fact, indulging in plenty of pyrotechnic mayhem and unloaded semi-automatic magazine cartridges.

Rocky Balboa ($70 million domestically, $85 million internationally) certainly showed that Stallone is, to some degree, still a marketable worldwide commodity, but his last widely distributed international action flick was 2001's underperforming Formula One race car picture Driven, so there's reason to believe Rocky Balboa's success was a function of affinity for its namesake pugilist. To that end, nostalgia, outright curiosity and to a lesser degree a lack of direct genre competition may help Rambo find some modest first weekend success at home and abroad. But it's difficult to imagine the movie punching through with series newcomers or, given likely very mixed word-of-mouth, old fans driving significant repeat business.

The film opens in northern Thailand, where Rambo ekes out a subsistence catching poisonous snakes for cash and running a longboat along the Salween River. It's this latter fact that brings him to the attention of a group of Colorado missionaries headed up by Sarah Miller (Benz) and Michael Burnett (Schulze).

Sarah, Michael and their group want to go to Burma to lend moral support to the Karen tribe, an ethnic Christian minority at war with the internationally isolated ruling military junta. Rambo at first spurns their request for transport, but eventually relents. Along the way, there's a confrontation with Burmese river pirates, and Rambo is forced to abandon his newfound pacifism in defence of his passengers.

Weeks later Rambo learns that the missionaries are now being held captive by a particularly sadistic unit of the Burmese military, obviously outside of diplomatic reach. He's hired by the missionaries' leader to ferry a team of mercenary soldiers, including gruff director Lewis (McTavish) and sniper Schoolboy (Marsden), to the point he last saw the group. Naturally, Rambo's conscience kicks in, along with old killer instincts, and the limbs, heads and throats of many a swarthy Burmese soldier pay the price.

Rambo opens with real-life images from the quelled pro-democracy demonstrations in late September of last year, protests which were met with brutal force. Whether by function of budget constraint or edit, the rest of the film seems pared down to relatively straightforward action set piece entanglements, an ill-advised strategy which casts further doubt on the movie's wishes to be taken as anything more than a barely linked series of lopped arms and exploded chests.

The character of Rambo, a Reagan-era re-branding of the forward-leaning, wounded ego vigilantism that was left over from the US's Vietnam debacle, was always going to be more of a relic of time and place than Rocky, and thus harder to update. The movie's script, a shared credit by Stallone and Art Monterastelli, has nothing interesting to say about that, though, and plumbs its lead character's psyche solely by way of one nightmare montage featuring black-and-white footage from the first three films. There's an uncomfortable subtext to be found, too, in the uninterrupted debasement and abuse of local women, while the same sort of violence against Sarah is only intimated.

The film's action is suitably explosive and over-the-top - at one point Rambo rigs an unexploded World War II shell to take out several hundred yards of jungle - but it reaches such a level of cartoonish extreme so as to seem almost desperate in its attempt to woo an audience who know the Rambo films only as late-night cable TV entries.

Shot on location in and around Chiang Mai, Thailand, the movie certainly makes good use of its natural surroundings, at least during daylight exteriors. A night-time, rain-soaked rescue operation, though - a centerpiece of the movie's second act - seems designed chiefly to cheat the fact that a similar sequence in the light of day would have been much more costly. Stallone's staging here is messy and confusing, and cinematographer Glen MacPherson (16 Blocks, One Missed Call) loses a battle to shadow. The result is much more irritating than thrilling.

Brian Tyler's very literal-minded musical compositions, meanwhile, are in perfectly ridiculous lockstep with the movie's demonstrative finale.

Production companies/backers
Lionsgate (US)
The Weinstein Company (US)
Equity Pictures (Ger)
Millennium Films (US)
Nu-Image (US)

US distribution

Executive producers
Jon Feltheimer
Peter Block
Harvey Weinstein
Bob Weinstein
Danny Dimbort
Boaz Davidson
Trevor Short
Andreas Theismeyer
Florian Lechner
Randall Emmett
George Furla

Avi Lerner
Kevin King-Templeton
John Thompson

Josef Lautenschlager
Joachim Sturmes

Screen play
Sylvester Stallone
Art Monterastelli
based on characters created by David Morrell

Glen MacPherson

Production designer
Franco-Giacomo Carbone

Brian Tyler

Sean Albertson

Main cast
Sylvester Stallone
Julie Benz
Paul Schulze
Matthew Marsden
Graham McTavish
Rey Gallegos
Jake La Botz
Tim Kang
Maung Maung Khin
Ken Howard
Aung Theng