Twenty-six years on Rambo is bigger, clumsier, and heavier than his first outing, and that's true of the film as well. It might be a bloody mess, but it's thrilling.

Rambo is a drifter, here more literally than ever before, piloting his sampan around south-east Asia. He captures snakes for a lacklustre tourist trap, hunts fish for local monks. When he's approached by Michael Burnett (Paul Schulze) and his group of missionaries it's clear that he's more or less given up on life.

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The mission is simple enough: taking medicines, doctors, and the power of prayer to the oppressed Karen tribes of south-east Burma. Rambo, just "John" here, is more than reluctant. However, he's eventually talked round, convinced by Sarah Miller (Julie Benz). It's from this ill-fated trip that the action springs. As they head upriver into Burma, there's a confrontation with some river pirates, and it's clear that, despite his age and increasingly bizarre physique, Stallone can still convince as a warrior. The incident sets the missionaries against him, and they part on bad terms. It's only Sarah who sees some good in Rambo, and there does seem to be a genuine feeling of kinship between the two.

When the missionaries are kidnapped, their pastor hires a group of mercenaries to rescue his flock, and it's Rambo who takes them upriver. Casting off his pretentions to a peacable existence, he forges a sword from a plowshare and sets off to do some killing. The blacksmithing montage is accompanied by a monochrome dream sequence, full of the best bits (or, rather, the violence) from the previous films. Technically it's more of a cleaver made from spare parts, but despite looking like the signature weapon of a serial killer* the symbolism is clear.

The kidnappers are a local army unit, led by Lieutenant Aye (Aung Aay Noi). His men ransack villages and gamble by forcing refugees to run across minefields. More than that, though, as with The Kite Runner, the villain wears gold-rimmed aviator glasses, smokes, and has young boys brought to his room.

Among the multi-ethnic mercenaries are hardbitten former SAS type Lewis (Graham McTavish) who's generally unpleasant, and his more genial comrade Schoolboy (Matthew Marsden). As their operation to rescue the missionaries goes sour the action becomes cartoonish. After the gritty horror of massacred villagers, a sniper's bullet throwing a soldier across a road is a little silly.

The cast are good, largely newcomers or veterans of American television's police procedural mill (NCIS, CSI, and Law And Order credits abound). Stallone himself is in good form. Though his work here doesn't approach the highs of Copland, he has matured as an actor and brings that to his portrayal of Rambo.

The film opens with archive footage of Burma, including corpses, but much of it is no worse than is seen on the evening news. The chaos of combat, however, pushes Rambo to the limits of its 18 rating. It's visceral, shocking, even gruelling. It's pretty clear that Stallone as a director has been influenced by Gibson's work in The Passion Of The Christ, if only in its unflinching depiction of trauma to the human body. People disappear in red mists, limbs are amputated by explosions, we even see children gunned down by government troops. Then there are the whistles of bullets, thousands of them, with a clear debt to Saving Private Ryan. This is brutal stuff, lashings of the old ultraviolence, with rivers of blood shed in the mud and the rain. At times it's excessive, even comic, but it's part and parcel of the genre. Sadly, it doesn't save the film from feeling bloated. Though just over 90 minutes long it feels a lot less spritely, dragging in places and made worse by an indulgent ending and interminable credits without even the saving grace of a bonus scene.

That said, it's still a satisfying action movie. The Burmese junta are undoubtedly villains, even if exaggerated here. Stallone might no longer convince as a pinup, but he's perfect as a world-weary warrior, stuck in exile in Thailand. The rest of the world may have moved on, but there's still some space in it for Rambo.

* See here.

Reviewed on: 21 Feb 2008
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Rambo is called out of retirement to rescue kidnapped Christian aid workers from the Burmese jungle.
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Chris ***1/2

Director: Sylvester Stallone

Writer: Art Monterastelli, Sylvester Stallone

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Matthew Marsden, Graham McTavish, Reynaldo Gallegos

Year: 2008

Runtime: 91 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US, Germany


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