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MOVIE REVIEW

A rocky 'Rambo' return

The hero's fourth tour of duty has script and cast issues, but he is still an iconic survivor.

January 25, 2008|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

Since drawing "First Blood" in 1982, John Rambo, a taciturn, nihilistic Vietnam vet who favors a bow and arrow and knife over modern weaponry (but can pretty much wipe out an entire regiment single-handedly with anything in reach), became the ultimate symbol of action-movie excess. A walking, grunting, monolith with massive, vein-rippled forearms, Sylvester's Stallone's army of one represented a video-game approach to filmmaking long before PlayStations and Xboxes surpassed the multiplex as the pastime of choice for the ADD generation.

Nearly 20 years after fighting the Soviets cheek-by-jowl with the Afghan mujahedin in "Rambo III," John returns to the screen working as a humble river guide in northern Thailand. The hulking former Green Beret is still haunted by his experiences, still hears the voice of his commanding officer (the late Richard Crenna) in his head and still speaks in movie poster-friendly taglines ("Live for nothin' or die for somethin' ") when he speaks at all.

Stallone directed and co-wrote the script (with Art Monterastelli) with a modicum of humor (when another character asks if he simply remained in Southeast Asia after the war, he replies, "It's complicated") and a boatload of blood. It's a labored reunion that hews closer in tone to the series' first movie, but suffers from some inane dialogue and the lack of an actor such as Crenna or Brian Dennehy to carry some of the dramatic burden.

A small number of missionaries from a Colorado church ask Rambo to take them upriver into civil war-torn Burma and after first refusing, he reluctantly caves to the insistent pleas of the group's lone woman, Sarah (Julie Benz).

The group fails to return and the church's pastor (Ken Howard in a cameo), after failing to gain assistance from the U.S. embassy, engages a quintet of mercenaries and hires Rambo to take them to the spot where he dropped the missionaries. Led by the bottom-line driven Lewis (Graham McTavish), the guns for hire take their pilot for granted, dismissing him as "boatman," but when they encounter the vicious Burmese army holding the missionaries they quickly realize they're lucky to have Rambo along. The Burmese are rapists and killers who force villagers to scramble through mined rice patties while they gamble on the outcome. Their leader is a sadist with an appetite for young boys, all of which makes them easier to cheer against.

When the mercenaries, with the exception of idealistic sharpshooter School Boy (Matthew Marsden), determine that the danger of a rescue attempt outweighs their paychecks, it's Rambo who exhorts them with a terse, "It's who we are." Moved to take charge by something like chivalry, Rambo hits his stride in the film's second half, meting out justice in an unjust world and ultimately the movie works best when warbling its out-of-tune greatest hits.

There's something oddly touching about Stallone's march down memory lane, dusting off his most iconic characters for another outing after years in mothballs. As he did with 2006's "Rocky Balboa," the 60-year-old star dons the persona like a comfy old suit, a little worse for wear but eminently recognizable.

Just as John Rambo reconciles himself to the facts of his situation, Stallone seems to have arrived at an acceptance of his place in the Hollywood pantheon. Peter O'Toole probably said it best as the Errol Flynn-like Alan Swann in "My Favorite Year": "I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star!"

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kevin.crust@latimes.com

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"Rambo." MPAA rating: R for strong graphic bloody violence, sexual assaults, grisly images and language. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. In general release.

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