Rambo (2008) Review

Director: Sylvester Stallone

Genre(s): Action, War

Runtime: 92 minutes (standard version), 99 minutes (extended version)

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

After taking twenty years off, the Rambo series returned with a vengeance in 2008. Vietnam War veteran and supersoldier John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is living the peaceful life in Thailand when he’s called upon by a group of American missionaries to escort them into civil war-torn Myanmar (Burma). The results are ultra-gory, with people being liquefied and shredded by fifty-caliber ammo and genocidal atrocities being commonplace.

As one would expect for a movie in the Rambo franchise, the action scenes are astounding, as well as more ferocious than ever, thanks to the upped level of violence. The pure-evil baddies give the audience plenty of people to hiss at and John Rambo is just as heroic as he’s ever been. This is the first Rambo picture where the musical score wasn’t done by Jerry Goldsmith. Instead, Brian Tyler steps up to the plate and delivers music that references the past, as well as forging its own path.

Rambo is initially a reluctant hero, but this is a bleeding heart shoot-’em-up, so he comes around to the idea of mass-killing people eventually. The film represents a militant style of Wilsonianism, where human rights grow out of the barrel of a fifty-caliber machine gun. It’s pretty similar to Rambo III (1988) in this regard, where underdog freedom fighters struggle against the forces of unrestrained totalitarianism.

As serious as Rambo is, there are some kitschier moments that may provoke an unintended chuckle or two. Overall, the flick isn’t quite as good as the original trilogy, but it’s still a riotously over-the-top actioner that will satisfy most fans of the genre. It stays true to the Rambo style and, regarding its politics, it has its heart in the right place. If you can handle the gruesome carnage, it comes highly recommended.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Rambo III (1988) Review

Director: Peter MacDonald

Genre(s): Action, War

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Despite being almost universally considered the worst film in the Rambo series, Rambo III is actually my favorite of the franchise. Packed to the brim with incessant action, this one has Vietnam War veteran and supersoldier John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) traveling to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan to rescue his former commanding officer, Colonel Samuel Trautman (Richard Crenna), who was captured by the communists there. As edge-of-your-seat thrilling as the whole original Rambo trilogy is, this romance-free installment takes the cake.

Rambo III‘s action sequences are beyond incredible, tossing countless explosions, fired blanks, blood squibs, collapsing extras, and totaled vehicles at the viewer. The choreography and editing is exquisite. It’s all completely over-the-top, yet just barely (I repeat: barely) plausible enough for the audience to accept. Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score is a scene-stealer that greatly heightens the action.

This picture sees Rambo assume the role of Wilsonian action hero, fighting for human rights in a far-off land. It’s a welcome twist for the Rambo character that gives the flick some unrecognized depth. Sylvester Stallone’s role is a bit different here from the rest of the series, being less internally-tortured and more of a one-liner machine, but I think the transformation is okay. Many people claim Rambo III‘s politics have aged poorly, with the Soviet-Afghan War-era Mujaheddin being shown in a positive light, with some viewers saying that Rambo helped found the Taliban. This is a bit of an exaggeration, as the anti-Soviet fighter Masoud (Spyros Fokas) in the film is actually based on Ahmad Shah Massoud, an actual person who fought against both the Soviet Union and the Taliban (as a leader of the Northern Alliance when battling against the latter).

Yes, this is probably the kitschiest of the Rambo franchise, but that doesn’t bother me at all. It has the best (and perhaps most) action of the series, and its story is an inspiration to freedom fighters across the globe. A lot of people can’t handle kitsch, but, if you can and you love action, Rambo III is a must-watch. It’s got the massive explosions, the heart, the pacing, and the heroism that makes for great cinema.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) Review

Director: George P. Cosmatos

Genre(s): Action

Runtime: 96 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

As masterful as First Blood (1982) is, it wasn’t really until its sequel that the Rambo that most people recognize appeared on movie theater screens. In this film, Vietnam War veteran and supersoldier John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is sent back to Vietnam by the American government to investigate the possibility of U.S. P.O.W.s left behind after the end of the war. Yes, this is the one where the iconic main character really starts to go to town on his enemies.

Rambo: First Blood Part II wastes no time getting started, and almost constantly bludgeons the audience over the head with awesome action scenes. The high point just may be a helicopter rampage sequence that’s truly one for the ages. Another highlight is Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score. The pacing is generally speedy, and the whole picture has a palpable sense of righteous rage. It’s kitschier than the first one, but this has an appeal of its own.

On the down side, there is some pointless romance involving Rambo that probably could’ve been written out of the screenplay. As much as I love this flick, it’s probably my least favorite of the original Rambo trilogy. It seems a bit torn between the angsty, tormented world of First Blood and the wild, shoot-’em-up-heavy universe of Rambo III (1988). Those two films come close to perfection in doing their own things, while Rambo: First Blood Part II feels like a stepping stone from one to the other.

While John Rambo was largely a tragic figure in First Blood (and he still is to an extent throughout the entire series), the first sequel transforms him into a sweaty, shirtless, M60-slinging Captain America who makes Uncle Sam cry tears of pride. Still, there’s enough pathos to the main character to make the flick still feel like it’s from the same franchise as First Blood. The bottom line is that this is a tremendous action film full of explosions and dead bodies. If that sounds like something you’d enjoy, you’ll want to check it out.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

First Blood (1982) Review

Director: Ted Kotcheff

Genre(s): Action, Drama

Runtime: 93 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

First Blood is the first entry into the Rambo series, and, if you’re not a fan of run-and-gun movies, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: “Why am I even reading this review?” Well, First Blood isn’t your typical Rambo film, and, even if you don’t think you’d enjoy the other flicks in the franchise, this one might be worth checking out. Compared to the other members of the series, this one’s plot is somewhat low-key, being about Vietnam War veteran and supersoldier John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) being harassed by small-town cops in the American Pacific Northwest and having to take to the neighboring, forested hills to survive.

One thing that sets First Blood apart from the rest of the 1980s shoot-’em-up pack is its microscopic body count. Rambo isn’t piling up the corpses like he does in the sequels. Despite this, the violence feels more graphic and painful than it does in Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Rambo III (1988). The action scenes are fantastic, despite generally being devoid of lethal carnage. This picture is far more realistic than its sequels, and it makes more grounded acts of physicality outrageously exciting. Something as simple as a guy jumping on top of a moving truck is a blast to watch here.

Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score is excellent (the film wouldn’t be the same without it), and the theme song, “It’s a Long Road,” sung by Dan Hill, is mighty effective. It’s a morally complex movie, with few clear heroes and villains (Rambo here sometimes resembles a more anti-heroic version of a slasher film bad guy). Sylvester Stallone is the picture’s backbone, providing an able performance that keeps it from straying into kitsch territory. His character, Rambo, is ridden with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), giving him a lot more depth than he’s often given credit for.

Like Death Wish (1974), First Blood is actually a remarkably well-crafted drama that sometimes gets dismissed due to its connection to its Crazy Town sequels. It works best as a rugged action-drama that moves the audience as it excites them with violent fireworks. It’s not as fist-pumpingly heroic as the other installments in the series, but it’s certainly a wild ride.

My rating is 9 outta 10.

City Heat (1984) Review

Director: Richard Benjamin

Genre(s): Action, Comedy, Crime

Runtime: 93 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

Sometimes it feels like I’m the only person on the planet who likes City Heat. Is it as good as a team-up of Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds should’ve been? No, but it’s a serviceable action-comedy about a police detective (Clint Eastwood) and a private eye (Burt Reynolds) in Prohibition-era Kansas City who form a reluctant partnership to investigate a murder…or something. Yeah, the murky plot is probably the film’s weak link, but at least the movie’s relatively short runtime keeps things under control.

Set in some of the seediest locations in Kansas City of the interwar years, City Heat feels like a gangster-oriented neo-noir at times, but, ultimately, it’s probably not hard-boiled enough to be considered one. It’s a comedy, and the humor is the kind that you chuckle at despite it being somewhat lame. This isn’t a laugh riot, but neither is it a cringe-inducing flop. That being said, it can be tonally awkward…but just a little bit.

On the action front, there are some solid fist fights and shootouts, but nothing really to write home about. The physical mayhem comes at regular intervals, enough to prevent the flick, with its convoluted plot, from being boring. In the end, the comedy is just funny enough and the action just exciting enough to make City Heat work properly.

Despite almost being sunk by a story lacking immediacy, this is a picture I’d recommend to fans of the two stars. Just remember to keep your expectations low. The closest it comes to brushing with greatness is when the audience briefly sees an advertisement for the James Cagney gangster film The Public Enemy (1931) in the background. Yeah, a masterpiece it ain’t, but I still like it.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

To Hell and Back (1955) Review

Director: Jesse Hibbs

Genre(s): Action, Biography, Drama, War

Runtime: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The main draw of To Hell and Back is to see Audie Murphy play himself, an American hero of World War II who fought in several campaigns of the European theater. The picture starts with its star as a poor, rural Texan, who joins the U.S. army as a way of helping support his family. Other than the Murphy-as-Murphy factor, this film plays out like a fairly typical grunts’-eye-view war movie.

Most viewers will probably choose to watch To Hell and Back for Murphy and the recreation of his heroics. On this level, the flick works pretty well. There’s a reasonable amount of battle scenes, but their realism is mixed. They’re explosion-heavy and oft-muddy, capturing what small-unit combat must feel like to a fair degree. On the other hand, the violence often seems sanitized, although small amounts of blood show up once in a while.

Other cons related to To Hell and Back are the pointless romance scenes, which add nothing, and the fact that the family sequences towards the beginning feel a bit schmaltzy, but they’re over soon enough. Most of the supporting characters are pretty interchangeable, which hampers the drama. Understandably, the horrible post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that Murphy suffered from post-war is left out, as the movie concludes with the end of World War II.

To Hell and Back sometimes feels like an advertisement for the American military, considering the lack of PTSD-related content and other factors, but it would be a mistake to let that deter one from watching it. I listed quite a few negatives for the film, yet the “gimmick,” if you want to call it that, at the center of the flick, Murphy playing himself, is strong enough to make it worth a watch. The humble heroism on display here keeps it afloat.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Santiago (1956) Review

Director: Gordon Douglas

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 93 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

If you’ve seen the World War II picture China (1943), also starring Alan Ladd, you’ll know what to expect from Santiago. They’re pretty similar, but both are worth watching. Here, an American gunrunner, Caleb “Cash” Adams (Alan Ladd), is drawn into the Cuban War of Independence while delivering a shipment of arms and ammunition to the Cuban rebels in the 1890s. Despite a few talkier moments, this is a well-told tale with a fair amount of action.

Often resembling a western movie, this is an interesting and atmospheric look at the lives of amoral, greedy gunrunners in the late nineteenth century, set in places like a seedy bar’s backroom, a paddle wheeler’s cargo hold, and the steamy jungles of Haiti and Cuba. The characters are easy to keep track of, and the action scenes are well-handled. Worth noting is an unusually graphic (by 1956 standards) headshot received by one character towards the beginning of the film.

As mentioned in the first paragraph, there are a few dialogue-heavy scenes (mainly towards the beginning), but they’re tolerable. While there is a prominent romantic subplot, it doesn’t subtract from the experience as much as a similar subplot did in China. Also on the down side, the ending is fairly abrupt. Some might even call it anti-climactic (I’m not sure I would, though), concluding just as the flick was starting to heat up.

Santiago, which makes a good double feature with the aforementioned China, is a solid action-adventure picture with a story that has a lot of potential. Does it fully reach that potential? Eh, not quite, perhaps due to some budgetary restrictions. Still, if you’re looking for a movie set around the time of the Spanish-American War, Santiago is a good choice to watch.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

China (1943) Review

Director: John Farrow

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 79 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Released during World War II, China serves as an interesting and entertaining piece of American propaganda designed to educate the U.S. populace on the struggles faced by the Chinese people during the Japanese invasion of their homeland. Cynical, tough oil salesman David Jones (Alan Ladd) wants nothing to do with the conflict, despite living in China. He’s content to go about selling his product to the highest bidder, which is frequently the raping, burning, murdering Japanese. With his partner, Johnny Sparrow (William Bendix), he finds himself driving a truck full of displaced Chinese and a teacher of American descent, Carolyn Grant (Loretta Young), across the countryside in an effort to outrun the war.

China works best as a war-based action-adventure picture. The film begins with an ambitious long take that immediately throws the audience into the story and action is relatively frequent after that. Gunfire and explosions are the name of the game here, although the finale isn’t quite as exciting as the sequence where our heroes acquire the explosives used for said ending. Ladd is a convincing action star, and Bendix is excellent as the sidekick.

On the down side, there’s a lot of romance to yawn at. The movie tends to get bogged down in it, with Bendix reminiscing about his old hayrides back in the U.S. and whatnot, when the picture could be focused on the Japanese getting their just desserts. There’s even the threat of a romantic triangle breaking out at one point, but this potential disaster doesn’t fully materialize. Another flaw with the flick is that the Japanese threat doesn’t really feel quite immediate enough at times during the first act. However, it becomes very real after that.

Romance aside, this is probably one of the more effective and cool World War II flag-wavers made during the war. The fascinating, if fictional, plot is enough to absorb the viewer, and the action gets a thumbs-up. The film’s Wilsonian idealism shines through all the carnage and romance to stir the audience into making the world a better place when the war concludes. War and action-adventure movie aficionados will find enough here to make it worth watching.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Verdun: Looking at History (1928) Review

Director: Léon Poirier

Genre(s): Action, War

Runtime: 151 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the most underrated silent films ever made, Verdun: Looking at History (its original title in French being “Verdun, Visions d’Histoire“) is a powerful look at World War I’s critical Battle of Verdun, one of the greatest (and longest) battles ever fought. Told from both the French and German perspectives, this is the story of the 1916 German offensive that intended to capture the fortified French city of Verdun and crush French morale to continue the fight.

Often difficult to take your eyes off of, this cinematic epic usually looks realistic enough to be actual war footage. In fact, it’s often hard to tell what’s stock footage and what was filmed specifically for the movie. Very detailed and authentic-feeling, Verdun: Looking at History transports the viewer to the lunar landscapes outside of Verdun to witness the titanic struggle that lasted most of 1916. There’s plenty of combat, and the explosions are jarringly well-executed, frequently looking like they’re putting the cast in danger. Being silent, there’s numerous stylized touches to make the storytelling more visual.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering its docudrama-like style, the weakest part of the motion picture is its characters. To give the movie a universal quality, the fictional ones aren’t even given names, simply their description. Most of them are soon lost in the shuffle, sometimes making it difficult to tell who’s who. However, that’s not really the focus of the flick, so it’s not a crippling concern. The film’s very brief celebration of Henri Philippe Pétain, one of the major French officers during the Battle of Verdun, hasn’t aged well, considering that he would later become leader of the Vichy France (the French puppet government that collaborated with Nazi Germany) during World War II. Of course, no one could’ve known that in 1928 (the year of this movie’s release), but it still leaves an odd taste in the audience’s mouth.

Verdun: Looking at History deserves to be remembered with the best of the silent films. Few movies have managed to bring the Western Front of World War I to theaters as believably and vividly as here. Human, educational, and idealistic, this is a true docudrama, combining documentary and fictional elements in roughly equal parts. If you’re interested in the First World War, I’d highly recommend this picture, as well as an actual visit to the Verdun battlefield in France (I’ve been there, it’s unforgettable).

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) Review

Director: Richard Donner

Genre(s): Action, Comedy, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 127 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The Lethal Weapon film series ends on as perfect a note as it could’ve asked for in Lethal Weapon 4, the best movie in the franchise since the original. This time, Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) are out to stop a gang that’s smuggling Chinese migrants to Los Angeles in inhumane conditions. Tonally, this is a far cry from Lethal Weapon (1987), and could probably be best described as a heartwarming bloodbath sitcom.

Despite all the touchy-feely stuff, this is still an action picture, and it delivers the big set pieces that fans of the genre crave. Hell, there are one or two moments that wouldn’t feel out of place in an installment of The Fast and the Furious movies. Car and foot chases, shootouts, martial arts brawls…Lethal Weapon 4 doesn’t skimp on the big-budget havoc. Wah Sing Ku (Jet Li) is one of the most formidable baddies in the franchise, perhaps second only to Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey) from the first one.

Of all the Lethal Weapon flicks, the 1987 original did the tough-as-nails, hard-boiled stuff the best, while the fourth entry does the more comedic, family-and-friends-oriented material most memorably. It definitely has the biggest heart of the series. I mean, who could’ve guessed that a film with the title “Lethal Weapon 4” would be so emotional? Despite of all this, it also somehow manages to be the most graphically violent of the four.

Lethal Weapon 4 shows off the evolution that the franchise took. While the first one put action, thrills, and fast pacing in the driver’s seat, the final film displays how the series changed over the course of its duration to balance violence with comedy and shenanigans related to biological and surrogate family. If you’re watching this franchise, make sure you stick around for the fourth installment.

My rating is 7 outta 10.