Last seen running shirtless around the deserts of Afghanistan 19 years ago, Rambo has slumped into semi-retirement, eking out his last aimless years in the jungles of Thailand. He’s a lumbering relic of his former self: a world-weary mound of muscle in dire need of a nap. He scours the jungle in search of snakes he can sell to a nearby tourist trap and is, in essence, waiting for his still-sculpted body to wind down and die.
All that changes when a clutch of idealistic missionaries—equipped with doctors, dentists and the Word of God—wants Rambo to boat them to Burma, a country engulfed in a 60-year civil war so bloody it’s practically a miracle there’s anyone left. These Christian workers are high on optimism and low on wartime survival skills, and Rambo strongly advises them not to go. In fact, he initially refuses to provide them passage up the river, until an attractive missionary named Sarah tells him that, “Trying to save a life isn’t wasting your life, is it?”
We don’t know what that really means, but Rambo apparently does, and he begins taking orders from Sarah like a buffed-up golden retriever. After a bloody encounter with Burmese pirates, he drops the missionaries off in Burma and gives them a hearty goodbye.
It doesn’t take long, though, for these fishers of men to get reeled in and imprisoned by thuggish Burmese soldiers. So the pastor who sent them comes begging Rambo to make another trip up the river—this time with a band of foul-mouthed killers the pastor has hired.
The irony of mercenaries rescuing missionaries isn’t lost on lead ruffian Lewis, who smirks, “So they send in the devil to do God’s work.”
Little do these mercenaries know that their mild-mannered “boat man” is a guy so deft at killing that he makes James Bond look like a hotel concierge. And that Rambo’s not about to let these pay-for-hire cutthroats rack up the entire body count.
When the mercenaries look like they’re about to skip town without even trying to rescue the missionaries, Rambo convinces them otherwise. Granted, their change of heart is helped along by Rambo holding an arrow to Lewis’ head—not particularly positive, that—but what he says during the confrontation is encouraging (albeit a little confusing under the circumstances): “Live for nothing or die for something. Your call.” The mercenaries decide to live for something—that is, rescuing the missionaries.
Later, Rambo jumps on top of Sarah to save her from attack—one of a handful of times he risks his life for others. And, unlike the mercenaries, he’s not getting paid for it.
The film also highlights a very real and often overlooked war: The Burmese civil war, which has more or less been raging since 1948. On one side stands the military Burmese government. On the other, about 5 million folks who belong to an ethnic tribe called the Karen. “According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Burmese soldiers burn down schools and churches, publicly rape women, and force men into wooden stocks or shoot them on sight,” reports the Christian Science Monitor. Some call the war on the Karen “genocide.”
The missionaries, meanwhile, are shown in a positive light. We see them caring for the sick and injured, and patching up war victims who have had their limbs blown off by bombs or land mines. “We believe all lives are special,” Sarah says, and they believe that showing God’s love is the only way to make a lasting difference in the world.
When the film opens, Rambo’s a guy without hope. “He’s given up,” director and star Sylvester Stallone said during a press junket. But when those Christian aid workers arrive at his muddy, metaphorical doorstep, a glimmer of hope arrives with them. The missionaries want to change the world through peace and love—an idea fairly foreign to the Cold Warrior—and he finds himself drawn to their message.
We see Rambo handling and pondering a small cross that Sarah gives him, and he later wears it around his wrist. We hear him pondering the spiritual nature of his, um, nature. “You didn’t kill for your country,” he thinks. “You kill for yourself. God’s never going to take that away. When you’re pushed, killing’s as easy as breathing.” Hmmm. Does he really think homicidal inclinations are gifts from God?
Early on, we learn through old news clips that the Karen are predominantly Christian. And, after the missionaries arrive in the village, we get a glimpse of a packed worship service where the pastor quotes Ephesians 3:17. The group’s leader and doctor wears a cross necklace, and another member wears a T-shirt with a cross emblazoned on it.
Rambo includes two horrific sexual assaults. One takes place when the Burmese military attacks a village and men strip the clothes off a struggling woman. The scene is just seconds long, but the woman is partially nude and there’s little question it’s a prelude to rape. The second instance takes place in the military camp, where four women dance languidly for the troops. Some of the men get impatient and begin throwing things, then jump up onto the stage and eventually throw at least one woman to the rest of the men below. We see the men begin to strip one woman, revealing her breasts.
Burmese pirates board Rambo’s missionary-laden boat and take particular interest in Sarah. Rambo shoots all the attackers and justifies it by saying they “would’ve raped her 50 times and cut your f—in’ heads off.” In another scene, a guard grabs Sarah, obviously planning to rape her.
We later see a glimpse of a nude backside (presumably female) through a door. It’s suggested that the Burmese military leader is a pedophile: A boy is brought to his quarters, and audiences see him stroking the boy’s head before the door closes.
Some observers say Rambo is one of the most violent movies ever. To that, Stallone has but one response:
“Not one of the most. The most. I worked very hard for this.”
Literally hundreds of characters die, and none through natural causes. They are shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, eviscerated, decapitated and bloodily blown apart. Audiences see soldiers severed by hails of bullets, farmers fragmented by land mines and a missionary eaten by pigs. Rambo shoots several folks in the face with arrows, beheads a man, spills the intestines of another and, in one particularly graphic scene, rips a guy’s throat out.
At times, we see sunshine through gaping wounds. Men’s legs are blasted away from their bodies. Women are raped and shot. Children are thrown into burning buildings or crushed underneath soldiers’ feet. And that’s just a representative sample of what crosses the screen over the course of Rambo‘s 90-minute run time—the last 20 minutes of which doesn’t contain much dialogue beyond “rat-tat-tat-tat” and “aaaargh!”
“This [movie] has to walk the thin line,” Stallone said. “It really does. It was almost an experiment on how far you can push entertainment, but also stay true to the bloodshed that’s going down as we speak.”
Which is interesting rationale … except that when compared to roller coasters, violent films tend to ricochet on a parallel-but-opposite trajectory. By that I mean coasters are fun, unless they’re too much fun: Throw in too many loops and corkscrews, and they make people sick. Violent films can be sick and harrowing, unless they’re too sick and harrowing: Too much carnage, and audiences flip an internal switch that turns the violence into a game. About a third of the audience laughed after one decapitation. And I don’t think many folks were pondering the plight of Burma as they left the theater. More were probably thinking, “I wonder how they got that guy’s arm to fly off like that!”
The first English word that comes out of Rambo’s mouth is that one starting with f. He and other characters repeat it another 40 or so times before film’s end. The s-word makes a dozen or more appearances, along with a horde of other profanities (“b–ch,” “b–tard, “d–n,” etc.). The c-word is invoked. And God’s name is abused, paired several times with “d–n.” The missionaries rarely swear, though Sarah does utter an ambiguous “god” at one juncture.
Perhaps Karen rebels would be well-advised to just hang tight until lung cancer claims the entire Burmese army, as every member seems to smoke like an old VW Beetle with bad rings. They also drink. One guard guzzles whiskey from the bottle. Another pours liquor all over a female dancer.
Several mercenaries also smoke, and one mentions that Burma is the world’s premiere supplier of methamphetamines.
It’s not just that the Burmese soldiers kill without mercy: They make a game of it, forcing farmers to race through land mine-strewn fields to see who blows up first—betting on who’ll “win.” We also see a flashback of a younger Rambo getting shot in the gut—perhaps a kind of imagined suicide.
Michael, the missionary who tells Rambo that killing is wrong, winds up killing someone himself. He stones a Burmese soldier, smashing his head with a rock. Shortly after, when the battle is over, he gives a blood-streaked Rambo a respectful wave with his own bloodstained hand.
The film’s message seems pretty clear, then: Altruism is nice and all, but sometimes what the bad guys really need is a terminal kick in the rear. Sometimes, Rambo‘s ethos tells us, killing is the right thing to do.
There are times when war is inevitable. But let me quickly point out that Rambo doesn’t serve up violence only to draw attention to Burma—or even to the plight of persecuted missionaries. The fake blood that is spilled here is spilled for entertainment’s sake. Rambo relishes it. It romps in it. And it makes no apologies.
In his final showdown with the Burmese warlord, Rambo literally guts the guy, pulling a knife through his stomach like he was carving a Thanksgiving turkey. Listen to Stallone talk about this scene:
“You need, and I really believe this, emotional payback. If you do not give the audience some sort of emotional payback in a film like this, you know what it’ll be? It’ll be considered an artistic triumph and a box office bomb.”
Emotional payback, in this context, sounds and looks an awful lot like vengeance—a very human desire to harm someone who’s harmed us. And that makes this latest Rambo look a whole lot like all those other Rambos—only grittier and bloodier. Not that anybody would’ve thought that possible 19 years ago.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.