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When Sylvester Stallone made a low-key, heartfelt revival of his most famous character with Rocky Balboa in 2006, it was unexpected but welcome with open arms by fans and film critics alike.  When he made a revival of his Rambo franchise two years later, it was even more unexpected and greeted with widespread skepticism. However, it ended up becoming a surprise hit that paved the way for his subsequent success with the Expendables franchise. The resulting film, simply titled Rambo, remains one of the best films from his latter-day career.

Like Rambo III, the fourth film of the series begins with Rambo (Stallone) living in self-imposed exile in the Far East when he is approached for help on a mission. This time, the mission is peaceful in nature: a group of missionaries led by husband and wife team Michael (Paul Schulze) and Sarah (Julie Benz) want him to accompany them into Burma so they can supply aid to rural villages. Rambo tries to help them but when a skirmish with pirates turns violent he insists on taking them back to safety. They return without him and are captured. A group of mercenaries is paid to rescue them and they hire Rambo to take them there. When he is behind enemy lines, Rambo breaks out his deadly skills to aid both the missionaries and the villagers.

The resulting film was both moodier and more thematically complex than anyone expected. Stallone is the credited director for the first time in the series here and he does effective work.  He establishes a somber atmosphere that feels credible, with trauma and self-doubt weighing heavily upon the film’s troubled hero. For example, there is an impressive scene early on using an impressionistically edited montage of moments from past films to show the fears Rambo is grappling with in his mind.  

Stallone also shows an excellent grasp of building tension and suspense as the rescue mission unfolds. When it’s time for action, the scenes have a real visceral impact and are in fact better in style and execution than the action in the more profitable Expendables films. It’s telling that the film was successfully promoted to fans guerilla-style via a viral clip that collected a montage of the film’s bloodiest action moments. Even with the obligatory modern use of CGI to enhance the bloodshed, there’s still an impressive amount of practically filmed action in this film.

And Rambo adds a surprise note of thematic complexity into the story. The characterizations are still simple, with animalistic military bad guys that summon up memories of Rambo II, but Rambo gives the protagonists something to struggle with as they fight for survival. Rambo’s internal tension between maintaining peace in isolation or using his violent skills to help others is obvious but we also see the missionaries struggling with the idea of self-defense when peaceful resistance fails and missionaries struggling with their code of self-preservation when Rambo suggests they should risk themselves to protect the helpless. The theme of characters struggling internally with two diametrically opposed ideas is deployed in a simple but effective manner that adds some unexpected dramatic gravity to underline the thrills of the film’s third act.

Stallone’s performance here is the best version of the “quiet man” hero he’s always gone for with the Rambo character, conveying quiet intensity and an impressive stillness when the film requires it. Benz makes an excellent humanist-minded foil for him – the scenes where she challenges his mindset are the best acting in the film – and there’s colorful work from Graham McTavish as a swaggering mercenary leader as well as Matthew Marsden as the subtler, more thoughtful member of the mercenary team. Look out also for a subtle but compelling one-scene performance for old hand Ken Howard as the man behind the missionary effort.

In short, Rambo is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too proposition for action fans. It’s an admirably tough piece of work that delivers all the bracing thrills you want but also has above average acting, a surprisingly adult mood and a few unexpected thematic textures in the mix. Even if you’re not into the prior Rambo outings, this is a strong action film that features some of Stallone’s best modern work as actor and director.