Rambo may be the best action movie of the year. It may be the best action movie of the last ten years. Sylvester Stallone gives us something we've been wanting for a long, long time: a grown up action hero, a franchise that's capable of growing up as much as its audience has. John McClane should take notes.
It seems to me that Rambo is Stallone's critique of the action hero. It is a story of one man, John Rambo, but it is also a meta-story, the story of all action heroes. Rambo has always been a tortured soldier but somewhere along the way his story was hijacked: the Vietnam vet was turned into just another 80's action icon, and suddenly all his torture, all his pathos evaporated. He became just another shining, muscled symbol of adolescent masculine fantasies. As entertaining as these fantasies may be (and their value as entertainment is certainly debatable) they are insincere and callous, almost nihilistic in their willingness to portray violence as entertainment. Most action movies, after all, only play at morality; they use only a basic distinction between good and evil as a thinly-veiled excuse to justify the graphic depiction and glorification violence. Rambo does not. At one point in the movie, during a voice-over/dream soliloquy, Rambo admits to himself, "You didn't kill for your country... you killed for yourself." It is as if, in damning himself for what he's done, John Rambo, and Sylvester Stallone, is damning us the audience for finding enjoyment in the mindlessness of the prototypical action hero, the cartoonish hero capable of inflicting massive amounts of damage without suffering the mental or spiritual aftermath.
Rambo, though one of the most violent movies I've seen outside of the horror or torture genres, subverts the average mindless action movie by giving meaning to violence, by grafting its violence onto something most action movies do not have - a moral theory. The film is a redemption story, the story a disillusioned soldier once again finding meaning in the chaos around him. But it's more then just that. I read the film as Stallone's own rejection of the action movie conventions that made him a star and the as the reinvention of the moral hero, of the hero that even thinking people can admire. Rambo is the work of a mature filmmaker, of a filmmaker capable of reflecting not only on the world around him but on his own part in creating that world. For all its violence, the film is introspective and reflective and will prove to be, I think, the best action movie of this year.