John Rambo is back -- and so, more importantly, is Sylvester Stallone, the artist and filmmaker. With RAMBO and the triumphant ROCKY BALBOA (2006), Stallone has reclaimed the respect and admiration accorded him early in his career, when his performance as a down-on-his-luck prize fighter from Philadelphia inspired comparisons to Brando and his attendant screenplay was praised for its gritty realism and fragile romanticism. There is plenty of the former and precious little of the latter in the brutal landscape Stallone has committed to celluloid with RAMBO, but that's as it should be; this isn't a live-action cartoon -- it's a nasty, grim, and uncompromising portrait of the savagery of war.
Unfortunately, what all this means is that while RAMBO represents a new peak for the series, the sheer volume and disturbing realism of the carnage onscreen is wearing and anyone expecting the bombastic "fun" of previous installments is missing the point. Even with a relatively compact running time of just over ninety minutes, the relentless fatalism espoused by the haunted Vietnam vet makes RAMBO seem like a much longer movie. That's not a criticism -- if anything, it's a reflection of just how thoroughly Stallone has come to inhabit this character, for we feel the weight of Rambo's world-weariness in each and every frame.
On a final note, kudos to Stallone for resisting the temptation to "water down" his vision of RAMBO to secure a PG rating; John Rambo and Sylvester Stallone are back, integrity intact.