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Rambo

Winning awards for Rocky to become one of the biggest action stars of the 80s, Sylvester Stallone’s intuition for commercial success has been first rate.  Nearing the end of his action career, it appears he wants to farewell his two biggest characters in style.  After closing the book on the Rocky series it’s now Rambo’s turn. The ensuing carnage marks a bloody coda to the Vietnam vet’s bubbling rage.
Living a life of solitude in Thailand John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) seems at peace.  This is shattered when a group of missionaries are captured by Burmese soldiers.  Agreeing to rescue them with the help of mercenaries Rambo puts his long dormant war training to good use.  Armed with a virtual nuclear armada he sets out to punish the evildoers with his special brand of rough justice.
Rambo 2 featured a scene where a Vietnamese soldier got blown up by an atomic missile.  Stretch that to eighty minutes and you get this grisly fourth instalment.  Twenty years after the last entry Rambo 4 earns the distinction of being virtually plotless.  Favouring violence over story Stallone delivers a no frills action fest with scant characterisation.  What little remains is a facsimile of past adventures given a gritty update.  The action itself is well executed but given Stallone’s acknowledged scripting sense it’s disappointing that so little effort has been put into everything else.
The main problem is 1982’s ‘First Blood’ essentially told the characters’ story.  The sequels then turned the concept into pure comic strip placing the character in increasingly ludicrous situations.  Rambo 4 gamely attempts to go back to the first film’s roots, but has the cartoon silliness that bogged down the sequels.  The awkward mix of grim reality and violent absurdity never gel with the acting generally threadbare.  Richard Crenna’s Colonel Trautman is sorely missed, something that was needed to provide a counter-point to Rambo’s violent programming.  Much has been said about the high violence, however its effects as shown is preferable to the white-washing done in so many other recent blockbusters.
Rarely has a film been so stripped back to its basic level.  Stallone knows how to write a good script but has produced a half baked attempt.  Whilst watching an elderly Stallone play havoc with a rocket launcher is unintentionally amusing, only highlighting that the series best days are behind it.  If only he had put the energy of the action scenes into the film’s screenplay the film could have made a fitting send-off for the bandana clad muscled mumbler.
Rating out of 10:  4

In The Valley of Elah

This decade has provided a divergent cinematic view of army life.  The immediate aftermath of 9/11 allowed for stirring patriotism in triumphant war stories.  A gradual shift occurred showing a bleak side to war and its effects.  Director and writer Paul Haggis explores the aftermath of a soldiers’ return which is a less than heroic homecoming.
Former soldier Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) looks forward to seeing his returning son, Mike, who served a tour of duty in Iraq.  Discovering he has vanished, Hank’s stoic military skills come into action.  Searching for clues Hank enlists the help of police officer Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron).  Together they uncover a disturbing secret from the war zone that changes Hank’s outlook towards his country.
Paul Haggis has great skill in blending commercial thrills with genuine reality.  After steering the James Bond franchise back on course with Casino Royale, Haggis delivers another involving tale.  The ‘whodunit’ angle becomes a precursor to a searing drama on war’s bitter legacy.  Hank slowly unpeels the layers of his son’s life confronting the fear of what he may unearth.  The lines between protector and executor become blurred with some returnees affected by post traumatic syndrome.  ’Valley’ lays bare the psychological scars that entangle soldiers and their families. 
The recent spate of films regarding America’s foreign policy have become darker.  ‘Valley’ is the darkest portraying a sinister picture of a new generation of soldiers unable to cope with the horrors they witness.  Tommy Lee Jones is excellent giving an almost career best performance that becomes moving.  Theron impresses as the resilient officer matching Hank’s investigative thoroughness.  Susan Sarandon’s pitiful role as Hank’s wife makes ineffective use of her considerable talents giving the film its only sour note.  The rest of the cast provide very solid backup enhancing the film’s dramatis.
The direction and pacing reveal a suspenseful taut drama.  Telling a thought provoking story in an entertaining way is sometimes difficult, with ‘Valley’ jumping this hurdle with aplomb.  By observing the familial cost of war rather than governmental politicking, the film magnifies the humanity that often seems lost in a country’s quest for territorial dominance.
Rating out of 10:  9