Old Soldiers never die, they just get bigger shirts. And bigger guns — much bigger guns. Sly Stallone's second most durable macho man returns in an installment that's smaller in scope and focus, but way larger in raw carnage, boasting one of the highest onscreen body counts in decades. It's been 20 years since Sly last flexed his pecs as the indestructible Cold War super-warrior John Rambo, the ultimate over-puffed icon of Reagen-era jingoism.

What old Johnny's been up to all these years is a mystery, but one look into his numb, droopy sheepdog eyes and we can tell that time has been a bitch. The former 'Nam snake-eater is now using his commando skills as a snake wrangler, supplying cobras to underground Thai gambling dens. Somehow he is discovered there and is reluctantly recruited to escort a group of Christian relief workers up river into Burma (or Myanmar, if you believe the propaganda), to bring aid and comfort to the victims of that country's brutal war with Karen ethnic insurgents. In reality it's more of a slaughter, with government thugs executing whole villages in an attempt to suppress rebels.

Soon enough our Pollyanna Americans, led by a gentle-voiced blond angel of mercy Sarah (Julie Benz of TV's Dexter), are trapped knee-deep in the atrocities, forcing Rambo to pick up his machete and slap on a bandanna tight enough to stop the remaining blood flow to his brain. He gets backup this time from a squad of rough-and-tumble mercenaries hired by the church (yes, the church). These scruffy younger dudes do most of the legwork, allowing geriatric Rambo to glide in and pick off creeps with his compound bow and, in the climax, with a supremely huge mounted machine gun. The "kids" also handle most of the plot points, leaving Sly to grunt out the occasional bit of grizzled jungle philosophy like, "Live for nothing or die for something!" Huh?

Taken as an action picture, Rambo is fairly effective, the action fast and wicked, even somewhat believable. But as political statement, the movie's a murky slog into uncomfortable waters. In a noble effort to bring light to the darkness, the flick shows the villains as inhumanly evil, and not in a cartoonish way, but with brutal, stomach-turning atrocities ripped from headlines. The problem is that we're asked to deplore violence, yet turn around and cheer for every arrow Rambo shoots through some dude's face, and clap like hell as 50-caliber bullets literally rip baddies into tiny pieces. We are asked to root for, yet scoff at, the holy fools who attempt to make the world better, because deep down the movie purports that the only way to bring peace is by kicking ass in a major way.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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