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Missionary Accomplished

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The pretty young missionary Sarah (Julie Benz), intrigued by the reticent, hulking, yet vulnerable boatman ("John," he says is his name), asks how he came to live alone on the Burmese border. Not much for small talk, especially during a dangerous ride up a pirate-infested river while ferrying some peacenik missionaries, "John" can only respond, "It's complicated."

I'll say. But that's a different sort of one-liner than we're used to from John Rambo. Not "I'm coming to get you," or "Your worst nightmare," or "Mission accomplished." Stallone, who wrote and directed this fourth edition of the Rambo series, tries to find the right up-to-date one-liners for his now-older war hero, but has as much trouble with them as he does finding the right tone for his movie, which vacillates between serious reportage of Southeast Asian genocide and over-the-top action violence worthy of the '80s.

"Rambo" movies have always been stuck between worlds. The series, despite its predilection for camp, depicts a melancholy life in which the hero can never escape his violent past. The new movie begins the most somberly, with Rambo hiding out in a depressing jungle environment where he ekes out a living by hunting snakes to sell to snake charmers. When a group of missionaries shows up requesting transport into Burma, Rambo initially refuses, but relents when charmed by Sarah.

Of course the missionaries are captured and Rambo must rescue them. What follows is a mix of revenge and honor fantasies pretty standard for the franchise. The violence, along with Stallone's physique, is not as cartoonish as in previous installments. Though he opted not to use the original title, the more "Rocky Balboa"-like "John Rambo," Stallone is obviously trying to go more for realism this time, to make a contemporary conclusion of the original "First Blood." But that movie had a fuzzy philosophy to it that is all the more murky when dredged up decades later.

One can't look at "Rambo" without acknowledging its tremendous technical feats. This is the first movie to surpass "Saving Private Ryan" in battle realism, at least in terms of sight, sound and physical impact on bodies. Stallone seems like a smart-enough guy, but doesn't have a sense of proportion (quite a revelation, I know). Like any other "Rambo," the less the movie makes sense, the more bullets are let fly. Short on story and heavy on carnage, "Rambo" is one mission you'll have a difficult time figuring out. (R) 93 min. S



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