Rambo vs. Pathfinder

I had the pleasure of watching the new Rambo movie, conveniently titled Rambo, in the theater recently. Stallone directed it, and after Rocky Balboa I expected it to be a nice closer for his other profitable franchise. I was not disappointed. I also had the misfortune to watch Pathfinder on cable, to avoid listening to Alicia Keys mangle a Sinatra tune on the Grammys.

If you live under a rock, here is the Rambo trailer, without the crappy soundtrack.

Given the track record of the Rambo movies, you’d think that something new would have an advantage. We know John Rambo, we know what he does, and we’ve seen it 3 times now. Surely a new movie about Vikings encountering Native Americans for battle might be refreshing and good plain fun if not taken too seriously. In this case, you’d be wrong. It has long been understood since the birth of the action movie in the early 80’s that you need a dash of levity to keep the proper tone. For example, the first Rambo movie, First Blood, had Colonel Trautman to wisecrack with Brian Dennehy. warning of the ensuing rampage. The new Rambo movie is somewhat less effective, with its ragtag band of mercenaries and their near-intolerable Aussie leader, but it gives us a break. Aliens had Hudson, Die Hard had almost too many jokes, and Arnold movies always have his terrible one-liners.

Pathfinder has none of this. It begins with an interesting premise, that the Vikings encountered American Indians during their explorations past Greenland, and they did battle. It nearly goes wrong immediately from there, beginning with a young Viking child being abandoned by his warrior father on an early raid because he refuses to murder a baby. Maybe they could have delineated the good and bad guys in this movie by having them eat puppies, to be even more extreme. This also lets us cheer on the Indian tribes while still having a white lead role, very important to Hollywood producers. If only they picked one with some personality, the movie might have been saved. Karl Urban makes Stallone look like Jim Carrey in his array of facial expressions. The man is as interesting as a crash test dummy.

I didn’t go into this expecting realism or historical accuracy, so it doesn’t bother me that the Vikings here migrated from a Molly Hatchet album cover instead of Denmark or Iceland. When they return to slaughter, since they don’t raid for anything here, not even slaves, Viking-Indian boy Karl Urban is the only one who can fight them, because he knows how to use a sword. It must be in his blood. At this point I felt robbed. I wanted to see Indians fight Vikings! There are a few scenes here and there, but it’s mostly Karl Urban in a loincloth jumping from offscreen, some CGI blood, and lots of grunting. By the one hour mark everyone is captured and kept alive for the idiotic reason of leading the Vikings to the next village.

Apparently the raiders do not want to get back into their boat and find it. It’s a secret village. It is invisible. Whatever. These Vikings soon forget that they shouldn’t walk on ice, when he leads them across an icy lake and half of them drown. They don’t learn from this, and next he gets them to walk a narrow mountain path, and tie themselves all together… see where this is going? When they don’t all fall off the ledge, he causes an avalanche that only kills Vikings. The last half hour dragged on forever, and someone should have told the director that the big battle goes at the end in an action film.

I can take a movie where a guy uses his shield as a boogie board and fights Vikings chasing him on sleds. It’s stupid, but at least exciting. Most of this movie was boring, which is unforgivable when you start out with “hey, what if some Vikings got in a fight with some Indian braves?” Two 12 year olds with action figures could have made a better story, and in sandboxes across the world, have probably done so.

Now back to Rambo. It’s not a great movie, not even a great action movie, but it does everything a good action movie should. It also establishes early on who the bad guys are, and how terrible they are. These bad guys also slaughter an entire village, but we are told why, in quick news clips showing the conflict in Burma. It gets the exposition out of the way early and deftly. From there we see where Rambo has been, living in the jungles of Thailand catching dangerous snakes and ferrying people up the river. He is a burnt-out shell of a man, and when he is approached by some happy-go-lucky missionaries who want to bring medical relief to the Burmese tribes undergoing ethnic cleansing, he tells them to go home.

He does this three times because we know he has to relent, and eventually the gal who plays Dexter‘s girlfriend gets through to him. She must have a way with killers. She touches something inside this murder machine, and he brings them to their certain doom to die for a good cause. Of course they are captured about five minutes later, and Rambo’s next job is to ferry mercenaries who are hired to rescue them. He comes to terms with his nature as a hunter of men, and forges a new knife to symbolize this revelation, and also to symbolize a cool thing to lop peoples heads off with.

Before the infamous big battle, Stallone teases us with short scenes where the bad guys blow up villagers with mortars and land mines. The rescue is a night snatch and grab mission, and full of tension. It’s to his credit that even though we know they will succeed, we’re riveted to the screen. When Rambo comes behind a would-be rapist and rips his throat out, it is not shown with slow-motion or quick jump cuts. The camera sits there and we watch him do it. Rambo also looks like someone who is tearing someone’s throat out. In Pathfinder, a Viking slices the fingers off of an unarmed brave who puts his hand up to defend himself. In slow-motion. And the guy’s facial expression doesn’t even change as we see his CGI fingers fly off like Vienna sausages.

By the time the final bloody battle comes, with .5o caliber machine-gun duels, bodies exploding into lakes of blood, beheadings and amputations and disembowelings, seeing through gunshot wounds, arrows through skulls, flamethrowers, rocket launchers, mortars and hippies bashing people’s heads in with rocks, we know we are in a god damn action movie and when the last body hits the ground we are reaching for our asthma inhalers whether we use them or not. The battle is at the end of the movie, which like Pathfinder, is a mere 90 minutes long. At the end of Rambo, every red-blooded male has had his manhood affirmed so deeply that could walk out of the theater, meet his girlfriend in the lobby and giggle, “Wasn’t 27 Dresses fabulous!?! Eeeeee!!!” and skip with her to the parking lot.

If you saw Pathfinder, you’d be looking for the nearest steakhouse slash sports bar to go eat some raw meat and start a bar fight in, because you just watched 90 minutes of Karl Urban jumping around in a loincloth, and may have caught the g-a-y.

It may be considered unfair that I did not include the Pathfinder trailer as well, but if you want to watch Karl Urban in a loincloth, I suggest searching on youtube. I’m afraid if I watch it again, I’ll start to like it.