If "Beyond Rangoon" were a relative it would be a beloved uncle who smokes smelly cigars.
The smelly cigars part is that director John Boorman's adventure movie set in 1988 Burma (now Myanmar) is culturally retro, using a Third World nation and its political upheaval as a colorful backdrop where an American can have an exotic adventure.
By the time it winds up--with a breathtaking escape across a footbridge during a mortar attack--it has given Burma, its people and its struggle the full Hollywood treatment.
The Burmese depicted here can be divided into beaming, earnest, pro-democracy students and sweaty, scowling, fascist soldiers. The American who gets swept up in the turbulence is readily embraced as a kindred spirit by the students, who even risk their lives for her. For the American, it's all a character-building experience.
Is this condescending, or what?
Movies like Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Sheltering Sky" and Peter Weir's "The Year of Living Dangerously"--which lend density, ambiguity and mystery to distant cultures--have shown how to break new ground in this genre. But "Beyond Rangoon" opts for the same old stogie.
The beloved uncle part is that "Rangoon" is a taut, compelling masterpiece of cinematic adventure.
Patricia Arquette plays an American doctor on tour in Burma, trying to forget the tragic deaths of her son and husband, who is inspired by the courage of some pro-democracy demonstrators she sees stand up to soldiers during a protest march.
Circumstances conspire (as they always do) to enmesh her more and more deeply in the rebellion until she and her avuncular tour guide, U Aung Ko, are on the run for their lives. The two and a growing entourage crash police barricades, flee through the jungle, swim rivers, hide on a raft and duck gunfire in a street riot.
The final leg of the escape, a dash across the border to safety in Thailand, is primo cinema.
"Beyond Rangoon" doesn't quite measure up to Boorman masterpieces like "Deliverance" and "Excalibur," but it comes close.
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