Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Rambo — following the turbulent and corpse-strewn misadventures of an emotionally damaged and highly skilled Green Beret and Vietnam War veteran named John Rambo. Based on the novel First Blood by David Morrell, the franchise has spanned four feature films, a television cartoon, numerous video games and comic books, from 1982-2008.
The Installment: Rambo: The Force of Freedom (1986)
Anywhere and everywhere the S.A.V.A.G.E. forces of General Warhawk threaten the peace-loving people of the world, there’s only one man to call. From the canyons of skyscrapers, to the canyons of remote mountain peaks, liberty’s champion is unstoppable. Helped by the mechanical genius known as Turbo, and the master of disguises named Kat, the honor-bound protector of the innocent. Rambo. The force of freedom.
Is it just me or did anyone else think that opening close-up was Rambo jerking off?
Full disclosure: I only watched 11 of the 65 episodes, but I feel like I got everything there was to get out of it — unless the show really took off creatively right before it was canceled.
Removed from the context of the franchise (which it presumably was for most of its target audience, who weren’t old enough to have seen either of the R-rated films; unless they had a really cool dad), this series is a harmless G.I.Joe riff. General Warhawk is no Cobra Commander, but S.A.V.A.G.E. (Secret Administrators of Vengeance, Anarchy and Global Extortion) makes for a modestly entertaining collection of baddies. Plus, I’m always a sucker for voice actor Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime; Admiral Grimitz on Ducktales), who here plays Sergeant Havoc, the Russian-ish strong man of the terrorist organization.
For little boys out for some action, the show delivers in each episode on at least some level — plenty of explosions, varying weapons, all the important stuff. The show is inherently going to be repetitive – no matter what strange thing is going on in Act I, it always turns out to be General Warhawk behind it – but it does an acceptable job of switching things up conceptually, and Rambo hops around the globe, so our setting keeps changing. Plus the show has an decent budget, so we’re spared the kind of horrors on display in Return to the Planet of the Apes.
I’m also a sucker for corner-cutting animation conventions, like the fact that almost every single episode features the same animation used in the opening of the show’s intro — of Rambo “suiting up,” and dramatically tying his headband. It is his By-the-Power-of-Greyskull moment, when I guess he transforms from ass-kicking Rambo into extra ass-kicking Rambo. Apparently the key elements to extra ass-kicking Rambo is to be shirtless and have that headband. Which is kinda curious, given that he’s almost always shirtless and wearing a headband, making his “transformation” sort of confusing and unnecessary. Ah, cartoons.
What Doesn’t Work:
As I said, Rambo: The Force of Freedom is a completely harmless show, deserving neither of praise nor scorn when viewed on its own terms. But viewed as part of the Rambo franchise it is the ultimate sell-out of First Blood and David Morrell’s original concept — though I’m sure Morrell enjoyed cashing his royalty checks (depending on how good his deal was).
It is a true testament to how far Rambo fell from First Blood to Rambo II that the sequel spawned a children’s cartoon. I mean, who the hell could have watched First Blood in 1982 and seen it as a perfect vehicle for a toy line tie-in? “And don’t forget to buy Emotional Breakdown Rambo! His psychological scars run deep!” Kid in Commercial: “And he’s laying there, he’s fucking screaming! There’s pieces of him all over me! And I say, “I can’t find your fuckin’ legs! I can’t find your legs!”” Though Force of Freedom represents a non-continuity off-shoot of the films, if we’re choosing to take the franchise seriously, it is fairly grotesque what has become of the John Rambo character.
Giving a popular property a G-rated cartoon makeover isn’t necessarily bad. While bare breasts and adult language may have been part of the appeal to Police Academy, they weren’t an intrinsic part of the film’s fabric (something re-affirmed by the fact that the sequels eventually became PG rated). Similarly, I don’t think an intrinsic part of First Blood‘s fabric was R-rated violence and language. If boiled down to a single relevant attribute, I would have said that John Rambo’s defining characteristic as a fictional character was that he had dangerous Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The John Rambo who headlines Force of Freedom does not. He has a light, happy-go-lucky attitude. He quips and smiles. Life is great for this John Rambo; he’s doing what he loves. Aside from his name, the only resemblance he has to movie Rambo is that voice actor Neil Ross is sort of doing a Sylvester Stallone impression (though not really; it is an awkward performance that seems stymied by Ross’s attempt to have some Sly flavor without actually doing an outright impression). Needless to say, a kids show probably shouldn’t have a hero whose PTSD often triggers violent bloodbaths, but this is the precise reason that Rambo shouldn’t have been turned into a cartoon in the first place. The only way to appropriately adapt Rambo into a Saturday morning cartoon would have been to treat the premise somewhat like the classic Bill Bixby Incredible Hulk TV show, having Rambo wander from town to town, trying to do good and mind his own business, but assholes and villains keep triggering his PTSD causing him to “Rambo out” and rain his fury on them. This of course wouldn’t fly. Therein lies the issue — I don’t think there is a G-rated, all-audience way to respectfully do John Rambo.
So Force of Freedom is actually the pinnacle (or rather nadir) of John Rambo’s Reagan era transformation. As I noted previously, in First Blood Rambo represented the North Vietnamese in the Vietnam War metaphor. He was a Frankenstein’s Monster created by America’s confused emotions in the Nixon era. Then through some savvy zeitgeist-tapping selling-out, Stallone and company retooled the character to be the ultimate representation of American awesomeness. The cartoon strips away the entire Frankenstein element, including the character’s resentment towards his “creator” (ie, the government and the public who condemned him), leaving only the patriotic ass-kicking qualities of Rambo. Now he’s the perfect pro-American superhero.
What is weirdest about all this is that Rambo is still technically a Vietnam vet, but the war is a non-entity in this world. It plays no part in Rambo’s personality or actions, and is never addressed as a good or bad thing. Yet, it is still there. In the episode “Beneath the Streets” we meet one of Rambo’s war buddies, a guy nicknamed Wrongway. Wrongway has a war injury, a bum knee. He wears a simple leg brace, but it barely seems to effect him. And his personality is chipper and all smiles. In a strange way I found this to almost be more offensive than simply ignoring Rambo’s veteran status, as it acknowledges the dangers of war but basically treats it like Wrongway has an old football injury from his and Rambo’s halcyon days.
And though it is entirely typical for a hero on this kind of program to have two sidekicks who are always fucking up and needing to be rescued – thus continuously allowing Rambo to demonstrate his valor and leadership – it is a little questionable that they are a black guy and a woman, given that our hero is a white male.
Rambody Count: Zero.
Best Kill: Parents’ hard-earned money spent on:
Most Badass Moment: Battling and subjugating a gigantic genetically created crocodile-eagle.
Most Ridiculous Moment: Battling and subjugating a gigantic genetically created crocodile-eagle
Best Line About How Badass Rambo Is:
General Warhawk: You seem to have nine lives, Rambo.
Best Sensitive Rambo Line:
Rambo’s Friend: You don’t have to go to all this trouble.
Rambo: Sure I do… (putting hand on Friend’s shoulder) You’re a buddy.
Best Out-of-Context Rambo Line: Preparing for fight. “I’ll take the panther, you two take the girl.”
Should It Have Been Canceled: Eh. 65 episodes was probably enough.
Up Next: Rambo III.