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, aka John Rambo (2008)
Note: I watched John Rambo, the extended director’s cut of Rambo (available on Blu-ray). It does not deviate significantly from the theatrical cut (merely fleshes out some character stuff), but I figured I’d mention it anyway.
If John Rambo had been feeling better about life after Rambo III, the direction things went with Afghanistan in the 90’s and 00’s surely sent him into a tailspin of depression and fucking off from the world. Now we find him living in Thailand, making a living capturing and selling exotic snakes. Rambo is broken out of his funk when a group of American missionaries – namely the earnest and pretty Sarah (Julie Benz) – convince him to take them up the river into Burma. When Sarah and her companions are kidnapped, Rambo is again hired to transport some people up the river; this time a group of mercenaries hired to rescue the missionaries. When shit gets real, Rambo unleashes some punishment on the Burmese military, Rambo-style.
After thirty years of terrible creative decisions that were pretty transparently fueled by his ego complex, Stallone’s considerably reasoned one-two-punch of Rocky Balboa and John Rambo really came out of no where. Whether it was the gift of hindsight or simply good fortune (for us), the choices made on John Rambo forge a perfect marriage between existing elements in the franchise — crafting something that mostly works for both kinds of Rambo fans. Being realistic, there was no way to go entirely back to First Blood at this point. The character people think of when they hear the name ‘Rambo’ is the character from the sequels. Not to mention, Rambo needed a body count if Sly was gonna get any money to make this thing. No studio was going to finance a movie in which Rambo just beats up some guys. Frankly, the time seemed somewhat ripe for another Reagan Era-esque Rambo film, where our headband-loving hero goes off to wreck shit in the Middle East. But Sly seemed interested in abandoning the rah-rah tone of Rambo II and III, and returning to the character’s roots as much as he could. (I know a variety of Rambo IV scripts/stories were floating around before John Rambo happened, but that’s moot at this point.)
Once more the character of John Rambo works on a non-ironic level. He’s not as pure a character as he was in First Blood, but as I was saying, that is sort of impossible at this point. The previous two films still happened in the Rambo continuity, but John Rambo makes no attempt to refer to them. Rambo has a nightmare which utilizes footage from the previous films (including unused footage from First Blood of Morrell’s original ending, in which Trautman shoots Rambo), but the thrust of that montage is reminding us how fucked up Rambo is, not what an awesome badass he is — which had become the entire purpose of the franchise. In fact, the beginning to John Rambo stands in direct opposition to the ridiculous opening of Rambo III. Rambo is again living amongst Asians, but instead of the silly hero-building nonsense of him living like Tarzan amongst some monks, while also stick-fighting for cash to help fund the monks’ temple, now he’s living something of a pitiful and thankless life. He lords over nothing; none are in awe of him. When the guy he sells snakes to says, “We need another python. See what you can do. We have enough Cobras, okay?” Rambo replies partially under his breath, “Fuck off, okay?” This Rambo is not at peace, exactly. He is simply out of the fray. He isn’t Rambo II Zen, and he isn’t Rambo III quippy either (he does have some unhelpful conversational quips in Act I, but he’s trying to be unfriendly and the other characters react accordingly). He seems rather unhappy actually.
I have to imagine a key component to Stallone’s shift in attitude towards the character is because he’s old now — and I’m not necessarily going to give him the credit of gaining perspective and wisdom with age. I think he just reached a point where he was forced to accept that he couldn’t get shredded anymore. He can still put on the muscles (godbless HGH, right?), but his face is going to be puffy and he is going to have a bit of a gut. Which is fucking great for the character. Rambo’s insane physique always stood at odds with what the character was supposed to be deep down. Being a lithe panther made perfect sense in First Blood; Rambo looked like a man who kept fit. But why would the broken man trying to distance himself from the monster he’d become in First Blood devote all his energy into getting as buff as possible while also eliminating every ounce of fat on his body? Sure, it was the 80’s, but viewed at face value, being such a physical specimen subconsciously conveyed that Rambo was being all he could be — which isn’t the attitude of someone who is supposedly running away from himself, as the franchise kept telling us. In any case, the heart of the matter is that Sly ain’t sexy no more. And he knows it. If John Rambo had been made in 1990, Rambo would’ve been steering his boat oiled and shirtless, standing in a perfect Michelangelo pose. Now he’s uncouthly damp instead of oiled, fully clothed, slumped over lazily, looking weary and bored instead of Zen. There is a great old man “fuck it” vibe to this Rambo, a plausible evolution of the young man “fuck it” vibe he had in the first film. Rambo looking old and shitty also returns the element of surprise we had in First Blood. No one suspected that the smelly young hippie Teasle arrested for vagrancy was going to be a killing machine. In Rambo II and III you’d have been an idiot for thinking otherwise. It is great returning to the look of shock our supporting characters have when dumpy old Rambo unleashes his beast for the first time — actually it is two “first times,” when he kills an entire boat of pirates in front of the missionaries, and then when he emerges from no where with his compound bow, shocking the mercenaries.
I think one of the reasons the sequels went so immediately awry was that the powers that be decided that First Blood was a One Man Army movie. It is, technically, but let’s not forget that Rambo has no mission in the film, no objective — other than evading capture. It would’ve been stupid if each installment had placed Rambo into an similar defensive scenario, but it completely shattered whatever plausibility the franchise had when Rambo started taking out whole armies by his lonesome. James Cameron’s script for Rambo II gave Rambo a partner (to be played by John Travolta) and a team. But Sly called bullshit on that, cause, duh, Rambo is a One Many Army, remember? But we’re dealing with a different Stallone now. Rambo doesn’t need to be sexy anymore, and he also doesn’t have to fly solo. Adding the mercenaries was a solid move, in particular the character of School Boy the sniper (Matthew Marsden), who actually saves Rambo’s life at one point. It says something that Sly allowed the leader of the mercenaries, Lewis (Graham McTavish), who is portrayed as mean and unsympathetic, to remain honorably hardass to the bitter end — in Rambo II he would’ve turned out to be a total pussy when backed into a corner.
Speaking of Rambo unleashing his beast… this movie is fucking fucked up. 80’s action was all about having a good time, and that was part of the problem — studios probably didn’t want to make a bummer Rambo action movie. Well, we’re living in fucked up times again, and holy shit does John Rambo reflect that. There is a line in Rambo III in which the Mujahideen off-handedly mention that the Soviets tossed a baby into a fire to give us a sense of their atrocities. Well, now we see that happen. We also see small children getting shot in the chest and a baby on the end of a bayonet. A baby. On. The. End. Of. A. Bayonet. That is messed up, man. This film rivals I Spit On Your Grave for going above and well beyond its duty to make us hate the villains, thus allowing for maximal emotional release when our heroes exact bloody vengeance. There is not one but two sequences in which the villains make innocent villagers run through a rice paddy littered with landmines simply for their perverse amusement. These dudes have it coming, and boy do they get it. The climax of John Rambo is so violent it reaches a strange level of baroque art. It is just visual madness. Villains explode in a fury of gore left and right.
Yet, unlike in Rambo II and III, violence takes a toll on this Rambo. The scene where his “Ramboness” is first triggered – killing a gang of pirates – is awesome, but that awesomeness is emotionally undone when Rambo goes back to the pirate boat later and burns it during a PTSD fit of rage-sorrow. The film is undeniable exploitation, but for once the film addresses all the death. Rambo never seemed to try not killing people in the previous sequels, yet the films were portraying him as a pleasant hero. The Rambo in John Rambo acknowledges that he is a monster — this comes across immediately during that first pirate slaughter, when Rambo has successfully vanquished all the pirates, and only one remains, wounded and dying. Despite the pleas of the Christian missionaries, Rambo finishes the last pirate off, Miller’s Crossing-style, and puts one in his brain. Rambo II removed all the cruelty from Rambo’s own killings, which trivialized it completely. This is what made the 80’s “fun,” but John Rambo wasn’t supposed to be a “fun” character; he’s emotionally disturbed.
Stallone shows some directing chops here. Not with the actors (the acting is all average at best), but I liked his visual and tonal approach to the film. The Saving Private Ryan matter-of-fact way all the violence is shot helps de-sensationalize it, at least as much as such mayhem can be de-sensationalized. The whole film has a very matter-of-fact style, which also makes the few big “movie moments” pop — such as the shot of Rambo rising like a sinister leviathan behind a villain, or when the Burmese soldiers set off a brightly colored flare while partying, adding a colored fog to Rambo and the mercenaries’ nighttime rescue mission.
What Doesn’t Work:
I don’t think the film necessarily needed a major villain, as Rambo wasn’t toppling the Burmese government or anything, but the main boss we’re given, Tint (Maung Maung Khin), is rather weak. His emotionless expression, minimal dialogue, and mirrored sunglasses give him a disconnected stock sub-boss feel. And making him a gay pedophile feels a bit cheap, and a bit homophobic, if one wanted to go there. Weak villains have been an ongoing problem in the sequels, as the entire franchise still stands in Brian Dennehy’s massive shadow.
None of the supporting characters feel very real. Most glaring are the missionaries, specifically their leader Burnett (Paul Schulze). After Rambo saves the missionaries from the pirates, Burnett chastises him, saying “I have to report this. I know you think what you did was right, but taking a life is never right.” The moment feels incredibly unorganic. Rambo not only just saved their lives, he saved Burnett’s wife, Sarah, from being raped. The moment exists solely so Rambo can seem right, especially when we consider that later in the film Burnett is forced to kill a man with a rock. That is Rambo II hackwork. If Stallone truly wanted Burnett to chastise Rambo for killing the pirates he should’ve made Rambo’s decision to kill them significantly more questionable, instead of the only possibly choice. That would’ve been more dramatic too, and lent further emotional complexity to the scene where Rambo returns to the pirate boat and freaks out.
While most of the FX are excellent there is a lot of CG gore, some of it not so hot.
Rambody Count: 87.
Best Kill: When Rambo captures a Jeep’s turret gun, the first guy to get it is the vehicle’s driver, who is sitting about one foot away. Saying that Rambo shoots this poor asshole doesn’t accurately describe what happens. Though Rambo is using a machine gun I think saying he explodes the guy in the front seat is more appropriate.
Most Badass Moment: Given the unending amount of macho baddassery Rambo performs in this movie, the moment that is most conspicuously badass, I think, is when he macgyvers Sarah a pair shoes while they’re on the run. Anyone can shoot someone. Making shoes on the fly… now that’s hardcore.
Most Ridiculous Moment: When Rambo rips a guard’s throat out with his bare heads.
Best Understatement Line:
In response to how he ended up living in Thailand after serving in Vietnam.
Rambo: It’s complicated.
Best Grumpy Old Man Rambo Line: “Fuck the world.”
Best Sensitive Rambo Line: “Live for nothing, or die for something.”
Best Badass Rambo Line: “When you’re pushed, killing’s as easy as breathing.”
Should There Be a Sequel: No. Maybe a reboot someday, but what better way to put the character respectfully to bed than ending the franchise with this shot of Rambo returning to his family home in Arizona:
It is kind of crazy to think about the fact that not that long ago the name Rambo meant absolutely nothing. If you were familiar with the name it was either because you were eating a Rambo variety of red apple, or lived in Norway (despite how it sounds, the name is Scandinavian, not Italian). Now, like Einstein or Sherlock, the name carries with it an implication of a specific type of person. The kind of guy who would bring a rocket launcher to a knife fight. If your idiot buddy decided to use a flame thrower to get rid of the spiders in his backyard, you might say, “Well played, Rambo.” For fans of First Blood it has been a small tragedy that this is what people think of when they hear ‘Rambo.’ If there had never been a Rambo II, and you referred to a friend as “Rambo,” I would assume it was because your friend had a violent freak-out at a party or something. In a perfect world First Blood wouldn’t have a sequel. But, if we’re being honest with ourselves, if Rambo II hadn’t happened, we’d likely all be saying, “How come they never made a First Blood II? What happened to Rambo after that? First Blood is so great!”
Though the entire franchise is inherently a betrayal of First Blood, at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. Rambo II will always hold a special place in the hearts of those who love big, stupid 80’s action movies, just as John Rambo will likely always hold a special place in the hearts of those who like fucked up 00’s action movies.
The character of John Rambo is shockingly amorphous for how well-known and successful he is. It will be interesting if/when they reboot the franchise to see which Rambo identity they run with. The clusterfuck going on in the Middle East is certainly creating a lot of PTSD victims, so a new adaptation of First Blood seems fitting. Yet, as we’ve been discussing, First Blood isn’t a great way to get to the Rambo most people see in their minds — it is a similar issue with rebooting Friday the 13th. Whoever does the reboot needs to make a decision. Are they remaking First Blood or are they re-launching the Rambo franchise?
Franchise ranked from best to worst:
Rambo: First Blood Part II
Rambo: Force of Freedom | Rambo III
Up Next: My soul will be torn apart by the Hellraiser franchise.