Retro Review: The Rambo Franchise.
Rambo veered back and forth between somber post-war drama to napalm-soaked jingoism. We look at each installment.
Sylvester Stallone returns to theaters this weekend in his iconic role of John Rambo. Rambo, a gritty survivor wrestling with PTSD after serving in the Vietnam War, solidified Sly as one of the biggest action heroes of the 80’s. The character would helm a trilogy of blockbusters before going dormant for decades as the action genre underwent radical changes. In 2008, Stallone returned to the character after 20 years, in what many thought would be his swan song. As it turns out, Sly had one more Rambo movie in him: the series that began in 1982 with First Blood wraps up with 2019’s Rambo: Last Blood.
The Evolution of John Rambo.
Over the course of the years, the character of Rambo changed with the times. His first outing was grim and somber, the story of a damaged hero forgotten by his country. Following the success Arnold Schwarzenegger was having with macho action flicks like Predator and Commando, Stallone turned Rambo into a one man army, capable of retro-actively winning the Vietnam War single handedly. This culminated in a stars-and-bars action fest in Rambo III, where John seemingly destroys the Soviet army with just his steely glare…and a billion bullets that never miss. This over-the-top spectacle made decent money, but turned Rambo into the archetypal cliché action hero that would lead to numerous parodies, like Hot Shots and UHF. Rambo never ran out of ammo, but as the 80’s ended, he ran out of credibility.
2008’s Rambo returned after a 20 year hiatus. This outing tried to correct course, getting back to the somber, haunted figure found in First Blood. The film burned away the camp, but couldn’t help but try to keep the sky-high body counts of the second and third film. It was a mixed bag, split between the need to have a tragic hero and an invincible action hero at the same time. Not satisfied, Stallone seems to be updating Rambo one last time, bringing him back state-side to settle a personal conflict with the baddie du-jour, Mexican drug cartels. We’ll see how 2019’s version of Rambo fits in with his constant evolution.
The Rambo Franchise.
First Blood (1982).
Police in a small town pick up a drifter and arrest him for vagrancy. The experience of being booked and imprisoned causes the man to vividly relive his time as a POW in Vietnam. He attacks the officers and escapes into the woods. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to catch him, an army colonel (Richard Crenna) arrives to inform the police chief who they are dealing with: John Rambo, an elite special forces soldier who has been trained to survive behind enemy lines and destroy anything in his way. The colonel wants to go get his soldier before Rambo is forced to kill civilians, but the hard-assed police chief (Brian Dennehy) wants to get personal revenge on Rambo for the embarrassment he’s caused. Things don’t go well for him.
Rambo did fantastically at the box office, helping to cement Sly as a bonafide action star. Critics were mixed to negative though, which I found surprising. There is the hint of the cartoonish action hero in Rambo – he survives incredible falls, walks away from gunshot wounds, and generally chews his way through whatever foe is put before him. For all that, he’s also complex and fascinating.
From the first scene we see Rambo go from passively submitting to the indignities the cops put him through to having a psychotic break where he destroys the cops who have no clue what fresh hell they’ve just unleashed. Sly’s delivery fits this version of Rambo perfectly. He’s quiet, almost taciturn, but capable of focusing his anger like a laser-beam on anyone who pushes him. In the scenes were he gets emotional, he’s devastating. After seeing him dismantle the cops and national guard, watching him break down and weep about how he has been thrown away like garbage by his own homeland is harrowing. I love First Blood; it blends the politics of an Oliver Stone film with the rock-solid action beats of John McTiernan flick and stands up well nearly forty years later.
Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985).
Colonel Trautman (Crenna) visits Rambo in prison. He has a deal for him – go back to Vietnam to confirm reports of US POW/MIA soldiers still in captivity and he’ll be pardoned for the actions of the last movie. Recalling his own experience being held prisoner, he agrees. When he gets to the POW camp, he goes against orders and frees the American soldiers. His handler, Murdock (Charles Napier) calls off an evac chopper, as he never intended to rescue the men in the first place. Rambo is captured and learns that the Russians are re-arming the Vietnamese. A local helps him escape, but he returns to get the soldiers and crush the Russian and Vietnamese forces.
First time viewers must have wondered what movie they actually walked into. Besides the familiar face of Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo, this film feels like a different beast entirely from First Blood. This has more in common with Chuck Norris’ Missing in Action, which came out a year earlier with pretty much an identical story. John Rambo is still a more haunted protagonist than many of the action heroes of the day, but he definitely wasn’t going to go on a crying jag in First Blood Part II. More likely, he was going to go on a murder spree. Stallone pulls off the action elements of the film well, and the film has some cool set pieces. Sly’s stone-cold stare and righteous fury keep this film from turning into a campy farce like what Arnold Schwarzenegger was churning out at the time.
That’s not to say there wasn’t some of that post-Vietnam angst informing the film. Obvious jingoist elements like getting to whip the Ruskies and re-fight the Vietnam War (and win it!) are tempered by the revelation of a government and military that A. left all of those guys behind, and B. balks at rescuing them because of the money it would cost. The US of A as a concept is being given a billion gun salute, but the actual people running the show are instead given the bird. It certainly isn’t as nuanced as First Blood, but we’d see that it could get much, much sillier.
Rambo III (1988).
John Rambo seems to finally have found peace in Thailand. He helps at a local temple, and only occasionally mauls people in the local stick-fighting tournaments. Col. Trautman finds him and tries to recruit him for a covert op against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Rambo declines, saying he left his war days behind. Trautman goes anyway, and is promptly captured. Rambo learns of this and heads into the country alone to rescue his mentor.
If you thought First Blood II strayed over the big dumb blockbuster border, Rambo III invades the territory and builds itself a palace made out of bullets and explosions. Rambo quickly flips the mental switch from pacifist to murder god, blowing away enemies with over one hundred on-screen kills. The final battle of this movie is a jousting match between a battle tank and an attack helicopter that both explode, and Rambo calmly walks away from that debacle unscathed. Rambo has the infinite ammo and invincibility cheats active all film long.
Moments for enjoyment exist in Rambo III. Rambo and his central casting villain both get to chew on some red meat dialogue. Colonel Trautman is once again Rambo’s greatest salesman, weaving a superlative-laden description of how awesome his boy is at murderizing at every opportunity. There are some completely gonzo set pieces, which at the time made Rambo III the most expensive movie ever made. It’s just so mind-blowingly unbelievable to watch in any way seriously. Instead of being a grittier counter-point to Schwarzenegger, Stallone out-Arnies him with a classic “so bad its good” film.
Rambo again tries to retire from war. This time he relocates just south of the Burmese border…which if you’re at all familiar with that country’s troubles, seems like an incredibly poor decision. A group of American do-gooders hire him to ferry them upriver to provide humanitarian aid. The local warlord captures them. Rambo is then hired by mercenaries to ferry them upriver to rescue the missionaries. They get captured. Great. Guess it’s up for Rambo to once again turn on the kill switch and shut the warlord down.
My biggest gripe with Rambo is that the film doesn’t give us anything new or interesting. John’s retired and reluctantly has to fight again to save innocents? Seen it last film. John infiltrates a guerilla army to rescue captured Americans? Yeah, sounds familiar. John is conflicted by his talent at un-aliving people but is forced to do so by a relentless antagonist who really doesn’t understand how phenomenally bad an idea antagonizing John Rambo is? Brian Dennehy should call his lawyer.
Rambo ditches the camp of the second and third film, only to replace it with gore. The film is a grim-dark buffet of the better ideas of other Rambo films. The action sequences aren’t new or exciting, they’re just bloodier. We’ve seen Rambo mow down a hundred guys with a machine gun. This film’s idea of innovation is to show him mowing down two hundred guys with a machine gun. The climax feels bloodless despite all the blood. Rambo literally disembowels the baddie and then just glares at him as his guts fall out. No great one-liner or memorable threat. I preferred it when he played chicken with Apache helicopters. At least that was novel.
I can’t say I’m all that excited by the ideas on offer for the new Rambo movie. I just hope its not as drab and brooding as Rambo 2008.