David Morrell wrote the book that spawned the series. I have not read the book, although what people have posted about the book, is quite revealing about the character. Rambo is a hugely popular figure and I believe that people see in him what they want to see. Just who is this John Rambo? In five films, you have only a limited knowledge, by design. It is obvious that he is honorable and loyal, and can do things with a knife you would rather not know. Other than that, the man is a mystery, and that was the intent. The less you know, the more you shape what you see. That’s what we do with heroes, and Rambo is a hero to many.
Let’s look at the films, and also explore the character.
There are five Rambo films, I seriously doubt there will be sixth. Besides Sylvester Stallone being 73 years old, the most recent film seemed to close the book, and it failed to perform at the box office.
Three of the Rambo films were made in the 1980s, whereas the book was published in 1972, a story of attitudes in the 1960s that were still evident when the first film was made. Despite the original setting and time-frame, Rambo is really a Reagan-era character as depicted in the films. Rambo loved his country and hated Communists.
John Rambo is significant cultural symbol to a lot of people. Sure, most of the films are poorly written and acted, the violence turns off many, but symbolically, Rambo is a big deal. Forget that the films have generated more than $1b in revenue. He was a Vietnam Vet who did what his country asked, and then was cast aside. Rambo stood up for unpopular causes and often stood alone. Those themes resonate with a cross-section of America.
The film rights to the book went through various hands before First Blood (1982) found a home. The script was not a literal translation of the book, which had Rambo die at the end. He also killed police officers in the book; Stallone wanted the character softened and to survive at the end of the film. In both the book and film, Rambo was a Vietnam Vet who didn’t fit into the society that trained him for war. This film was a character study as much as an action film. Rambo was a war machine, trained to efficiently kill, but who suffered PTSD and was unable to hold a civilian job. He was not a bum or drug user, he just wandered America looking for somewhere to fit. Director Ted Kotcheff (North Dallas Forty, Uncommon Valor) fashioned a good balance of bullets and explosions against exploring the character of a broken man and unsympathetic society.
Stallone played the misunderstood Rambo, not as the comic book, wooden character of future films, but as a brooding, confused and tightly-wound former soldier. Rambo’s PTSD flares when he is abused by the deputies who abuse him while in custody, setting the battle in motion.
We are introduced to Colonel Trautman, played by Richard Crenna (Body Heat, The Sand Pebbles), who is the only one who understands Rambo because he trained him. Sheriff Will Teasle is played by the late Brian Dennehy (Silverado, F/X), in one of his first substantial film roles. You can’t quite tell if he is corrupt or just has let a bad situation get out of control. Give credit to Dennehy for turning in a complex character performance.
The film is well-paced and realistic, you get interested in the characters, and want to know who this Rambo really is. At first, he’s only about survival, the retribution comes later after he is falsely arrested, abused and then hunted. This isn’t a film about politics, but you feel the understated issues of a country that has moved on and forgotten about Vietnam, and blame the Vets for their problems.
First Blood did not need a sequel, certainly the one that arrived in 1985, Rambo: First Blood Part II. This story finds Rambo in prison from his crimes carried out in first film. He’s released to Col. Trautman to search for American soldiers held captive by the Vietnamese. He not only finds them, but tries to rescue one. He is betrayed by the officials leading the mission and is captured and tortured by Soviet soldiers aiding the Vietnamese. You get to hate all kinds of godless communists.
This time-period was squarely in the Reagan era and the evil Soviet empire was prime material for an action film. It is a black and white world, no subtleties here. The Soviets were exporting their might to Afghanistan and other places so they made the perfect enemy. During the early 1980s there were wild accusations that American POW’s were still being help captive, which another great plot point.
The film wasted no time on character development; Rambo was a vengeful killing machine, end of character exposition. The action scenes were over the top and made little sense. Both the Soviets and the Vietnamese were portrayed as sadistic and amoral, and deserving of the high body count.
This film made a lot of money and it didn’t matter that reviews were generally negative. The violence was so ridiculous that it was like watching a Roadrunner cartoon. Interestingly, James Cameron (Terminator, Titanic) co-wrote the script with Stallone. I imagine the script to fit on a napkin, a small one.
If you have seen Weird Al in his film UHF, he lampoons Stallone’s character from Part II in scenes where he is wearing a muscular bodysuit, with a contorted face and wielding a machine gun that blows up everything. Now, that’s acting! It’s a very funny parody.
There was little doubt that another sequel was coming. Profit$ speak. The third film came in 1988, Rambo III, was about Rambo going to Afghanistan to rescue Trautman who has gone there to rearm the Mujaheddin against the Soviets. Trautman’s mission was compromised, leading to his capture and torture. The Soviets again. Naturally, the American government will not send a military force, but will allow Rambo to go alone.
Trautman approached Rambo about going on the mission, but said no. Rambo was now a man of peace and lives a quiet life in Thailand. Receiving news of Trautman’s disappearance, Rambo wastes no time in pursuing Trautman. The first half of the film is about Rambo’s journey through Pakistan to Afghanistan in search of Trautman. Rambo meets up with the Mujaheddin, but fails to enlist their help even after their village is attacked by the Soviets, who are still waging war against the Afghan people. The Berlin Wall has not yet fallen, so the Soviets are still there to hate.
The third act is where the action is, Rambo and company take on the Soviets in their own compound to rescue Trautman. After the Soviets block their escape, the Mujaheddin come to their rescue.
Rambo develops a friendship with several Afghans who accompany him on the journey. Surprisingly, the film spends time exploring the balance of power in Afghanistan and creating some empathy for the characters, something noticeably absent in Part II. Unfortunately, Rambo III under performed at the box office. The film did much better overseas than in America, making quite a bit less than the previous film.
In 1988, who cared about Afghanistan? American film audiences did not, neither did the public after the Soviets moved out and the Taliban moved in. America would care later on.
Of the two sequels, Part III is the superior film. It is more competently made, there is actually a plot and better developed characters. Part II was wall-to-wall violence, where in the third film, more of it is reserved for key sequences.
In the 1990s and 2000s, the film rights changed hands several times and there were false starts around different plot stories, resulting in a 20-year gap.
The next film was simply called Rambo (2008). Again co-written by Stallone, who also directed, the film has Rambo taking some missionaries into Burma from Thailand. Along the way, Rambo has no option but to kill some pirates who threaten to take the female missionary. Even though Rambo saves them, the missionaries are repulsed by his violence.
Later, after the missionaries get settled in the village where they are providing aid, they are captured by a military unit, they they slaughter the villagers.
Rambo apparently has been living in Thailand all of these years. In Part III, he was helping rebuild a religious temple. Now, he ferries people in his boat and wrangles snakes. Nothing is really revealed about his life, although you think it might be low point. He’s obviously older and not the sculpted warrior of the past two films. He’s thick and doesn’t move with the grace that he did. Yet, in the killing field, all of his warrior skills instantly return. On release, the film gross was double the production cost, which means after marketing and distribution it turned a little profit, but not much.
After learning the missionaries were captured, Rambo ferries a group of mercenaries to rescue the missionaries from a Burmese military group. Rambo is not asked to join, but being Rambo, he takes off as a one-man force to extract the missionaries, eventually teaming up with the mercenaries after they see what kind of carnage he can whip up.
The Burmese military are shown sadistically treating their prisoners and then playfully murdering them. You know that Rambo will eventually rescue the missionaries and other prisoners in a bloody battle. Rambo also savagely kills the military leader in act of vengeance.
The violence in this film is intense and graphic, and there is nothing comic book about this carnage. Bodies explode, body parts and blood stream through the air. The amount of violence rivals Part II, yet the visual impact is greatly different. If the intent is to show the reality of violence, Stallone succeeds. The film is hard to watch and I’ve never made it through one sitting. This is as visceral as Tarantino, and exponentially greater than Peckinpah. Strangely, after awhile you think you’re in a video game, the violence stops resonating, it just does not matter, because your mind stops processing it as human violence and it becomes a totally unrealistic experience. Do audiences now demand seeing a body explode, over and over again? If it happens fifty times does that make the film that much more gratifying? This device by Stallone and the film’s producers cheapens the experience by substituting graphic violence for plot to involve an audience. Violence, specifically what high caliber machine gun bullets and explosives do to the human body is horrific, but at the same time, titillating. After repeated scenes of it, and repeated viewings of the film, the novelty wears off.
Each time Rambo is introduced in one of the films, he is in a content place, wherever he is, even in prison, or wrangling snakes. He has the ability to adapt and make his own peace. Trouble is always brought to him, and even when he appears to have a choice whether to engage, he really does not. Whether it is being rousted by the law, doing recon on possible POW’s, rescuing Trautman, or someone else, it is Rambo’s honor that guides his decisions. After all these years, and bad situations he has been roped into, his honor still shines.
In 2019, Rambo: Last Blood premiered. The story found Rambo in America after he left Burma, moving to his father’s ranch. After all of his wondering, he returned home to a country that broke him. He lives in the home he grew up in, coming full circle.
Rambo is now an old man who takes prescription drugs and walks like a statue. Stallone mumbles worse than ever. This Rambo is in Liam Neeson’s territory, Last Blood a copy of Taken. The film could have been called, Rambo: This Time it’s Personal.
Co-written by Stallone, but not directed by him, Rambo is living in Arizona raising horses. Again, by the time the script was finished, the concept had changed. In this film, Rambo goes to Mexico to rescue his adopted niece from a drug cartel who intends to use her as a sex slave. For the last decade, Rambo has lived a quiet life with a woman and this girl; they are his family.
Every Rambo film feels contrived, even the excellent first one; the story pieces don’t logically fit, but they are forced together at the expense of the plot to advance the action. Something is always inserted for convenience, not logic. Last Blood is the worst; unrealistic things appear in the story out of nowhere.
Rambo journeys to Mexico and finds the trail of the girl. He goes up against the cartel with the help of a woman who later turns out to be an investigative journalist. Rambo is taken prisoner, beaten and told they will come to his ranch and kill everyone. The reporter saves him and nurses him back to health. Then she essentially disappears from the film. The scriptwriters make it exceedingly easy to find his niece, kill a few of the cartel and drive her home. Unfortunately she’s been given so much heroin that she dies. Rambo confesses that she has given him hope being in his life, a reason for him to live; the family he thought he’d never have. Her death serves as his motivation to destroy the cartel and essentially himself.
Rambo goes back to Mexico and kills one of the brothers who runs the cartel. He doesn’t just kill the man, he cuts off his head and then tosses the head out the window of his truck while driving back to Arizona. We really didn’t need to see that. He leaves a picture of his niece to draw the other brother and his army to Rambo’s ranch. The graphic brutality in this film is even surprising for a Rambo film. Such savagery, even as revenge, does not fit the character. Mutilation is not a substitute for motivation.
The finale is set at his ranch, where the cartel brother will go to take care of Rambo. Naturally, the ranch is wired with traps, explosives and hidden weapons used to eliminate each of the cartel soldiers. Rambo gruesomely kills the remaining brother by pinning him to the barn and then cutting open his chest to rip out his beating heart. The symbolism is of course, the cartel has ripped out his heart, so he returns the favor. Again, we really did not need to see him carve the man’s chest and remove his heart.
Last Blood does try to explore a personal side to Rambo, his adopted family; but the film skips over a ten-year period where Rambo was the closest to happy. Last Blood is a sad film experience, there’s nothing uplifting in it. In one scene with his niece, he tries to warn her about the world and her father, a very black-hearted man. She says that people change, she says that Rambo changed. He replies that he had not, that he was only keeping a lid on it. There we have it. Last Blood is about rage, when the lid comes off. Rambo’s world is black and white, and the dividing line is very clear.
Last Blood grossed under $100m, a continual box office decline for the series. Rottentomatoes.com had an audience rating of only 27 percent.
Beginning with Part III, the film series embraced more realism, but audiences started backing away, at least at the box office. As Stallone aged, he re-invented himself (the Creed films) and found new properties like his Expendables series to keep working.
I would rate First Blood as the best of the series, followed by Rambo Part III. Part II is interesting for how badly excessive and unintentionally campy it is. The two recent films are a mess, they missed a great opportunity to end the series with class and use an iconic character in a thoughtful way, instead of drowning the character in brutality and repulsively graphic violence. John Rambo deserved better.
So, what do you think?