Editor’s note: As the latest episode of The Rewatchables tackles First Blood, here’s an article on the odd history of Rambo.
We begin, in as respectful a manner as possible, with the “Weird Al” Yankovic parody, because that’s when Rambo truly made it. Whatever else Weird Al’s leading-man film debut, the phenomenally silly 1989 cable-TV parody UHF, has going for it, there is also a scene in which he is suddenly shirtless and flaunting an absurd shredded-abs bodysuit, cinching a bandanna to his forehead, and, as an opening flourish, bum-rushing a machine-gun-toting old man in slow motion and blowing him up with a bow and arrow at point-blank range. I can’t tell you the exact noise the old man makes when he blows up, because by then, in 2019 as in 1989, I am inevitably laughing like an idiot.
From there, Al-as-Rambo rescues Michael Richards (it was a simpler time) from a prison camp with garden-shed locks on the doors, machine-guns a hapless line of enemy soldiers, catches a bullet in his teeth and spits little bullets back at the shooter, blows up a helicopter with another helicopter, and then, enraged, also blows up the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, and the Hollywood sign. Finally, back in Al’s own feeble human body, he delivers, in a farcically low growl, an iconic action-flick line: “I’m your worst nightmare.”
A true American hero. Weird Al, I mean. But yes, OK, sure, also fictional troubled Vietnam veteran John James Rambo, the brooding pride of Bowie, Arizona, and hero of First Blood, the gloomy 1972 David Morrell novel that became a beloved 1982 Ted Kotcheff B-movie that is arguably less gloomy (Rambo doesn’t die at the end) and arguably way, way gloomier (Rambo is kept alive primarily to soldier through four sequels and counting, though maybe don’t count on a fifth). As played by Sylvester Stallone—fresh off the superstar triumph of 1976’s fellow franchise-starter Rocky, with his Drunk Springsteen rumble of a speaking voice and his lethal glower, no-bodysuit-required shredded abs, and increasingly insatiable thirst for grisly cartoon violence—Rambo is as indelible an action star as the Reagan era produced. In the post-Reagan era, he has brought along with him an unsightly willingness to get unimaginably grislier.
On Friday, Stallone-as-Rambo is back after a 10-year hiatus in a movie that is for serious called Rambo: Last Blood. “I’ve lived in a world of death,” he grunts in a trailer soundtracked, for serious, by a somber semi-remix of “Old Town Road.” “I’ve watched people I’ve loved die. Some fast with a bullet; some, not enough left to bury.” As directed by Adrian Grunberg (and cowritten, as with all the Rambo movies, by Stallone himself), the plot involves a Mexican drug cartel, a kidnapped girl, and a weary but infuriated Rambo as portrayed by a 73-year-old man who could still pick you up with one hand and play you like an accordion.
We are shooting for Logan-style prestige gravitas here (but don’t expect any Oscar nods). Let’s agree to either be optimistic or keep our cynicism to ourselves, lest we get our asses kicked. There will not, in all likelihood, be enough of him left to bury by Last Blood’s end. But at least then we—and more importantly he—will finally, mercifully find peace.
First Blood is not exactly The Deer Hunter, but as drive-in movies go, it has at least read a few books, if only the source material and The Things They Carried. We meet Rambo as he trudges down a lonesome road outside Hope, Washington, looking up an old Vietnam War buddy who, it turns out, is dead, just like all of Rambo’s other Vietnam War buddies. Shock and abject loneliness radiate from Stallone’s fearsome Mount Rushmore of a face, and already this is a deeper and marginally more elegant experience than you might’ve expected, in 2019 as in 1982.
Rambo trudges on and is harassed, on sight, by a dickhead small-town sheriff (played by Brian Dennehy) who personally escorts Rambo back outside the city limits of, uh, Hope. (I said marginally more elegant.) Rambo stubbornly re-enters Hope, whereupon he is arrested and tormented by a whole pack of dickhead cops, triggering lurid flashbacks to his imprisonment in ’Nam. He gets pissed, and kicks their asses, and flees into the lush Washington forest, and torments the dickheads in turn with a succession of guerilla-war booby traps, taking care not to kill any cops, though a few cops haplessly kill themselves or each other.
At what can only be described as “halftime,” with Rambo vanished into the gorgeous landscape and the dickhead cops regrouping to lick their wounds, one Colonel Samuel Trautman (a grim and noble and only slightly hammy Richard Crenna) shows up, announces that he was—and is—Rambo’s commanding officer, and apprises the cast and audience alike as to Who We’re Dealing With.
You don’t seem to want to accept the fact that you’re dealing with an expert. In guerrilla warfare. With a man who’s the best. With guns. With knives. With his bare hands. A man who’s been trained to ignore pain. Ignore weather. To live off the land. To eat things that’d make a billy goat puke. In Vietnam his job was to dispose of enemy personnel. To kill. Period. Win, by attrition. And Rambo was the best.
Meanwhile, back in the forest, Rambo basically DDT’s a wild boar. “There are no friendly civilians,” he grunts to Trautman when Trautman gets him on the radio, and soon the guerrilla warfare spreads to Hope proper, and climaxes with the dickhead sheriff cowering on the police station roof while Rambo more or less destroys the whole set, in what would become a central franchise theme. Specifically, he blows up both a gas station and a gun store in what appears, initially, to be a cunning strategic coup, though his exact purpose is unclear, and indeed in the end, with the dickhead sheriff subdued and Trautman back on the scene to talk Rambo down, our shattered hero abandons any pretense of victory, and instead delivers The Speech.
This is way more dialogue than Stallone mumbles in the whole rest of the movie, most of it through choking sobs.
Nothing is over. Nothing. You just don’t turn it off. It wasn’t my war. You asked me, I didn’t ask you. And I did what I had to do to win. But somebody wouldn’t let us win. And I come back to the world, and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting. Calling me “baby killer” and all kinds of vile crap. Who are they to protest me, huh? Who are they? Unless they’ve been me, and been there, and know what the hell they’re yelling about?
He tells a desperate, wrenching story about another of his Vietnam buddies dying in his arms—“I can’t find his fuckin’ legs! I can’t find his legs!”—and ends up crying, full-on crying, in Trautman’s arms. It’s a whole lot, though it is not, to put it mildly, the bloody resolution you’re expecting, and all the more brutal and effective for that. Eventually, Rambo gathers himself and walks out of the police station with Trautman and turns himself in. Movie over. And for all the atrocities Rambo will commit and see committed in the increasingly gnarly sequels to come, none are quite as appalling as the very notion of forcing this quavering, broken man to satisfy his country’s bloodlust by rampaging through those sequels in the first place. Fictional as he is, it is outright cruel not to let this poor guy be.
The three Rambo sequels to date—1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II, 1988’s Rambo III, and, after a two-decade hiatus, 2008’s Rambo—all follow a far more conventional and less conflicted pattern. We rejoin Rambo in some sort of unlikely zen-macho circumstance: breaking rocks in prison, helping build a monastery (and stick-fighting on the side) in Bangkok, or snake-hunting (?!) deeper in Thailand, respectively. He is approached by either Trautman and some suspect bureaucratic types (the first two sequels) or some naive missionaries (the last one; Crenna died in 2003). They attempt to enlist him in some impossible mission: to rescue more POWs from Vietnam, or take out a brutal Russian warlord in Afghanistan, or ferry the naive missionaries into the midst of the Burmese civil war, respectively. Rambo stoically refuses this call to action, unless he is in prison; in the latter two cases, either Trautman or the naive missionaries are immediately taken prisoner by Very Bad Guys, and so here, grudgingly, comes our hero to kick much ass and take absolutely zero names.
Here is how Rambo explains his place in the world in George P. Cosmatos’s Rambo: First Blood Part II. The word expendable is involved. Maybe keep that in mind.
This movie at least keeps the Vietnam vet theme going, in that Rambo’s one question, as he sets off to rescue some long-forgotten POWs despite his own government’s callous unwillingness to rescue them, is: “Do we get to win this time?” Well, he does, anyway, and a Vietnam-centered action mini-genre continued the fight. First Blood Part II attempts to honor a few other action-flick conventions, including the presence of Vietnamese freedom-fighter and love interest Co Phuong Bao (Julia Nickson), and it turns out that smooching Rambo in a Rambo movie is a bad idea if you’d like to still be alive even 60 seconds later, and the hell with all those other action-flick conventions. The final 30 to 45 minutes of any Rambo movie are devoted to operatic bloodshed and wanton set destruction to the exclusion of all else, save maybe a much shorter and less histrionic version of The Speech once the set has been totally destroyed.
“What is it you want?” Trautman asks Rambo, as First Blood Part II wraps up.
Rambo just nods to the POWs he just single-handedly rescued. “I want what they want and every other guy who came over here and spilled his guts and gave everything he had wants,” he replies. “For our country to love us as much as we love it. That’s what I want.”
And then the hell with that convention, too. Peter MacDonald’s Rambo III, from 1988, is far more generic, but at least adheres to the generic-but-comforting Rambo-movie archetype. This time Trautman’s the one in danger, and Afghanistan is the setting, and the Russians are the bad guys, and Rambo actually tells the sadistic Russian commander that “We already had our Vietnam—now you’re gonna have yours,” and, well, this happens.
Military history, fictional and otherwise, is a funny thing. By the terminal stages of Rambo III, Rambo and Trautman are prancing around annihilating Russian tough guys and indulging in some palpably awkward buddy-comedy banter: “Hell of a time for humor, John,” the Colonel observes, and let’s just say that comedy of any weight is not Stallone’s forte, with all due respect to 1992’s Stop or My Mom Will Shoot. The actual physical violence of an ’80s Rambo sequel—the ceaseless squalls of machine-gun fire, the exploding helicopters, the rapturous plumes of unholy flame—is frightfully epic in scale and further magnified by the vicious and gargantuan intimacy of Stallone himself. His bulging cartoon muscles. The severity with which he cinches that headband. His shriek of pain as he cauterizes his own gunshot wound with gunpowder, further rapturous tongues of flame bursting out of both bullet holes.
Let’s just say that nobody short of Robin Hood has done more for the bow-and-arrow industry. But these movies were, for their time anyway, shockingly militaristic and violent from a purely mathematical perspective, such that 1993’s Hot Shots! Part Deux—a UHF-style parody flick starring Charlie Sheen (it was a simpler time) and welcoming none other than Richard “Colonel Trautman” Crenna to spoof his own tough-guy legacy— uncorks a Rambo parody of its own, complete with an onscreen body count and video-arcade bloops and a “BLOODIEST MOVIE EVER” designation, and that’s before Sheen starts killing people by throwing bullets at them. What’s less funny is how quaint this scene looks now, given what the next Rambo movie had in store.
Stallone spent the ’90s as an action hero in much broader and goofier flicks like Demolition Man and Judge Dredd, plus the occasional prestige bid like 1997’s Cop Land. But as both a commercial and even a critical force (see his 2016 Oscar nomination for Creed), he’s always better off with the franchises that first buoyed him, and so there he is, directing himself in 2008’s Rambo, which is a no-joke candidate for Bloodiest Movie Ever. I am sorry to report that there is simply no other word to describe this film than chunkier. This is the one with naive missionaries attempting to bring aid and comfort to civil-war-torn Burma, and Rambo is having none of it:
RAMBO: Are you bringing in any weapons?
NAIVE MISSIONARY: Of course not.
RAMBO: Then you’re not changing anything.
NAIVE MISSIONARY: It’s thinking like that that keeps the world the way it is.
RAMBO: Fuck the world.
The one female missionary, Sarah (Julie Benz), eventually warms Rambo’s heart in a wisely not-sexual way, and then she and her pals get kidnapped and brutalized, and so all right fine, here comes Rambo, and holy Jesus. Get a load of his opening gambit here, in which he chops a dude’s head off and takes command of the giant gun on the back of a truck and uses it to chop several hundred super-evil soldiers in half, if not into fifths or tenths or hundredths, including the poor dope standing right next to the gun who is reduced to a cloud of nauseating viscera. I’m sure there are bloodier, nastier movies than this, and I want no part of them, and neither do you. We have painted ourselves into a corner by this point, and it ain’t paint.
“And there isn’t one of us that doesn’t want to be someplace else,” Rambo grunts at a ragtag group of mercenaries midway through the movie. “This is what we do. Who we are. Live for nothing or die for something.” Never mind that he’s aiming a bow and arrow point-blank at a dickhead mercenary’s head as he delivers this speech: At least this time he’s got an ethos more inspiring than “fuck the world.” And if that ethos inspires him to kill everyone in sight, well, what else are you watching a Rambo movie for?
Stallone’s action-hero company now, in the Nasty Older Gentleman division, includes the likes of Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington, suaver but conspicuously less ripped men with a very specific set of skills who’re no longer content with mere equalization. He’s part of a proud tradition; hell, he practically started that tradition. “Even Rambo can’t be alone anymore,” Stallone recently observed during his press tour. “He really needs human contact. He needs love.” It’s an open question, whether Last Blood will allow him to find any. There is no question that a great many bodies will explode as he searches for it. Enjoy yourself. But then let the poor guy rest.