As the media erupts with slightly affectionate derision at the thought of another Rambo film, now seems like the perfect time to engage in a defense (sort of) of Sylvester Stallone’s flagship movie series, the Rambo tetralogy (soon to become a pentalogy).
And why not defend the adventures of John Rambo? No, he may not possess the loveable personality of Rocky. Sure, he might tend to engage in acts of extreme violence that make his presence on home soil untenable. But whenever you need a reactionary action-movie figurehead to obliterate vaguely outlined caricatures of human beings, decked out to look like the national enemy-of-the-moment, Rambo’s your man.
First Blood (1982)
First Blood is, for the record, actually a decent film by contemporary standards. Stallone does a serviceable job as the Vietnam veteran with few possessions outside a severe case of PTSD, and a whole lot of terrible memories. When he passes through a town looking for one of his buddies from the service, he discovers that like so many before him, his friend has died. As Rambo sits in a diner lamenting another fallen friend, the local hard-nosed sheriff arrives (Brian Dennehy) and forces what he believes to be ‘just another drifter’ out of town. On principle Rambo returns, things escalate, and he blows everything up.
Special mention should go to the mid-film entry of Richard Crenna as Colonel Trautman, Rambo’s old superior officer, and deliverer of lines more appropriate to Flying High (1978) than a serious action film (he would later use this to his advantage in the Rambo parody, Hot Shots: Part Deux).
All in all, this is a solid action film with a passable allusion to the plight of Vietnam veterans. Recognition should be given to the solid direction of Ted Kotcheff, whose true gift can perhaps be more completely appreciated in his earlier masterpiece, Wake in Fright (1971).
Rambo: First Blood Part Two (1985)
When David Morrell penned his novel, First Blood, in 1972, he had the good sense to do away with his irreparably damaged protagonist, John Rambo, in the book’s final pages. After all, the alternative for this misunderstood but deeply disturbed reprobate was to spend the rest of his life in a maximum security penitentiary. Lucky for us, Hollywood had the vision to shoot two endings to their film, eventually choosing the one that would open the door for this quality franchise. And here is the immediate result, the appallingly titled Rambo: First Blood Part Two.
One might have expected more from a screenplay written by the now much lauded James Cameron and Sylvester Stallone (let’s not forget that Stallone was nominated for an Oscar for his Rocky screenplay in 1976). However, it’s hard to imagine what the script looked like before going through the short-hand direction of George P. Cosmatos, who appears to have trimmed out all the boring bits with the plot and dialogue.
But here’s the story so far as it goes. Colonel Trautman shows up at the prison facility where Rambo is now spending much of his time, and offers him a full pardon in exchange for his participation in a suicide mission to go and rescue POWs from Vietnam. Rambo is initially uninterested, but Trautman’s one-liners prove irresistible. Rambo goes over, falls in love, rescues the POWs, then kills a lot of people before being abandoned by his government once more (the series’ underlying theme) and captured by a group of very angry Soviets and Viet Cong. Some torture ensues before Rambo manages to free himself and kill everybody that got away the first time. Then he goes home and sorts out those pesky government people…
Rambo III (1988)
Poor John Rambo probably thought he was going to live out his days in peace when he moved to Thailand to help Buddhist monks construct their temples. Save for the odd stick fighting match to help raise a few extra dollars for the poor, he’d left all the violence behind. But then… of course… his so called friend Colonel Trautman showed up with another set of terrible one-liners that paradoxically seemed to suggest the best cure for PTSD was a new dose of the old ultraviolence. Luckily, Rambo seems to have caught on to all this, and politely turns Trautman’s offer down. And what was the offer? To go on a one-man suicide mission to resupply mujahideen rebels in Afghanistan. Piece of cake.
For once, Trautman decides to do his own dirty work and goes on the mission himself. When he’s captured about five minutes later, Rambo has to go rescue his friend… and once again kill everybody. There are plenty more Soviets and some rescued POWs, of course – and as you might expect, a little bit of torture. The gunship finale allows Rambo to slaughter at a rate much faster than in previous films and he appears genuinely pleased with himself.
Peter MacDonald’s direction is on a par with Cosmatos’, and Sheldon Lettich’s screenplay is just as good as the subtle and powerful work he did for films like Bloodsport (1988), Double Impact (1991), and Legionnaire (1998). Cough.
Sylvester Stallone directs this horrifically brutal fourth film in the Rambo series, substituting the relatively bloodless killing of the enemy in previous films for extremely graphic depictions of violence more likely to unsettle the stomach than entertain. Mercifully, the film is brief and always fascinating, if only in the way its extreme (and rather fascistic) message is delivered with such a deranged sense of earnestness.
Twenty years after his last happy escapade, John Rambo has found peace working as a snake wrangler in Thailand – a job that has somehow piled an additional 20 kilograms of muscle on to his archaic frame. He also has a boat, which is the reason a group of Christian missionaries ask him to secretly take them up river to Burma so they can provide aid to tribespeople being persecuted by Tatmadaw soldiers. Rambo takes them up river, but is forced to brutally kill a few a pirates on the way, appalling the missionaries who promise to report the incident the first chance they get. All of this is part of the film’s rather disturbing theme: sometimes you have to kill a lot of people for the greater good. Lovely.
Either way, Rambo drops them off and they go to the village. Five minutes later, in one of the more horrifically violent scenes in action-movie history, the men, women and children of the village are obliterated and the missionaries are taken hostage. Long-story short, Rambo and a group of mercenary’s go in and kill everything. This one kept me up at night.
So given the fact that my celebration of the Rambo series is tongue-in-cheek at best, I couldn’t possibly be looking forward to the next one, could I? Would that be weird?