It’s no longer such a strange idea to come out with a new franchise entry decades after the supposed last entry came out. But even now, at a time when the practice has become increasingly common, few filmmakers manage to satisfyingly pull off the difficult trick of giving fans more of the characters they love without resorting to hollow fan service or succumbing to the physical limitations of much older performers who no longer match the icon they once represented.
So it’s no small feat that, of all people, Sylvester Stallone managed to succeed at this not once but twice in a row. His first triumphant return came with Rocky Balboa, a film that felt like a natural progression of and welcome return to the Rocky franchise due to its genuine emotions, simplicity, and most of all humility. Instead of copying this template with his next try, Rambo, Stallone did something much more bold.
Rambo is a sequel that adheres not to the films that preceded it but rather our culture’s collective incorrect memory of the films that preceded it. If you grew up in the ‘80s and even the ‘90s, the name Rambo was a synonymous with cold hard badassery. Stallone’s character, with his snarled face, long hair, bandana, and big ass machine gun, became the defining action icon of his era, way more than anything Schwarzenegger did. (I mean, his Commando character comes close, but do everyday people even know that character’s actual name?)
Those who learn of the icon first and watch the movies second, however, might notice a slight disconnect between the character’s iconic representation and the way he actually functions in practice. This is obviously most pronounced in First Blood, in which John Rambo uses his skills just to stay alive as he’s hunted in the Northern Pacific woods. He only kill one guy, and it’s mostly an accident.
The real Rambo doesn’t emerge until 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II. This is the movie that gives him the outfit and lets him shoot as many goofballs as humanly possible. It’s an oft-cited film in discussions on rampant ’80s action violence. But it’s really not all that violent. Sure, Rambo must mow through a hundred guys, but they all just kind of fall over like kids do when playing War in their backyard. It’s mostly bloodless. The violence has no detail. Also, Rambo’s still an emotional wimp. This is all doubly true for Rambo III, which tries to add humor to the mix.
Nevertheless, people had a Rambo stuck in their heads who represented the ultimate icon of insane violence and bloodshed. And when it came time to make another Rambo film decades later, THAT is the character Sylvester Stallone decided to make a movie about.
Rambo isn’t really a good movie on a number of levels. It takes a while to wind up, for instance, and we spend that time with some seriously obnoxious Christian wimps only to immediately trade them for some slightly less obnoxious but still awful soldier of fortune guys. Rambo himself barely registers as a character due to Stallone’s decision to cut him down to his barest elements. It doesn’t really have a traditionally satisfying villain.
But none of that really matters because Rambo is a gory action masterpiece. You watch it because you know the good parts are coming. And when they do, it’s an absolute delight. This is a movie where kids get stabbed, babies get burned, mothers are raped, and Christians are fed to pigs. When people get shot, they don’t just fall down. They explode. Rambo at one point rips out a dude’s throat. It takes about five minutes, and we have plenty of time to appreciate how much muscle power he’s putting into his grip.
This movie isn’t messing around. Stallone, with his all-too-occasional canniness, somehow knew that if he was going to bring Rambo back, the film would have to live up to people’s expectations of the character, which had very little to do with the way he had been represented up to that point. I also believe the rise of harder violence in horror films (this was just after the heyday of “torture porn”) emboldened him to amp up the gore. I really never thought Stallone had this sort of thing in him.
Rambo doesn’t even have to betray the questionable action movie politics that defined the ‘80s. While definitely on the “Christians are wimps” side, it still sees violence as a justifiable answer to pretty much anything. Rambo tells the missionaries that they need weapons if they want to change things in Burma. The movie proves him right. In fact, only one character in this movie has an arc. It involves a peaceful dweeb’s discovery that if a guy’s trying to kill you, it’s okay to bash his brains in with a rock. This is still an ‘80s action film, just stripped to its barebones and full of violent realism (or exaggerated realism, anyway).
The late addition of Rambo really mutates the series as a whole. The first film is the respectable drama, then we have the cartoons, and finally we arrive at a massive exaggeration of both. But a lot of ways, this is the first and only true Rambo film. That’s astounding.
So the morale is, we should all underestimate Stallone more because it brings out the best in him.