First Blood is a veritable classic of its era, an examination of a Vietnam veteran's struggle to adapt to American life and our society's failures to accommodate the monster we forced him to become. Rambo: First Blood Part II is the film with all the iconic imagery of Rambo surviving and doing his thing in the Southeast Asian wilderness, and while it's true to the first film's pro-veteran sentiment, it loses a lot of resonance in glamorizing the violence that the first film actively decried. Rambo III is a legitimately bad movie that tried to mold anti-Vietnam War sentiment into pro-Gulf War nationalism in the baldest, most aggravating way possible. So ten years ago, when Sylvester Stallone opted to bring back Rambo for a decades-later rival in the same vein as Rocky Balboa a little over a year prior, it's understandable that a few eyebrows were raised. And yet, much like Rocky Balboa, 2008's Rambo is a flawed, yet eminently successful return to form for the franchise. It is also a fitting conclusion that the series never received before.
The film finds John Rambo twenty years older than we last saw him, working in Thailand as a snake wrangler and river navigator. A group of charitable humanitarians enlist his help to take them into the war-torn country of Burma so that they may assist in treating the wounded. Reluctantly, he agrees to take them, but after dropping them off, the village they're assisting gets attacked, and Rambo finds himself morally obligated to go in and rescue them.
Now, structurally, the story is basic as it gets, returning Rambo to a jungle environment and giving him the simplest of "save the innocents" scenarios, and it suffers from a lack of well-defined characters, save for one: Rambo himself. If there's one thing that Rambo excels at, it's placing its titular character as the centerpiece of a character study, giving us the best of the Rambo iconography of Part II while still showing us the tortured man established in First Blood. Rambo is a man who is exceptionally good at killing, but he severely dislikes doing so, and he purposely avoids conflict so that he won't have to. However, unlike the humanitarians he assists and later saves, he recognizes that some conflicts are necessarily resolved through violence, which makes for a very complicated internal struggle that tinges the violence we as the audience are ostensibly paying to see.
And the violence of Rambo is much more brutal than anything from previous installments. This is partially a symptom of advancements in special effects, but the intense reality of watching limbs blown away and children being shot is meant to be more than just bloody spectacle, even if it does work simply as that. We're meant to be disgusted by the genocidal depravity that Burma's SPDC will sink to in the name of social and political dominance, but Rambo's retaliatory actions are just as gruesome in many respects, even as we're meant to root for his cause. The film's biggest flaw is that it does not do an effective enough job in contextualizing Burma's Saffron Revolution to make the story work as the political commentary it clearly wants to at least subtextually communicate, but as a bloody anti-war film it's fascinating in how it juggles those contradictions.
Now, I'm not here to tell you that 2008's Rambo is a lost gem of the series; it really is the third best of a four-film franchise. However, looking back on it ten years later, it deserves more credit than it received at the time of its release, if for nothing else than somewhat redeeming a character that had become a caricature of himself by the previous conclusion of his own franchise. John Rambo has never been more fascinating than he was in First Blood, but Rambo showed us a bit of the man underneath the mullet and bandana for the first time in over twenty years. That's at least worth a trip down memory lane.