Cinema Dispatch: Remembering Rambo – Do the Movies Hold Up?

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Rambo Last Blood is such a b movie that the writer of the original book David Morrell has called it degrading embarrassment, and if you’ve read my review you’ll know that I share the same sentiment.  Still, the movie may have done one thing right which is make me reflect on the other Rambo films and wonder if this latest movie is truly as much of a departure from them as my rose tinted nostalgia believes them to be.  For this reason I’ve decided to rewatch the other four Rambo films and approach them from as much of a fresh perspective as I can manage and see if the good ones still hold up and if the bad ones are even worse than I remember.  This is probably gonna be a rough one.  Let’s get started!!

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First Blood (1982)

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Yeah, this one still holds up.  Right off the bat, the movie does a great job of setting up the world in which Rambo lives which frankly I kind of have a hard time believing was really the case.  I mean considering where we are NOW I might be a bit naïve saying that, but the fact that a cop is profiling a white dude with an American flag on his jacket, well that just seems really odd to me as someone for whom adulation and thanks are the bare requirement when interacting with a veteran.  That said, patriotism and worship of the troops has ALWAYS had a two-faced nature to it where the same people screaming about respecting the troops and waving flags are the usually the first ones to trample human rights and backstab veterans who are in desperate need of help, so a small town sheriff using his outsized sense of power to quietly shuffle this guy along isn’t the MOST unrealistic thing, and like I said the movie does a great job of setting up the world in such a quick amount of time.  Stallone has a quiet intensity to his performance that belies the rage burning just beneath the surface, and after only three minutes with Brian Dennehy you’d want to torch the town too.  This movie excels at the way it escalates tension and how the situation just snowballs as one slight leads to a definite act leads to another sleight and so on.  And sure, it does have its cheesy moments.  Every time he flashes back to Vietnam it’s only a notch below the ridiculous flashbacks in Meet the Feebles (made even more so by his AMAZING mustache) and some of Stallone’s shouty faces come off as comical, but all those extremes really add to the utter desperation of this character and how despite all his muscles, his movie star good looks, and his unmatched skills at whooping ass, he’s still a complete mess as a person; exemplified by the speech at the end which is both heart breaking to listen to and a little bit funny to watch.  What was really solidified for me on this latest watch is that while Rambo himself is an interesting character, he’s more of a symbolic force of nature whom the drama and political commentary revolve around.  Heck, I’d wager that in overall screen time we get more of Brian Dennehy than we do of Rambo as it’s his movie first and foremost even if Rambo does eventually take center stage once we get to the aforementioned finale and the rather blunt coda of the movie.  First Blood is ultimately a movie more about the time it takes place in than about the characters within it; the man pushed too far by an uncaring system and the ghosts of his past, the cops who abuse their authority under the guise of keeping law and order, even the dipshit gun toting National Guardsmen which may or may not be an accurate or fair portrayal (weekend warriors versus the REAL soldiers), but is definitely there to make a point.  With the latest movie, it felt like the incoherent ramblings of a perpetually terrified racist who couldn’t even see the humanity of those who are perceived to be the enemy.  To a certain extent, I can see where that sort of extreme flailing of emotions originated in this film with how much of its heart is on its sleeve, but where Last Blood wants to fuel the fires of discord, this movie is trying to draw out some kind of understanding from all of its characters and from the audience who watches it.  It’s a bit tone oblivious at points and has some drastic tonal shifts throughout (the comic relief National Guardsmen REALLY stood out for me), but it has genuine heart behind it which is why it holds up so well.  Now the only thing I know about the book this is based on is how it ends which greatly diverges from the movie.  At the end of the book, Trautman ends up killing Rambo at the police station, and while the filmmakers did shoot a version of this for the movie they ultimately decided to go with the happier one where Rambo lives and goes quietly with the faint hope that maybe he’ll get the help he needs and that the country can do better by others like him.  Well that, or they’ll just make a series of increasingly ludicrous and jingoistic movies, but what are the odds of THAT happening!?

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Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)

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What makes first blood work is it’s mixing of complex issues with cathartic spectacle.  We know that Rambo is the one who is wronged here, but as the film goes along he becomes more and more of a danger to those around him.  We can appreciate the violence and the spectacle, but at no point is it supposed to be an action packed thrill ride of patriotic affirmation.  The tonal shift from the harrowing first movie to the gun-a-palooza of Part II is one of the most jarring shark jumping moments in all of cinema.  Even with The Fast and the Furious cast going from small time crooks to international super spies, they had about six movies to get there and at least it’s within the same genre.  Part two is NOTHING like First Blood, but does that make it a bad movie?  Well… kinda.  To be honest, I just don’t know enough about the events this movie is commentating on or the historical context in which it was made.  The movie doesn’t give a specific date for the events so I can only assume it takes place when the movie came out which was the mid-eighties, and I couldn’t tell you the first thing about post-war Vietnam or POW/MIA efforts.  I mean look, I can barely get a handle on all the nonsense going on TODAY, what with Fox News, the SCROTUS constantly gas lighting the nation, and the proliferation of social media to give voice to those who never had one and also to those who want to simply muddy the waters.  AT BEST, I can probably say that whether or not the things that this movie purports turned out to be true, the filmmakers seemed sincere in their beliefs of it.  Were there live prisoners of war for decades after we left?  Well we checked quite a few times according to Wikipedia, including a Senate Select Committee from 1991 to 1993, and all signs point to no, but I wasn’t there at the time and it was certainly an important issue for a lot of people.  They do a solid job of putting the system itself and profiteers (represented here by Charles Napier) on full blast for their part in the shortchanging and backstabbing the vets, but the portrayals of the Vietnam soldiers (are they supposed to be the actual army in this?) and even the Russians who eventually show up are outright caricatures and straight up offensive for the most part.  That’s kind of the big problem with this movie.  First Blood practically feels timeless with the way that it approaches its themes despite being so much a story of its time, but Part II is completely dated with just how topical it tries to be and how much venom with which it makes its stand.  Where I see First Blood as ultimately about acknowledging pain and the hope for healing, this one is all about lashing out with violence and hyperbole the pain that many people felt, and where it truly exaggerates starts to blur as the events it depicts are further into the past.  This actually kind of worries me as the horrors that are going on at our border right now may fade enough from memory in a couple of decades that people will be as flummoxed then as I am now about the atrocity that is Last Blood.  So let’s just go ahead and put this in the “disillusioned” category.  First Blood Part II never truly sat well with me even when I first watched it due to how vastly different it was from the first movie, but watching it in 2019 and especially after watching Last Blood, it feels that much more uncomfortable.  Not without its high points as the action is good for the era in which it’s made and Stallone has a really good grasp on Rambo’s character even if the rest of the movie has lost all sense of it, but not one I’d recommend.

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Rambo III (1988)

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This is often considered the black sheep of the franchise, but I actually kind of like it more than Part II.  We’re not back to First Blood levels of introspection, but it feels like there was a conscious effort to lessen the jingoism and let Rambo be more of a character in the conflict instead of a symbolic force for Americanized justice.  Now the big problem of course is the premise of the movie which has Rambo fighting alongside the Mujahideen rebels against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.  Sounds fair enough as The Russians were the bad guys in pretty much every eighties movies and the US did back the Mujahideen in this conflict, but as history would have it, the Mujahideen would eventually break up into various factions; one of which was Al Qaeda who would eventually carry out the 9/11 attack.  Now this isn’t the only movie that ran into this little problem of hindsight (The Living Daylights is another example) so to me the more important question is, was this yet another sincere attempt by the filmmakers to explore a contemporary issue that ends up poorly dating the film, or should they have known better at the time to put forth such a blunt and politically charged message?  Like with the Living Prisoners issue in First Blood Part II, I’m just too far removed from the period of time to get a handle on what were sincere attempts to do the right thing and what was unscrupulous propaganda.  There’s a line in the movie about the Soviets putting bombs in children’s toys which at the time seems to have been the accepted truth (I managed to find a New York Times article from 1985 saying just that), but from what I’ve read it SEEMS to be propaganda mixed up with a misunderstanding as the Soviets used mines that were aerodynamically designed and SORT OF LOOKED LIKE toy planes which was not the intention; though I guess whether a mine is shaped as a toy or not isn’t that much of a moral distinction when the goal is to utterly destroy a human body.  Still, whether or not it has its facts straight or inadvertently props up a group that committed atrocities of their own, the film itself has a much better sense of restraint and empathy than First Blood Part II which I appreciated quite a bit.  First Blood Part II had no interest in Vietnam being anything other than a playground for Rambo to exact his post-war vengeance upon, and the people of the country were either complete monsters or non-existent background objects.  Because the bad guys in this are the invaders, i.e. The Russians, the film at least gives the people of Afghanistan a chance to be the focal point of the movie with Rambo being something of a secondary figure in this conflict and giving characters like Sasson Gabai a good deal of screen time as the member of the Mujahideen who brings Rambo along for the ride.  It’s was certainly a step in the right direction as far as making Rambo an actual human again instead of the SUPER AMERICAN who fought for our lost comrades by killing a bunch of Asian people, though admittedly it drags a bit in places which I’m sure is another reason why it’s often seen as the odd one out.  Heck, the only thing I remembered about this movie before rewatching it is Trautman being captured and Rambo setting his stomach wound on fire, so I’ll cop to this being a bit monotonous if nothing else.  Political issues aside that I can only barely hope to grasp, it manages to find a middle ground between the first movie and the sequel where it finds a bit of the humanity again, so it was about as good a note to go out on as any further attempts would just be beating a dead horse at this point.  And for a while there, it was!  Until…

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Rambo – AKA John Rambo & Rambo IV (2008)

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I guess it was inevitable that after Rocky Balboa was such a great surprise that Stallone would come back to the Rambo well one last time to see if he can also bring that character into the twenty-first century.  Now I had assumed that the movie had been about a fictional conflict so that the story can be all about Rambo’s arc, but nope!  The backdrop of the movie is the plight of the Karen people in former Burma (now known as The Republic of the Union of Myanmar) who are mostly farmers but just so happen to be on top of oil and other valuable commodities so the government persecuted and damn near exterminated them because of that, and I can only assume other reasons as well.  Again, I am talking SO far outside my lane here as I’ve only just learned about any of this, but at least it’s a bit more contemporary and so I feel I can get a better grasp on the “mood” at the time as people were talking about this movie in relation to the real world conflict at the time.  From what I’ve been able to gather about the real world events, the depiction of the Burmese military is not too far off from just how horrific and brutal they are which is probably they went to such absurd lengths to keep this movie from being made and to then prevent it from being available in the country.  Sure, there are some ADDED elements in an attempt to make them MORE evil that feel very tone oblivious (the leader’s queer coding is a PARTICULARLY sour note), but once again the sincerity of the filmmakers’ convictions are clear and at least seem to gesture in the right direction; certainly more so than First Blood Part II and in a way that’s not as dated as Rambo III.  More importantly though, Stallone seems to have hit on what made Rambo such a compelling character in First Blood that was still a LITTLE bit there but greatly diminished in the sequels.  He’s a character defined by his pain.  The pain of what the Vietcong did to him in the war, the pain of what his country did to him when he came back, and the pain that he was REALLY good at killing people.  The Reagan Era stars and stripes idealism from the sequels has been stripped away to find a broken man who at long last has found a measure of peace but still carries the weight of his past on his shoulders.  This is why the missionaries are an interesting addition here.  I mean Paul Schulze (one of the missionaries who wants to help a Karen village) is a complete and utter fool in the movie and the rest of them clearly have no idea what they’re getting into, but their insistence that things can get better is almost a cruelty to this man as the utter conviction of their own goodness is essentially telling someone with PTSD to just get over it with positive thinking.  So why does he help them get to Burma?  Well… it’s because there’s still a heart within him that both admires Julie Benz (another one of the missionaries that tries to engage with Rambo) but is also is susceptible to what he WANTS to hear despite how much he knows to not let idealism get the better of him which is the tragedy around which the rest of the movie is built.  My interpretation at least is that it’s not trying to say that Rambo is a hero or a villain which is the angle that worked so well in the first film and was utterly discarded for the sequels.  The extreme ultraviolence of the movie reflects this conflict as it’s not the fun eighties violence where Rambo gets a perfect shot that leads to a bad guy flailing their limbs at the indignity of such a defeat; its bloody, messy, and makes a lot of loud noise which can be cathartic in its own right but has a much nastier edge to it which does a better job of conveying the weight of each gunshot and the permanence of the application of violence.  The movie is something of a confused mess with the missionaries alternatively being complete fools and the moral clarity of the film while Rambo’s self-reflection and meditations on the nature of his own demons is ultimately celebrated in the big blow off finale.  It’s not as good as the first film for this and other reasons, but it’s the closest any of the sequels have gotten to capturing what made that original film so great and I think Stallone putting so much of his heart and soul into the project is what pushes it over into being a darn good movie in its own right instead of just the best of a mediocre run of sequels.

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So after all that, what is my takeaway of the franchise and where does the latest entry fit into it?  Well, like the movies themselves, it’s a bit complicated and confusing.  On the one hand, I do get a clearer sense of where Last Blood fits into the Rambo formula.  While it being a blatant Taken knock-off unavoidably puts it several notches below the other films, the OF THE MOMENT political nature of it fits nicely with what the franchise has been about since the beginning.  On the other hand, while the other films stumbled in many ways (some that permanently detract and date them) I still think that Last Blood’s central conceit is the furthest removed from what Rambo films are about and is an absolute shameful entry for the franchise.  Even if the Living Prisoners crisis of the eighties seems to have been exaggerated and possibly manipulated to fuel anti-Vietnamese sentiments, and even if the end result of the Soviet-Afghan War was far from the idealized picture that many had built up, I never got the sense that Rambo or the filmmakers WANTED to be on the wrong side of history.  They were sincerely empathetic to the victims of whatever crisis they wanted to talk about, and while some films were better at conveying it than others (First Blood Part II is pretty much trash despite its intentions), none of them felt as wrongfully and downright cruelly conceived as his latest adventure.  At THIS time of all times, putting forth such a disparaging image of Mexico and its citizens is outright despicable and is made even worse by how completely it ignores the suffering that we are inflicting on refugees from that region who are coming to us.  Rambo at its best tried to challenge the establishment and wasn’t afraid to take the American government and its citizens head on for its failings, and yet this latest movie has nothing to say about any of that to instead stoke xenophobic fears; essentially embracing what the Rambo films had always tried to avoid.  If this is really where Stallone felt this character should go, well I guess the best thing to do is hope that it really IS the last one.

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