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Sylvester Stallone brings his iconic John J. Rambo back to screens for what’s promised to be one last mission this weekend in Rambo: Last Blood, but the constantly reinvented (and always controversial) action hero has been counted out a few times before. Film critic Bob Chipman takes a look back at how one of action cinema’s most vulnerable and human antiheroes morphed into a politically charged symbolic superhuman, accidental self-caricature, and strange, fearsome specter haunting the graveyard of ’80s popular culture.

This is The Big Picture, talking about Rambo.

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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    67 Comments

    1. That shit at the end of RAMBO with the 50 cal is the only thing I remember from that movie

      1. I saw that on some premium cable channel in the early morning and almost threw up with the gore from that 50 cal gun.

      2. First time I ever saw someone make lead-seasoned hamburger out of his enemies. o_O

        1. its what a 50cal does

    2. Some movies aren’t exactly subtle with their message. The line from First Blood, “Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million dollar equipment, back here I can’t even hold a job parking cars!” always manages to fascinate me

      1. Subtlety is grossly overrated, IMO, specially in situations like this.

        If you really want a punch to the gut, throw an actual punch.

        1. And he has a point. He was a someone who did something and was trusted with million dollar equipment. Now he’s not even allowed to walk through a town.

        2. Agreed. I appreciate when a work is blunt with its messaging since it implies a sense of conviction to actually being *about* something. That and it helps avoid the frustration of dealing with people who totally miss the point.

        3. “I’ve known writers who use subtext, and they’re all cowards.”

          1. It’s not about subtext. Subtext can be blunt too.

      2. The problem with the movie is that ‘moving narrative’ about the ‘broken Vietnam Veteran, unable to function in society’, ESPECIALLY a former Special Forces Soldier, is largely bullsh!t.

        As a rule, SF & SpecOps Veterans will have a lower percentage of PTSD. This is largely due to the intense mental strain and evaluation in all Assessment & Selection courses.

        I saw this first hand – I was fortunate enough to have some advanced Cadre (read: Instructors) who were highly decorated, bada$$ed Veterans of Vietnam where they served in Special Operations units.

        Vietnam Veterans, when compared to other Veterans from earlier conflicts (WW2 & Korea), had a lower % or drug abusers, alcoholics, homelessness, etc.

        Don’t take my word for it; check out http://www.viet-myths.net/ (you will be surprised more than once), and read the book ‘Stolen Valor’ (you will be surprised more than once, a large part of the book attempts to correct the misrepresentation of the war in general and the USA’s Servicemen & Veterans of that conflict in the US media (print and broadcast).

        https://www.amazon.com/Stolen-Valor-Vietnam-Generation-History/dp/096670360X

        Having said all that (and thanks for putting up with me, if you’re still reading) IF, SOMEHOW a real-deal Army SF & MACV-SOG Veteran (lookup exactly what that means, if so inclined) ‘went that far south’ mentally (and it would have been in the papers and in nightly news broadcasts for a long, long time if it had ever happened…and the damage & destruction would have likely been worse, and far more clandestine in nature), I think the movie handles such a very alternate reality very well (except for the ‘cave battle’ and the ‘final showdown’…a real-deal Army SF MACV-SOG, UK SAS, etc. Cat would have never allowed himself to be cornered & pinned down*.

        Respectfully,

        * = opinion based on seeing such guys in action while teaching young whippersnappers the applicable skills referenced above.

        1. Be that as it may about the PTSD rates (you’re not the first person to tell me that vets have lower rates than the general populace) there’s another factor to the quote: he’s homeless and jobless, partly because nobody respects him. He fought and bled for his country, but neither the citizens nor the government gave him his pension for it.
          And this I know is a true problem, I keep seeing charities for homeless veterans in subway train ads

        2. The movie is not just about ptsd, it is about intolerance to a man they sent to war, but then they don’t welcome him. In First Blood, Rambo is not confrontational nor acting crazy, he is just walking into a town without bothering anyone, and then a cop comes and takes him outside town and tells him to stay away. Then Rambo comes walking into town again and then he gets encarcelated and raped until PTSD comes to play (he have flashbacks of war, when he got encarcelated and raped in war and explodes); anyhow, even without PTSD those cops had it coming.
          Not to say the movie message is good or realistic, but it is about what it is.

    3. As someone who only knows Rambo as the action macho caricature (and little enough about the series that I had no idea the first movie doesn’t even have his name anywhere in the title), I would never’ve guessed that any scene, let alone the climax of the first movie, features him having a sympathetic emotional breakdown.

      1. Almost the entirety of First Blood is Rambo having, then pulling himself out of, a series of emotional breakdowns while the world looks on without sympathy. The shift in tone from First Blood to First Blood Part II is extreme to say the least. First Blood is the only one I’d call essential viewing too, it’s that rare war movie that focuses on the aftermath instead of the battles.

        1. I remember loving First Blood as a kid when I saw it on TV and then when I saw part 2 I thought it was the sequel to a different film.

        2. Yeah, I’ve never had any interest in the Rambo franchise, but I kind of wanna watch First Blood now. We’ll see if I actually get around to it.

        3. What’s really bizarre is when you realize like 1 guy dies in first blood and it’s a guy falling off of a helicopter, in contrast to the subsequent films where he’s wiping out entire armies almost by himself.

      2. First Blood is honestly great. It’s a lean mean machine of a movie. It also has a lot to say about War, The Police, PTSD, and How the government and citizenry treat veterans

    4. Even though First Blood came out in 1982, it’s still definitely a 70s movie, and the difference between it and Rambo is about as clear a demonstration of the shift in cultural zeitgeist between the 70s and the 80s as you could get. The 80s were… not good…

      1. I agree, Die Hard, Rambo and Death Wish had that dramatic flare in the first film that makes you feel for the main character as they endure loss and trying to find an outlet against the people who hurt them emotionally and physically

        By the time the sequels break out…

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H1Bk1IsaWm0

        1. Cannon Films; home of Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson. Cannon revived the Death Wish franchise and immediately became a spoof of its former self. Chuck Norris, on the other hand, was pretty much a spoof yet to be celebrated(?) until the Internet came into being.

        2. Charles Bronson knew his way around a US belt-gun. He was an Aerial Gunner (aboard a bomber) in WW2.

      2. I assume you only mean in regards to R rated action films? Otherwise (Ghostbusters) we (Indiana Jones) are (ET) going (Back to the Future) to (Who Framed Roger Rabbit) have (Beetlejuice) a (Karate Kid) problem.

        Oh almost forgot Die hard, Terminator, Predator, Lethal Weapon, Beverly Hills Cop.

        Yeah the 80’s where awesome.

      3. important insight.

      4. We didn’t utterly hate our country during this period therefore it was “not good”.

        Got it.

    5. There was also that Charlie Sheen parody Hot Shots!: Pard Deux (where Richard Crenna parodies himself). I always count it as a Rambo movie in the same way that Galaxy Quest counts as a Star Trek movie

      1. Ah, Hot Shots. Remember when parody movies were partial tributes to the good parts of other movies with genuine affection and still got you to laugh? I ‘member.

        1. The scene where he racks up a body count is pretty harsh on how later action film sequel forgets the tone of the first film in exchange for just more fighting

        2. It was a better time since now parody movies are just non-stop pop culture shout outs. Epic Movie started the downward decay and it hasn’t stopped yet.

          1. Actually I think Scary Movie being a huge hit started it, while I remember the first as being watchable everything after that was trash.

            1. Scary Movie is pretty alright and SM 2 is mostly decent if inferior. After that, though…

          2. I’d say Epic Movie is what killed that trend. That’s when they moved on from “unfunny references” to “this joke was literally in the original”.

        3. Oh, for the days when parody or spoof movies were good. Airplane!, Top Secret, Young Frankenstein, Hot Shots, Blazing Saddles, and so on.

          And that was before the guys behind Epic Movie and Meet The Spartans crawled out of the septic tank of Hollywood, murdered the entire genre and tossed it into a ditch.

          1. Not another teen movie was funny … not good, but funny.

      2. Yeah Hot Shots! I haven’t seen it in years. Wonder if it holds up

    6. I always felt the perfect last Rambo movie should have been him going up against a local militia that’s taken over a town or park and holding people hostage. They’re so inspired by what he did in the first movie that he’s like Elvis to them, but completely missing out that back then he was a broken man unable to fit back into society.

      1. There is an issue of Punisher like that but with cops.

    7. Let’s not forget the other part of Rambo’s legacy: Metal Gear Solid. Without the 1st 3 Rambo movies, there might not have been a Metal Gear game at all, let alone Solid Snake’s headband or Colonel Roy Campbell looking like Richard Crenna.

      1. I’d thought it was “Ikari Warriors”, not “Metal Gear”, that was inspired by Rambo. Huh, I learned something today.

      2. I thought Snake was an homage to Snake Plisskin in Escape from New York, hence why he goes by “Iroquois Plisskin” in the second game. But the MGS games are kind of a pastiche of action movies, so I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the headband was a Rambo reference.

        1. Oh, Escape from New York had a fair bit of influence too, but there’s a Rambo influence as well, especially in Snake Eater.

    8. I completely forgot that they were making another Rambo movie… Like, why even at this point?

      1. Something Something Money, I imagine. Yeah, I kinda saw Rambos Story being kinda done with a while back and yet these movies keep getting made.

    9. I seem to recall loving Part II as a kid. But, by the time I got to my late teens, found it rather silly and boring. I never cared about III. I found the fourth movie stupid and repugnant. It just didn’t earn the right to have that level of gore, like say, Saving Private Ryan.

      First Blood is still a great movie. I try to pretend the sequels don’t exist like I do with The Matrix, Jaws, and a few more series that should have never gotten sequels to begin with.

      1. You summed up most action movies from the 80’s

    10. The first one was great, and then they named the second one, Rambo: First Blood part 2 and ditched the brooding great premise of the first one. Also not too sure why he’s STILL fighting in Vietnam or Southeast Asia or wherever.

      1. It was an in-universe PR stunt.

    11. Oh wow. I’m mostly familiar with Stalone from when he’s parodied in other media, like Family Guy.
      But sure enough, I understood only about half his monologue in that clip.

    12. Hot Shots Part Deux is still the best Rambo movie.

    13. The dubious merits of R-rated 80s action films aside, there’s one thing common to them you don’t see very many action films do any more: all the preparation and improvising most of those 80s action heroes did. They were usually one or two guys with no backup or organization behind them, up against dozens of bad guys, so you always got at least one scene before the climax where they’re setting up tripwires and traps, improvising weapons, exploiting the environment and terrain, or preparing Rube Goldbergian contraptions to even the odds. There was almost a slasher film-level of dedication to creative kills in the pre-CGI days.

      Today’s mainstream action heroes are basically cops: they’re not outside of the Establishment, they’re part of it. They tend to be mostly reactive, and also literally or figuratively superheroes, so if they even have to even the odds, it usually happens because of a McGuffin or deus ex machina instead of having to be smart or resourceful about it. I don’t completely begrudge modern action films for wanting to focus more on character and leaving a lot of action scene design up to pre-viz and heavy CGI, but I do miss the heroes who prevailed by their wits and am always happy to see them when they do show up.

    14. I admit to not ever seeing any of the Rambo movies but from how the first one was described I feel like the message and theme to the movie has been lost in the same way as Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” song.

      1. That’s pretty much true, if you can imagine a bewildering scenario in which Springsteen handed the reins to Lynyrd Skynyrd to write a sequel song!

    15. Pretty sure Bob could make an episode on the multiple R-rated movies turned into Saturday morning cartoons. Not just Rambo, but Police Academy, Toxic Avenger (called Toxic Crusaders, and Robocop (twice by my count).

      1. Also Highlander got a cartoon, because nothing says kid friendly like decapitation.

      2. Conan the Barbarian got one too, right?

        1. There were two, the syndicated “Conan The Adventurer” and its CBS Saturday morning-airing spin-off “Conan and the Young Warriors”.

        2. I completely forgot about the two Conan cartoons. Thank you.

      3. Could we put Mortal Kombat in there as an honorable mention?

    16. I was wondering if he would bring up the cartoon. You never disappoint Bob xD

      1. It’s Bob. Of course he’s gonna bring up the damn cartoon… 😀

    17. Stallone is just such a fascinating figure. The entire cultural landscape regards him as a goofy, brainless 80s action hero despite the guy being a legitimately brilliant dramatic actor and writer.

      And he knows it too. He’s said before, he wrote Rocky to be a lovable doofus because he knew that audiences would never believe him as a smart character because of how he looks and sounds, in spite of Stallone being a very bright man.

    18. So was Rambo Part II the original “Jarhead sequel”? Because that’s what it sounds like – like it’s a movie for folks who loved the action parts of the first movie, but not so much the “he’s a homeless drifter with PTSD who goes dangerous after being abused by the local cops, and then fights a bloody battle that his own former superior officer says is a waste”.

      1. Pretty much the same treatment they gave to Rocky.

    19. I remember seeing First Blood years ago and liking it, then seeing Rambo and disliking it immensely to the point I never saw any other Rambo movie. But then again it helped me enjoy Hot Shots 2 better.

    20. Wow. I never saw any of the Rambo movies (or any of the rocky movies, but that’s besides the point) I never guessed they would have that much going on.

    21. Both Rocky and Rambo are so peculiarly American as franchises that say all kinds of contradictory things about the American psyche, culture and aspirations. That core Americaness is something that really sets Stallone apart from his contemporary oiled-up 80s muscle men, the vast majority of whom (Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, Lundgren etc) were Europeans.

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