The Rambo series of films follow the adventures of troubled Vietnam vet John J. Rambo as he kills hundreds upon hundreds of villains. It’s an iconic series and a series that is most fondly remembered for being full of explosions, bullets and muscles, despite the first film only containing one death and actually being quite emotional. So join me as I look at one remarkable action-drama and three over-the-top and completely amazing action films.
First Blood (1982)
“I didn’t come to rescue Rambo from you. I came here to rescue you from him.”
First Blood follows John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) after years of wandering the country, struggling to adapt to civilian life. The film begins as he arrives in a small rural town named Hope to find his last remaining army buddy dead from cancer years earlier. The arrogant Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) takes offense to Rambo’s scruffy appearance, thinking him a vagrant, and drives him out of town. Rambo disobeys the Sheriff and is arrested for vagrancy before being taken to the station where he is beaten, soaked with a hose and basically abused. It’s here where we get our first glimpse into Rambo’s mind with the abuse triggering flashbacks to his imprisonment in a Vietnamese prison camp. Rambo escapes to the woods where a police officer is accidentally killed, leading to a huge manhunt for Rambo, and real focus of the film. Despite what the later films in the series might make you think, First Blood is not a huge action film. In fact it often gives star Stallone opportunity to show off his acting chops. His flashbacks to ‘Nam are pretty horrible and he is a much more interesting character here than in the later films. His scene with his former commanding officer Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) is heartbreaking. All of the performances are really strong and no one is really a villain, which means when the movie ends Rambo has to pay for his crimes. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is also extremely iconic and powerful, especially in the awesome truck scene. The credit’s song, ‘It’s a Long Road’ by Dan Hill is perfect in that 80’s way. First Blood is a great action film and Stallone plays the misunderstood Vietnam vet John Rambo well, and really makes you feel for him. Later in the series Rambo becomes less of a person, becoming more of a mass of throbbing veins and M60 bullet casings. But in First Blood John Rambo seems human and because of this his struggle feels more real, and the stakes higher.
Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
First Blood Part II picks up a few years after where First Blood left off. John Rambo is in a prison camp when he is visited by Colonel Trautman, asking him to return to Vietnam in the search for American POW’s. In charge of the mission is the corrupt Marshall Murdock (Charles Napier). Rambo is dropped into the jungle and once having found a group of captive American soldiers, Rambo is abandoned and left for dead by Murdock in the middle of Vietnam. This leads to Rambo going on a rampage to escape from a Vietnamese prison camp by way of a Russian attack chopper and a bow with explosive bolts.
First Blood Part II represents what people know best about the Rambo franchise (for better or worse). It has shirtless Stallone, the bow and arrow, an insane amount of explosions and extreme violence. It does try and have a few serious moments, and Stallone tries to do a deep speech like he did in First Blood….but it just comes off as silly and overly patriotic. Here’s a bit of it;
Trautman: The war, the whole conflict may have been wrong, but damn it, don’t hate your country for it.
Rambo: Hate? I’d die for it.
Trautman: Then what is it you want?
Rambo: I want, what they want, and every other guy who came over here and spilled his guts and gave everything he had, wants! For our country to love us as much as we love it! That’s what I want!
Yeah. But like the rest of the movie it’s bad, but in that 80’s sort of way. The action and the dialogue ooze 80’s, and the credits song by Frank Stallone is the cherry on the cake. The villain is played by Steven Berkoff, famous for other 80’s classic like Octopussy and Beverly Hills Cop, plays the villainous Lt. Col. Podovsky (probably just there for the paycheck so he can fund some avant-garde theatre project). He hams it up with a Russian accent like usual and he seems to be having fun.
It’s dumb and it’s loud and it is also AWESOME. The explosive bow is just incredible. It’s a different film from First Blood but it’s still great. Seeing Rambo gun down 100’s of Russian and Vietnamese troops will always be amazing. How could it get any better? Well that brings us to Rambo III…
Rambo III (1988)
“No. God would have mercy. He won’t.”
Rambo III begins with Colonel Trautman and co (including a small appearance by Kurtwood Smith from Robocop!) tracking down John Rambo in Thailand. They find him splitting his time between Thai stick fighting and helping some monks build a monastery. Trautman informs Rambo of the troubles in Afghanistan as the Russians have just invaded and asks for his help to infiltrate a highly secure fort. Rambo declines and Trautman goes in without him and, surprise surprise, gets himself captured. It’s up to Rambo to go in and break him out, with the help of the local Mujahideen.
Honestly, Rambo III is basically Rambo: First Blood Part II but set in Afghanistan. The only difference is that if anything, III has more action. There is an all out war towards the end of the movie that is just stunning. The scene that see’s Rambo jump in a tank and drive head first at the Russian villain who is in a huge helicopter, had my jaw on the floor. This whole film is an action film fan’s dream. It’s even better if, like me, you like your action films with a strong 80’s vibe to them.
I don’t really know what else to say. The film tries to add some culture by having Rambo play a spirited game of buzkashi with the Mujahideen, but even that only lasts about two minutes before they’re attacked by Russians. Overall Rambo III is just First Blood Part II but better.
“Live for nothing, or die for something.”
After twenty years away, Rambo is back! This time the action had moved to Burma which is in the middle of a horrible, genocidal conflict. The film begins with Rambo doing odd jobs in Thailand. No he’s not building a monastery this time, now he’s catching snakes and driving a boat. After a normal day of snake rustling and killing fish with a bow and arrow, Rambo is confronted by a group of religious humanitarians asking him to take them down the river and into Burma. Thanks to the persuasive skills of one of the humanitarian’s, Sarah (Julie Benz) Rambo agrees and drops them off. Of course they are then captured. It is up to Rambo and a group of mercenaries to go in and save the happy-clappy churchgoers.
Now, the first thing you’ll notice about Rambo is how insanely violent it is. I’m talking people exploding, heads bursting to pieces, guts getting ripped out and much, much more. You often find yourself at a moral crossroads with this type of thing. Should I feel disgusted with how awful this violence is? Or should I sit back and laugh as a man has his throat pulled out? I laughed, hell I enjoyed it. This movie is a perfect throwback to the crazy, gratuitous and violent films of the 80’s and for that I can respect Stallone. That being said, towards the end of the movie you may ask yourself how many more exploding soldiers you’d actually want to see. The last twenty minutes of this movie are intense, and feel really visceral thanks in part to Stallone’s direction. (Yes he directed this one. And yes he did a better job here than he did on The Expendables.)
Deep down this movie still has the heart of Rambo. It still has all of the classic Rambo tropes; him being chased through the jungle by a multitude of enemies, him machine gunning down hundreds of soldiers and the stoic, silent hero himself. It also pays respect to the late Richard Crenna (Trautman) by not having him recast, although he does appear in a nice flashback. At the end of the day, despite what this movie may have been aiming for, it’s as dumb as the previous two. And I’m fine with that.
Reviewed by Jack 😛