9:00am PT by Richard Newby
'Rambo: Last Blood' and the End of '80s Action
[This story contains spoilers for Rambo: Last Blood.]
When we meet Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo in Rambo: Last Blood, he’s different from the action icon we’ve come to know over the decades. Gone are the long hair, makeshift sweatband and weather-worn military paraphernalia. They’ve been replaced with short hair, a cowboy hat and the attire of a farmer. No longer alone, Rambo has found a family at his father’s horse ranch with a seemingly platonic partner, Maria Beltran (Adriana Barraza), and her granddaughter, Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), who refers to John as her “uncle.” Uncle John is essentially who Rambo has become. While his mournful eyes and military service medals line the walls suggest his history, this is a man who is civilized, a functioning member of society with an identity befitting someone more recognizable by their first name than their last. The tunnel system he’s built under the ranch house and the multitude of prescription bottles are evidence of a man processing his trauma, or as John says, keeping “a lid on it.” His war is seemingly over, and so seemingly are the remnants we’ve come to associate with the Rambo nee First Blood franchise. But as John Rambo yelled 37 years ago, in an outburst that raged against an uncaring American system that gobbled him up as part of its war machine, “Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don’t turn it off!”
First Blood (1982) was never meant to be a franchise, yet here we are four entries later with a character who has evolved from a cautionary tale about the U.S.’ poor treatment of Vietnam veterans, to a political action hero during the Cold War, a nihilist unable to find his way back home, and finally a relic we can’t fully remember or reconcile with in this modern world.
Ten years before he made his film debut, and forever became synonymous with Stallone, the character Rambo first appeared in David Morrell’s 1972 novel, First Blood. A homeless vagrant dealing with PTSD, Rambo runs up against small-town cops in Kentucky. After being arrested he escapes from the local jail and flees into the mountains, killing several police officers and National Guardsmen in the ensuing manhunt.
The film adaptation, directed by Ted Kotcheff, moves the action to Hope, Washington, and Rambo only kills one man intentionally. But other than location and body count, it largely stays true to Morrell’s novel, that is until the ending. In the novel, Rambo, fully aware that his story can only end in death, is shot and killed by Colonel Sam Trautman. The film, due to Stallone’s urging and script revisions, allows Rambo to live.
While Rambo’s death is arguably a more realistic ending, one that would likely have been embraced in the '70s, his survival is a testament to Stallone’s conscientious investment in veterans and repeated thematic interest in hope at the end of the long, lonely road of darkness.
What’s unique about the character, whose first three entries spanned the entirety of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, is that, unlike other action heroes at the time, Rambo isn’t indoctrinated with the idea of American infallibility, nor is he entirely supportive of war efforts pushed by politicians. While it’s easy to get swept up in the action of the films, particularly in those following First Blood, which 100 percent internalize Reagan’s statement on the Soviet Union being the “evil empire,” Rambo delivers a number of truth bombs that define his character just as much as his prowess with firearms.
The scene at the end of First Blood, in which Rambo breaks down and describes holding his friend’s body parts in his hands and trying to put him together, is one of the best moments of Stallone’s career because it’s harrowing in its sense of honesty. While it’s easy, from a non-vet perspective, to highlight the fallacy of Rambo’s grievance that politicians, bureaucrats and protestors wouldn’t let them “win” Vietnam, it’s coming entirely from a perspective-driven place. “Who are they to protest me, huh? Who are they? Unless they’ve been me and been there and know what the hell they’re yelling about!” Rambo yells at Trautman (Richard Crenna). These films are political in nature, but they are far more invested in the unique perspective of veterans than any agenda that could be placed parallel to party lines.
Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) is the film that made the character an action icon and influenced dozens of films, television shows, and video games in the aftermath. Director George P. Cosmatos ups the stakes and body count. Rambo’s return trip to Vietnam, where he faces the remnants of the Vietcong, aided by the Soviets, is in the service of freeing POWs swept under the rug by American politicians. As much of a threat as communist forces pose, the real threat is U.S. bureaucrat Murdock (Charles Napier) who represented the unfeeling and uncaring government response to Vietnam vets. As much as this sequel is used to construct our idea of U.S. military exceptionalism, and the ultimate American action hero, Rambo’s patriotism is based in neutrality, something that Stallone has cited as an important aspect of the character. He’s on the side of soldiers, not politicians or parties. Like the first film, the sequel is defined by Rambo’s final speech, “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!”
The third film, Rambo III (1988), directed by Peter MacDonald, is best known for the character’s role in the Soviet-Afghan War, and his aid of the Mujahideen. The film is now, of course, viewed with a sense of irony given how supportive of Afghanistan it is, but beyond that it is the least interesting installment in the franchise. It is all action and little purpose, Rambo at his most Rambo and cartoonishly unbeatable — aside from the actual short-lived cartoon series Rambo: The Freedom Force (1986). Featuring the last appearance of Crenna as Trautman, one of the franchise’s most welcome presences, Rambo III isn’t a bad action film, and there’s an interesting comparison made between America’s Vietnam War and the Soviet-Afghan War, but it loses sight of veteran interest.
While these three films led Reagan to look at Rambo as a Republican hero, Stallone has distanced himself from that reading. At the Cannes Film Festival in May, The Hollywood Reporter got to hear his stance on the political nature of the franchise from the star himself, "I'm almost like a political atheist," he explained. "[Rambo] was never supposed to be, by any means, a political statement. It became one. ... I don't think I'm smart enough. That's not my strength. I'm not a political animal. I never have been. I don't want to be. I'm just a storyteller. But, oh my God, once Reagan said, 'I saw Rambo, and he's a Republican!'" Stallone smacked his forehead in response. Despite the frustrations over the president’s reading on the character, the character outlived his existence as a Reagan era hero.
After Rambo III, the franchise went dormant for 20 years until Rambo (2008), in which Stallone, who had recently returned to Rocky in Rocky Balboa (2006), took over the director’s reins. Rambo finds the character caught up in bleak nihilism, a restless peace that is broken when a group of Christian missionaries are captured in Burma. Stallone’s legacy sequel packs a punch by upping the gore factor and delivering the kind of "old man gets back in on the action" intrigue that has since become commonplace for the genre. It’s not the perfect return for the character, and the film’s supporting stock characters of mercenaries and naïve missionaries don’t add much. But, Rambo does set its titular character on a path to believe in something again. And credit to the fact that while international terrorists and Middle-Eastern threats dominated the American action film post-9/11, Rambo shed light on a situation Americans knew far less about. The Karen National Liberation Army cited the film as a factor that boosted morale in Burma, which The Telegraph reported in 2008, with Stallone citing it as one of the proudest moments of his career. There’s a fascinating quality to the character so ingrained in American consciousness that has become global. Rambo is no longer property of the U.S., and with a Hindi remake of the film in the works, that is likely to only grow.
As an ending point, Rambo was the perfect sendoff, but talks of a sequel began almost immediately. One idea, Rambo: The Savage Hunt, was loosely based on James Byron Huggins’ novel Hunter (1999), and would have seen Rambo face off against a genetically engineered creature. Thankfully this idea became its own project (still in development), and the seeds for what would become Last Blood came to fruition in 2009. It was then reported that Rambo’s next film would see Rambo travel to Mexico to find a kidnapped girl. While other ideas circulated in the decade before the film’s release, Last Blood is largely the film that was conceived a decade ago.
Because Rambo has been so tied to U.S. politics, Last Blood’s Mexican cartel storyline has raised more than a few eyebrows, with some critics referring to it as a Trumpian fantasy. While the timing is not great, particularly following the mass shooting in El Paso, fueled by Trump’s opposition to Mexican immigration, director Adrian Grunberg’s Rambo: Last Blood isn’t invested in border crises or racial motivation. Rather, now living in Arizona, Rambo has formed a family with two Mexican women. When his “niece” goes to Mexico in search of her father, she is kidnapped by a cartel involved in sex trafficking. Rambo carves a bloody path to get her back.
It’s very much a “this time it’s personal” kind of sequel. Now whether this is where we want to see Rambo’s story go in this final installment is a legitimate question, but in terms of taking a political position, it’s less political than Sicario (2015) or its sequel Day of the Soldado (2018). As a non-Mexican writer, my perspective is limited in terms of the film’s portrayal of what little we see of the country and those who live there. I can see how the cartel movie is perhaps tiresome, though it still makes our news cycle, and sensitivity to seeing people gunned down is of course valid, but in terms of right-wing agendas, it’s no more invested in Trump’s hateful rhetoric than any contemporary viewing of Fast & Furious (2009), 2 Guns (2013), Sabotage (2014) or Miss Bala (2019). Rambo, aided by an independent journalist (Paz Vega), isn’t waging war against immigrants or open borders, but cartels and the black hearts of men, the likes of which he tells Gabrielle he has seen time and again over the years. Had Last Blood come out 10, even five years ago, under a different administration, the response to its supposed political nature would undoubtedly be different. In the efforts to condemn the state of our country, the blame is being laid at the feet of a film that shows no interest in present-day American policies.
All of this is not to say that Rambo: Last Blood doesn’t feel dated. It does, but in a way that’s enjoyable depending on expectations. Stallone is very much invested in the kind of action movie classicism we associate with the '80s and '90s — The meat and potatoes films in which the biggest weapons and plans win the day, and the kidnapping of women serves as fuel for masculine pain. But where earlier Rambo films, particularly the first two, set the stage for the kind of action films that would define the next two decades, Last Blood seems to be playing catch-up. It’s a cornucopia of influences. No Country for Old Men (2007), Machete (2010), Skyfall (2012), Sicario, Logan (2017) and You Were Never Really Here (2017) all play a part in the film’s identity, from aesthetic choices to more direct references like Bond’s booby-trapped family home, and Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe beating brothel patrons with a hammer. The final result is a bleak and blood-drenched exploitation film that could have come from The Cannon Group in the '80s, or Dimension in the early 2000s. Other than his experience and PTSD that gives him a need to control situations, Rambo could be a character by any other name.
As a final installment to Rambo’s arc, Last Blood is a far cry from the grounded nature of First Blood. Somewhere along the way, Rambo’s survivalism went from being able to stitch up his own wounds and setting non-lethal traps in the woods to making Saw-level death traps and ripping a man’s heart out with his bare hands. If it is the end of the series, which it may not be given Stallone’s talk of a prequel and similar sentiments stated before about Rocky, then Last Blood doesn’t heal or hurt the character. It’s a grindhouse-geared extension that posits that war is never over for those veterans who lost a piece of themselves “over there.”
It’s unnecessary as a continuation of Rambo’s story, but quite a blast as a continuation of Stallone’s action legacy. Apolitical in a time when we expect our heroes to be political bastions, exploitative in a time where we expect restraint, Rambo: Last Blood feels less like the last Rambo film and more like the last legacy of the '80s action movie, films we’ve retrofitted into our modern political and social agendas, dismissed for their escapism, and then missed when they went away. The time for John Rambo, for '80s icons as they were and not as we now wish them to be, seems to be coming to an end. But as we’ve learned time and again, nothing is over.