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When the battle-scarred Vietnam veteran played by Sylvester Stallone in Rambo: Last Blood says, “I’m just trying to keep a lid on it every day,” moments before blowing his top with guns blazing, the scene felt particularly emotional for the film’s co-writer.
The way Dan Gordon, who has a story credit with Stallone on the fifth and supposedly final entry in the action movie franchise, tells it, he’s pretty much a John Rambo lookalike after spending four decades as a battle-hardened elite soldier in the Israeli army.
“I have been in my life in six wars and I have suffered my share of PTSD,” Gordon says of his post-traumatic stress disorder that only got worse each time he returned to the U.S. from active duty in Israel. Gordon first saw battle in Israel’s Yom Kippur War in 1973, and he served as a sniper in an armored infantry unit between 1977 and 1980.
His last tour of duty was as an army spokesperson during Operation Pillar of Defense against Hamas in 2014. Gordon’s screenwriting credits include action thrillers such as The Hurricane, about boxer Rubin Carter, Wyatt Earp and Passenger 57, but it was penning Rambo: Last Blood for Gordon that drew him to put to page his own imagery of war, of young soldiers dying horrible deaths, some of whom he knew and loved as brothers and which still haunt him to this day through recurring PTSD.
“In writing a screenplay, writers draw on their own emotions and their own experience. And you wouldn’t think a Rambo movie would cost you anything emotionally. But there was a big emotional price to pay to get to where I wanted to go,” Gordon tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Lionsgate and Millennium’s Rambo: Last Blood sees Stallone’s character return as a killing machine as he takes on a Mexican drug cartel in a deadly revenge thriller directed by Adrian Grunberg and co-starring Paz Vega.
Gordon says one particular scene in which Stallone’s Rambo is found sitting wearily alone in a rocking chair on the porch of his Arizona house held a mirror up to his own rage and emotional struggle endured after facing violence and destruction on Middle Eastern battlefields.
“I thought, if this guy (Rambo) is like me and has certainly had much worse combat experience than I did, and certainly has much worse PTSD, he’s just wandering and he’s just come home to Arizona,” Gordon explains.
“And he probably doesn’t want to have anything to do with anybody, he doesn’t want to go into town, because I just projected my own experience,” he adds.
There’s a deeper tragedy still that Gordon revisited from his past to write into Rambo: Last Blood. In 1998, Gordon was unable to save his son Zaki in a fiery traffic accident.
To this day, the screenwriter says he can’t bring himself to talk about the death of his son, who was an accomplished indie filmmaker. But the torment of losing a beloved son is reflected in Rambo: Last Blood in an opening scene Gordon wrote where Rambo tries to save a family drowning in a flash flood.
“That scene was really about my son. It’s not losing someone you love is in the past and a reliving of something that happened 20 years ago. It’s that you keep on trying to save that person as if you can undo the past by saving others, and of course you always fail,” Gordon explains.
As Rambo moves through the world in a silent, stoic isolation, Gordon conceived the character of Maria, played by Adriana Barraza, as the conduit between the weary, traumatized hero and the outside world.
“I thought he probably would have a go-between for him and the rest of the world, and I created the character of this Hispanic woman who comes up, buys his supplies, because he doesn’t want to see anybody,” he explains. Rambo’s self-imposed solitude is short-lived when Maria implores him to travel to Mexico to find her missing teenage granddaughter Gabrielle, played by Yvette Monreal.
“He’s basically going in to save a stranger, but that goes back to when you’ve lost people in combat, or you’ve lost people to diseases or horrible car crashes, and you keep trying to save them and you keep failing, and that’s the stuff of a pretty neat tragedy,” Gordon explains of the scenes where Rambo crosses into Mexico, returning for the movie’s final act and mounting body-count carnage.
Of course, as is the case with all scripts, not every idea Gordon had made it into Rambo: Last Blood, and the veteran scribe is OK with that as he points to no better authority on John Rambo than his co-writing partner.
“Stallone is the Rambo franchise. No matter who else is involved, they have to pass muster with Stallone and rightly so. That’s a really smart guy who’s a really good writer. He knows what he wants. And he knows what he doesn’t want. And when he does a screenplay, he’s thinking of it not just as I would, as a screenwriter, he’s thinking of how he will play it as an actor, how he would direct it. He’s wearing a lot of different hats,” Gordon says.