Difficult as it may be believe, I never actually grew up watching or as a fan of the Rambo films (Various, 1982 to 2019) and my exposure to the works of Sylvester Stallone was comparatively now compared to that of Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, having recently watched the entire series from start to finish, I’ve been attempted to rectify that this month by dedicating the last few Fridays to celebrating the fact that First Blood (Kotcheff, 1982) was released on this day back in 1982.
Released: 25 January 2008
Director: Sylvester Stallone
Distributor: Lionsgate and the Weinstein Company
Budget: $50 million
Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Paul Schulze, Graham McTavish, and Maung Maung Khin
Twenty years after the events of the third film. Vietnam War veteran John J. Rambo (Stallone) has retired from the civilised world and is working as a snake catcher and boat driver in Thailand. However, when missionaries who hired Rambo’s services are taken hostage by the sadistic forces of Major Pa Tee Tint (Khin), Rambo reluctantly tags along with a group of mercenaries on a desperate rescue mission.
After Rambo III (MacDonald, 1988) underperformed at the box office, the Rambo franchise lay dormant for the better part of two decades as star and creative force Stallone struggled to find a good excuse to revisit the character. After being inspired by the atrocities in Burma, Stallone was initially reluctant to direct the film himself but became excited when he decided to direct it from Rambo’s skewed perspective. The confusingly-titled movie’s unimpressive $113.2 million box office was accompanied by mixed reviews that criticised the excessive violence while praising the long-awaited return of the beloved character. Undeterred, Stallone began work on a follow-up soon after Rambo’s release that, after numerous revisions and alterations, was pretty much universally lambasted by even the character’s original creator when it eventually released.
One of the complaints I had about Rambo III was that it really didn’t spent much time at all exploring Rambo’s newfound life away from war; we got the briefest glimpse at his time in Thailand but we never got to see in any real detail how he had adjusted to this life or what his mindset was. Rambo, to its credit, does not make the same mistake; when we re-join Rambo, now much older and more stoic and jaded than ever, he’s still in Thailand but now working as a snake catcher and offering boat trips. We follow him throughout a typical day, witnessing him applying his unique survival skills in a far more practical way as he catches fish with his trademark bow and rounds up snakes with an experienced efficiency.
In Rambo III, Colonel Samuel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna, sadly missing from this film due to his untimely death) all but accused Rambo of hiding and denying himself in Thailand and, while that may have been true, it’s far more prevalent here. When missionary Michael Burnett (Schulze) attempts to hire Rambo’s boat, Rambo vehemently and aggressively turns him down; fully aware of the atrocities occurring in Burma, he bluntly recommends that the missionaries avoid the area entirely and return home unless they plan to bring weapons and it’s pretty clear from his dismissive “Fuck the world” that he’s largely turned his back on the outside world.
Full of optimism and blind faith, the missionaries attempt to bring medical aid, religion, and serenity to the troubled villagers but grossly underestimate the cruelty and violence of Burma, especially Tint and his army. When the Burmese attack the village with mortars and gunfire, villagers are literally blown to shreds by the explosions, kids are shot, and limbs are hacked off mercilessly and the missionaries, woefully unequipped and overwhelmed by the violence, are summarily taken captive. It’s a brutal, unrelenting show of force and viciousness and far beyond anything seen in the previous films; indeed, it’s as though Rambo’s version of the world has come to life before our eyes and the missionaries are left petrified prisoners of war at the limited mercy of Tint and his army.
The cruelty of Tint and the Burmese junta army is a significant part of the film and is, literally, the first thing we see; Tint has his soldiers force villagers to cross a swamp-like river filled with mines and guns down any that survive the trip purely for his own amusement. Similarly, he orders his men to pillage the villages, taking their sons and forcing them into joining his army, taking their women to be sex slaves, and threatening to destroy the villages if they try to retaliate or aid the Karen rebels. Of all the villains and villainous forces seen in the Rambo films, Tint and the Burmese are easily the worst and most despicable since we not only see the aftermath of their actions but actually see them exercising their sadistic will in full force not just on the innocent villages but also on the missionaries.
Still haunted by his life experiences, Rambo has returned to his belief that “nothing ever changes” but, despite his bitter and cynical attitude, he is talked into helping the missionaries by Michael’s fiancée, Sarah Miller (Benz), and even refuses to accept any payment based entirely on her plea to the dim recesses of his humanity. Later, after dropping the missionaries off, we see that Rambo is still tormented by nightmares of his experiences and the events of the previous films, and Trautman’s words regarding his true nature and coming “full circle”. Unlike the previous films, Rambo isn’t alone this time around; although he disapproves of the idea of mercenaries, he’s unable to deny that “war is in [his] blood” and agrees to not only ferry them on a rescue mission but also to tag along despite the objections of Lewis (McTavish).
Of all the mercenaries, it’s Lewis who is the most outspoken and aggressive; frustrated at the idealism of the missionaries and taking an instant dislike to the country and Rambo, Lewis is a tough, overly-macho, and outspoken asshole who’s only really in it for the money. He’s the most prominent of the group, though School Boy (Matthew Marsden) attempts to keep the peace and acts as the group’s sniper, Reese/Tombstone (Jake La Botz) acts as the explosive expert, and En-Joo (Tim Kang) also manage to stand out amongst the volatile group. For all their equipment and vigour, they are left stunned by Rambo’s prowess at killing and guerrilla tactics; having drastically underestimated him as merely the “boat man”, they are suitably convinced to allow him to tag along after seeing his proficiency with a bow.
Rambo is like an amalgamation of the previous three movies as it is dominated by the bleak cruelty of the first film, features a similar gritty approach to its violence as the second film, and concludes with an over the top bloodbath that surpasses even the ludicrous third film. Like its predecessors, Rambo builds towards its action and violence over time but does a much better job of exploring Rambo’s psyche than the last two films; older, world-weary, and bitter, Rambo is a blunt, pragmatic, and realistic instrument who hasn’t lost any of his skill and efficiency over the years. Well versed in the harsh nature of the world, especially Burma, he isn’t afraid to gun down pirates when negotiations fail and his knowledge of guerrilla warfare and the area gives him the edge over the younger mercenaries.
The presence of a diverse team of combatants allows for much more variety in the film’s action sequences, though guerrilla tactics are still very much the order of the day thanks to Tint’s superior forces. No doubt due to Stallone’s advancing age and sharing double duties as director and star, sharing the action amongst his younger companions also allows the film to stand out from its predecessors, which were largely focused on one man waging war against insurmountable odds. Rambo’s experience and unique set of skills are still able to shine through, though, since he uses both (in co-ordination with his knowledge of the country) to lead a successful rescue of the missionaries under cover of darkness using little more than stealth, grit, and determination.
Interestingly, the added numbers also end up being a hindrance for Rambo as, while they offer backup and cover fire and play their part in the rescue, many of them are summarily captured by Tint’s soldiers. While Rambo was captured in the previous films, he largely only had to worry about getting himself out of danger but, this time, he has to consider the lives of many people and, as a result, is somewhat handicapped in a way he might not have been had in gone in to rescue the missionaries alone. Indeed, Rambo proves the advantages of his age and experience as he completely avoids capture this time around and is able to take on Tint’s entire army with only Sarah, School Boy, and a massive machine gun at his disposal!
While Tint is a reprehensible antagonist, he doesn’t actually pose a physical threat to Rambo or the mercs; instead, Tint’s threat comes from the fact that he has an entire army of loyal, equally sadistic soldiers at his beck and call and, protected by these numbers, he feels free to exercise his will and indulge his every desire, however despicable and cruel those may be. His preference to watch or to mercilessly beat his captives means that, rather than facing off with Rambo in hand-to-hand combat, Tint directs his forces to do his fighting for him, leading to countless Burmese soldiers being cut to ribbons by Rambo (who has mounted a massive machine gun) and his allies. When the Karen rebels also join the fight, Tint sees defeat at hand and decides to save his own hide and, for his cowardice, is summarily disembowelled by Rambo, putting an end to his reign of tyranny.
Of course, one of the most notable things about Rambo is its depiction of absolutely brutal and gratuitous violence and gore. Rather than being slowed by age, Rambo appears to be more dangerous and lethal than ever as he is now able to rip a man’s throat out with his bare hands and the film is littered with similarly gruesome imagery: heads and limbs are blown and cut off, kids are shown with their legs missing, Tint’s pigs feast on human flesh, Lewis ends up with his leg shredded into little more than meat and bone by an errant mine (but loses none of his aggressive defiance despite the agonising pain), and Rambo detonates a dormant bomb with the impact of a small nuclear explosion! This all culminates in the finale, where Rambo literally guns down hundreds of men with his machine gun, reducing them to dismembered corpses. Even Michael, pushed to his very limits by the violence he has seen and abuse he has suffered, ends up going against his morals and beats a man to death with a rock and, in the end, the message seems to be that uncompromising, brutal violence truly does solve the world’s problems rather than messages of peace and blind optimism.
Rambo is an uncompromisingly brutal and bleak piece of cinema with a rather grim and ghastly message; the previous Rambo films basically came down to the simple and enduring premise that war is Hell but, in Rambo, war is the solution rather than the problem. While the missionaries wish the spread a message of peace, their mission would have ended with death and rape had Rambo not been on hand to execute the pirates and, were it not for the intervention of Rambo and the mercenaries, all of the missionaries would doubtless have ended up tortured and beheaded. The violent excess in Rambo compared to even Rambo III is impressive in its gratuity and yet, while Rambo’s methods and perspective on the world turn out to be true and the only productive solution to the conflict, there’s a definite sense that such violence is wholly abhorrent and only necessary because of the way the world is at times. I like the concept of Rambo being this lone wolf who gets sucked into greater conflicts and brings his unique skills and point of view to different scenarios, and the finale of him finally returning home to his father (which, I feel, is a far more fitting end than the shit-storm of the fifth movie), but I feel the decidedly anti-war message that was prevalent in the first film and felt throughout its sequels has been lost somewhat in the indulgence of excess though, if you look hard enough, traces of it are still there behind all the gratuitous and entertaining violence.
What did you think to Rambo? How do you feel it holds up, especially compared to the previous films? Were you as confused by the film’s title as I was or did you appreciate the simplicity of it? What did you think to Rambo’s characterisation in the film and his motivation for helping the missionaries? Were you a fan of the gratuitous violence on display in the film and what was your interpretation of it all, in the end? Do you think that this works better as a finale for the character or were you excited to see more from Rambo? Which Rambo film is your favourite? Whatever your thoughts, drop a comment below, click here for my review of the fifth film, and thanks for being a part of Rambo Month.