Joe’s $1 a week cinema #6: All the Rambo movies
Special Edition: First Blood, 1982; Rambo: First Blood Part II, 1985; Rambo III, 1988; Rambo, 2008. Spoiler alert: Rambo has difficulty re-adjusting to civilian life.
Centuries from now visiting aliens will come across humankind’s 2008 film catalogue and think that the most powerful warriors among us were chosen by the length of their ear-hair.
They will have discovered The Age of the Late Sequel – an era of elderly Indiana Joneses, Rocky Balboas and John Rambos – and they will pity earthlings for it.
“No wonder they didn’t see that meteor coming,” they will say.
The late sequel is like the late dinner guest. The early arrivals have eaten the food, absorbed the food and said everything they need to say about the food and everyone is well on the way to getting happily drunk. Then there’s a knock on the door that nobody can be bothered to get up and answer but somebody does out of politeness. Then a whole new couple comes in who’s way more sober than everyone else because they’ve just driven from another party and nobody really knows them that well so they make small talk about the food, which everyone is sick of talking about, and then the host feels morally obliged to offer them some food and they don’t want to be an inconvenience but they also don’t want to be rude and so they end up having some which means the host has to cobble together a plate and in the meantime you were just about to hit on your ex-girlfriend and figured she was just about drunk enough to go for it but the gust of cold air through the front door sobered her up a bit and all this talk about the time made her realise she had to get up in the morning so she goes home and you’re stuck there talking to this stupid @#$%ing couple you’ve only just met about how they’ve just bought a fixer-upper in Petersham and you’re about to glass them when you realise you’ve run out of beer.
This is essentially how people feel about the last Rambo movie – and I use the world “last” optimistically – made no less than 20 years after its predecessor, Rambo III. Already at this point we are entering a sequential nightmare. As purists will know, the original 1982 Rambo movie was in fact called First Blood and it wasn’t until its 1985 sequel Rambo: First Blood Part II that America’s least outspoken Vietnam veteran got naming rights. Then what should have been First Blood Part III became Rambo III. I say this to emphasise the point that 23 years before Sylvester Stallone made Rambo there was already a film called Rambo, a fact Stallone himself might have remembered had he not been sucking down human growth hormones like Skittles.
It is this first Rambo film that is rooted in my memory as the nucleus of the whole franchise. I remember vividly its looming arrival in Australia when I was in grade 4 – the posters, the pencil cases, all adorned with a rippling Stallone thrusting his pelvis into the chamber of a rocket-launcher while his red headband dangled menacingly down the side of his face. As previously noted in these pages, my parents had forbidden me from seeing it and the allure was excruciating. I protested to my mother that Steve Whitta and Nick Munro were allowed to see it but she just gave me a disapproving moralistic look that suggested as soon as my back was turned she would report their parents to DOCS.
As a result I weathered my entire pre-pubesence and teenage years without ever seeing Stallone’s masterwork, and arrived at university with a distinctly unmanly world view. The lack of a strong male role model had left me dreadlocked, drug-addicted and devoted to a reconfigured branch of socialism in which everyone was supposed to work equally except me. This state of mind left me vulnerable to exploitation, costing me several girlfriends and the best part of an Arts degree. At one memorable party a lesbian separatist dragged my drunken love interest back to her house while I dejectedly trundled upstairs to find that the boyfriend of the lesbian separatist (whose sexuality was apparently more fluid than originally thought) had projectile vomited red wine on my walls and passed out in my bed. Upon realising this I muttered something along the lines of “Solidarity my arse” and trundled back downstairs to pass out on the couch. It is unlikely that John Rambo would have dealt with the situation the same way.
As a result of such setbacks it would be another decade before I finally reached my ideological homeland, which can be broadly described as alcoholic misogyny. It was around this time I stumbled across Sly’s familiar figure walking down a lonesome road in the Pacific North West and realised I was watching First Blood. In it the grieving and traumatised John Rambo is persecuted by small-town rednecks until he snaps and starts shooting at everybody only to end up in tears. Immediately I was struck by how sparse and yet emotionally haunting it was, almost unrecognisable from its sequels. Showing rare consistency, it appeared that as with Rocky, Stallone had made an exceptionally powerful and thoughtful film about social isolation, only to quickly rectify the mistake and ensure it never happened again.*
In the Rambo series this journey began with First Blood Part II, in which Rambo is sent back to ‘Nam to recover POWs that the top brass secretly hopes he will never find. The film’s immortal tagline was: “They sent him on a mission and set him up to fail. But they made one mistake. They forgot they were dealing with Rambo.” Ironically, this last statement is not borne out in the film, which shows that the military commanders were highly aware throughout that they were dealing with Rambo.^
Indeed, as the first sentence indicates, they specifically selected him. However notwithstanding such minor inconsistencies, the film remains a magnum opus and sets the tone for the remaining movies far better than its predecessor, although maintains some impressive gravitas. Who can forget Rambo’s last exchange with Colonel Trautman before he walks off into the sunset.
Trautman: How will you live John?
Rambo: Day by day.
You could close your eyes and pretend it was Bogart and Bergman.
Rambo III, an excursion into the Afghan-soviet war, has fewer pretensions to such broad philosophical themes, something hinted at early in the film when Rambo plays a game of polo with a decapitated sheep. Even so, there are strong political messages underlying the film, most notably that the Taliban used to be quite nice people. Sadly this view is no longer as fashionable as it used to be, perhaps explaining Stallone’s desire to make the 2008 film. Of interest is that he still waited seven years after September 11 to release it, suggesting he wanted to give the Taliban every opportunity to come good again.
It is perhaps this constant quest for forgiveness, for acceptance, that is the one overarching driver of John Rambo: He cannot be accepted into society because he is, let us be frank here, a fairly serious war criminal; he therefore needs society to forgive him for this, yet at the same time he must forgive society for rejecting him in the first place. He is the abandoned lover, the motherless child crying in the night. As he says at the end of First Blood:
“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!”
And surely that is what everybody wants in the end: To love and to be loved in return.
Rating: 4X4 stars
* The obvious exception to this is Rocky IV, in which Stallone answers the critics who thought he couldn’t stoop lower than punching up Mr T.
^ The awareness was no doubt heightened during the film’s closing scenes, in which Rambo machine guns their entire headquarters.
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