Early in George P. Cosmatos’s Rambo: First Blood Part II, series hero John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) explains to his new colleague and love interest Co (Julia Nickson) what it means to be expendable. He does so in a way that captures the pulse of the franchise, the standard bearer for 1980s ultra-violence and nihilist defeatism. Foreshadowing Stallone’s later role as the directorial brawn behind the nostalgia-soaked franchise The Expendables, Rambo says it’s a bit like being invited to a party where, if you don’t show up, it doesn’t really matter.
That’s the kind of meat-headed wisdom you can set your field watch to in the Rambo series, which has mutated in tone, scope and body count with every entry — and which gets a new bazooka blast to the torso with the supposedly final sequel, Rambo: Last Blood. Through it all, the main constants have been Stallone’s hangdog resilience as a star (and, from the start, creative force behind the camera) and a strange blend of pulped bodies and existential malaise about the fate of the American soldier left to the whims of the capricious governments they die for and the self-enchanted smugness of the liberal commentariat.
Rambo made his screen debut in 1982 in the downcast First Blood. The adaptation of David Morrell’s novel is the product of a relatively quiet screenplay by Stallone, Michael Kozoll and William Sackheim, and a restrained directorial performance from Bulgarian-Canadian journeyman Ted Kotcheff. The director’s filmography has run its own Rambo-like gamut from 1971’s Australian thriller Wake in Fright to high-toned adaptations of Mordecai Richler and, in his later years, producing and directing Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.
That last one’s attention to what trauma does to seasoned officers might be the most helpful lens through which to look at the franchise’s surprisingly humane beginnings with fresh eyes. Re-watched on the verge of what’s promised to be another high-octane and explosive sequel, the first film’s earnestness about its protagonist’s struggles with PTSD, and its willingness to ask uncomfortable questions about what national citizens might owe veterans who don’t come back in one piece, feel positively quaint.
Contrary to what a child of the later ’80s might remember of Rambo the mercenary with the creative kill streak, he starts his cinematic adventures as an American innocent, an unfairly preyed upon victim, just trying to survive on his wits and vast knowledge of guerrilla combat. The title evocatively refers to the unprovoked and triggering abuse Rambo faces at the hands of the local police department, represented by Brian Dennehy as the blowhard Sheriff, who sees the Vietnam War veteran’s mere presence in the cheerfully named Hope, Washington as an affront to public decency.
Though he would later be framed as a folk hero with a thirst for blood, Stallone’s early take on Rambo is of a caged animal who only bares his teeth once he’s backed into a corner and reminded of the last time he found himself there. Amidst the finely tuned procedural sequences of Rambo surveilling his enemies through tranquil waters, rocks and leafy greens, there’s pathos in Stallone’s performance, especially when Rambo is counselled through his resurfacing wartime memories by his former commanding officer Sam Troutman (Richard Crenna), who looks on him like Doctor Frankenstein taking in his shambling monster.
Where First Blood is a proto-John Wick action drama about a stoic outsider with combat training dragged back into the kind of violent life he never wanted for himself, Rambo: First Blood Part II reimagines our now titular hero a “pure combat machine.” He’s described as such early on, for our benefit as well as the other character’s. Dusted off the shelf of the prison in which he’s been thrown away for his violence in the first film, Rambo is enlisted in a high-stakes mission to investigate the possibility that American POWs have been left in enemy custody in Vietnam after the war.
Gone in this second chapter is the defensive, soft-spoken man haunted by the sensation of a friend’s body being blasted onto him. In his place we have a bruiser whose masculine essence scares off snakes, in one of the first genuinely funny moments in the series. Perhaps the definitive filmmaker of this era of politically dicey, gory, panoramic action thrillers set in exotic territory, Cosmatos only stops the action for two occasions: 1) To linger over Stallone’s ripped biceps in some faintly eroticized extreme closeups; and 2) to take in Rambo’s muddled speeches (written by Stallone and James Cameron) about how soldiers literally spill their guts for a country that dare not love them as much as they love it.
So begins Rambo’s mid-series swerve into a gruesome career killer, albeit one who still sides with the underdog, as he does in Rambo III, where the ex-Green Beret helps a group of Afghan rebels fend off their Soviet oppressors. Such geopolitical ironies aside, the unabashedly exploitative third chapter marks the moment where our hero fully becomes a shorthand for satisfying ultra-violence. In embracing his new destiny as a freedom fighter for hire, discarded by his country and left to fight for fellow veterans in unorthodox ways, the once troubled soldier becomes a cartoonish bringer of pain who launches explosive arrows into helicopters and, when asked by a villain just who he is, quips back, “Your worst nightmare.”
Even if the last remaining piece of Rambo’s heart seems to have been lost back in Hope, the later movies are at least consistent about what makes his blood boil: The fruitlessness of trying to make the world change for the better without bloodshed.
The simply titled 2008 entry Rambo, the first to be directed by Stallone, spins our hero’s penchant for one-liners — “When you’re pushed,” he says in a silly but satisfying enough voiceover that hearkens back to the first film, “killin’s as easy as breathin’” — into a thematic statement on a series that has dealt in buckets of the red stuff. It re-imagines all that viscera as the stuff of life as well as death, and something restorative for our hero to bathe in. And bathe he does in outlandish set piece after set piece, not just strangling his enemies to death, but ripping out their throats; not just silencing one faceless crop of villains after another, but mulching them with a machine gun.
Though it’s far removed in style and tone from the sneaky manhunting and defensive counter-attacks with which we started, Rambo’s last adventure before this new one, which apparently sees him trying to rescue his niece from a Mexican cartel, brings us back around to that reflective moment in his second chapter. Whether he’s a misunderstood veteran or an efficient killing machine, Rambo has always felt expendable — a national cast-off whose bodily suffering never got him any respect. Yet as an embodiment of a tradition of blood-soaked American action filmmaking with a grim philosophical core, Rambo’s always been indispensable.