The character of John Rambo has been a guilty pleasure of mine from the beginning.
Not from the VERY beginning, mind, since that would rewind us all the way back to 1972. That was the year the overwrought Vietnam War veteran named ‘Rambo’ (the addition of a first name came courtesy of the films) first came to public attention via author David Morrell‘s debut novel. (Morrell has since gone on to write a great many other books, including 27 more novels HERE ).
Yet John Rambo and I have had what people would rightly label a thing since the day the first movie came out. I remember walking out of the cinema after seeing FIRST BLOOD and feeling like I’d just been put through an emotional eggbeater. It was brains-into-putty affecting for me. I was 16 years old.
By the time the second movie came out three years later I was a University student. Amongst some members of the lentil-eating, left-leaning crowd I was rubbing shoulders with at that time, admitting you were a fan of monosyllabic, warmongering John Rambo was enough to have someone play darts with a picture of your face and run you out of town.
Three years on again and with the third movie about to hit cinemas, I was by that time writing film, music and theatre reviews for a handful of small press publications. I remember sitting in a preview-screening theatrette with a handful of very serious-looking television and newspaper critics of the day.
At the end of the screening I mustered the courage to approach a newspaper film critic who was at that time Brisbane’s answer to Pauline Kael . I sought her opinion on whether she considered films like RAMBO 3 could be held responsible for inspiring real-life violence, a debate that was in full swing at the time.
I can’t remember what she said but I know it was very short. No doubt I’d been hoping to claim the privilege of an extended conversation with one of the heavyweight opinion-shapers of the day. Instead she blithely swatted me aside like the garden-variety, over-reaching young upstart mosquito she very obviously took me for.
No matter. I got to keep some impressive-looking glossy press kit pics of Stallone going hell for leather on his .50 cal mounted machine gun. Come to think of it, I wonder what ever happened to those prized pics? For a long time they were amongst my most treasured possessions. Draw a breath while I say it for you – there’s no accounting for taste. Right? Yeah, especially mine. Back then!
Before I detail my thoughts on the latest incarnation of Rambo to hit multiplexes worldwide – having gone to see it yesterday – I will document the official body counts for all five films in addition to my personal rating for each.
RAMBO: LAST BLOOD has attracted it’s share of one star reviews (HERE) (HERE) – (HERE) – (HERE) – (HERE). That’s about as unsurprising as hearing an American combat soldier during the Vietnam war complain their M-16 rifle jammed. The Rambo franchise has always copped a good face-smashing from critics.
The latest film, however, has the distinction of also being publicly disowned by no less an individual then the person who first created the character of John Rambo, author David Morrell. The renown writer has said he is embarrassed to have his name associated in any way with the film. In interviews (HERE) he has been quoted as saying the kindest thing he could say about the film is ‘it’s first two minutes were promising.”
Overall, I found RAMBO: LAST BLOOD to be a solid actioner. The problem with it is that the action – or to be more precise
rough brutal justice – that’s dished out is virtually indistinguishable from the types of comeuppance metered out to bad guys by just about every other gold standard film vigilante hero you can name.
The type of savage punishment inflicted on the badder-than-bad hombres in RAMBO: LAST BLOOD could just have easily been at the hands of Bruce Willis resurrecting his John McClane character from the DIE HARD movies.
Or perhaps Liam Neeson going through his paces in another TAKEN. Denzel Washington would have been another actor easily up to the task with his Robert McCall persona from THE EQUALIZER series. Hell, throw them all in if you like – Clint ‘GRAN TORINO‘ Eastwood, Charles ‘DEATH WISH’ Bronson, even my old mate Keanu ‘JOHN WICK‘ Reeves.
VIGILANTES R’ US
Will the real JOHN RAMBO please step forward?
Point is RAMBO:LAST BLOOD is the least ‘military’ of all the Rambo films and much more like a mostly mechanical-feeling, by-the-numbers civilian revenge flick. By stark contrast, the distinction of the first movie was it had soulful moments – lots of soulful moments.
From the opening when Rambo’s told by the mother of his war buddy Delmore Berry he’s died the previous summer from Agent Orange induced cancer to Stallone’s final tear-splattered speech at the end before he reaches, child-like, for the embrace of father-figure Colonel Trautman (a part originally intended for Kirk Douglas but played sublimely by Richard Crenna), FIRST BLOOD (1982) was a movie infused from start to finish with what another character made famous by Sylvester Stallone, Rocky Balboa, would have described as ‘Heart and Soul’.
In it’s place in this latest outing we’re delivered buckets of blood and limb-tearing violence and cruelty the likes of which both Michael Myers (HALLOWEEN) and Jason Vorhees (FRIDAY THE 13TH) would be proud to call their own.
The R-rating is well and truly deserved. This is Rambo not just sticking in his signature serrated-edge hunting knife into his enemies but also twisting the blade. Then twisting some more.
In one scene, one of the Mexican drug cartel cutthroats that’s just fallen through a hidden trap-door and well and truly impaled himself on a bed of razor-sharp punji sticks is than further obliterated by a full 30 round magazine of bullets fired in hate by Rambo‘s Colt M16A1 machine gun.
Overkill was never the way of a trained special-forces soldier like John Rambo. Yet despite all the vengeance-seeking, LAST BLOOD remains strangely emotionally flat for just about all of its running length.
The only real nod given in the film to Rambo’s distinguished military background and training, apart from the HOME ALONE-style traps he sets for his pursuers back at his horse ranch/farm in the film’s finale, is the inclusion of the network of underground tunnels he has installed on his farm, presumably as some type of hobby-amusement to keep boredom at bay.
This part of the film reminded me of one of the best books I’ve read on the Vietnam War. THE TUNNELS OF CU CHI is a truly fascinating account of the discovery of a network of tunnels around Saigon during the Vietnam War and the resulting underground fighting between Viet Cong guerrillas and American special forces for control of those tunnels.
Since the soldiers who were selected to go down into those man-made tunnels on missions to hunt-down enemy Viet Cong soldiers – amid snakes, rats and booby-traps – were of necessity small-framed and wiry men, I always pictured myself as a ‘tunnel-rat’ in my imaginings about the Vietnam war. Ooops… digressing there!
As solid a civilian-themed action/revenge film LAST BLOOD is, it’s obviously not the military-hero film some fans of the series had been hoping for. In seeking to understand that mismatch, it helps to delve into some of the background development of the story. It begins with the myriad of rewrites that ensued after Millennium Films originally green-lit the movie way back in August 2009 with Stallone set to write, direct and star. (Rambo: Last Blood is directed by American Adrian Grunberg).
After years of on-again-off-again announcements, stalled meetings, creative differences and funding shortfalls, in 2015 Stallone and Rambo creator David Morrell re-developed the story for Rambo V; the actor wanted a ‘soulful journey’ for the character that the author described as a ‘really emotional, powerful story’.
Stallone pitched the idea to the producers, but they wanted to proceed with a human trafficking story instead (this is the central plot that is indeed the focus for Rambo: Last Blood) prompting Stallone and Morrell to abandon it.
In October 2015, Stallone pondered on the possibility of a prequel, stating: “It’s intriguing to find the whys and wherefores of how people have become what they are. The traumas, the loss and the tragedy of being in Vietnam would certainly be a great challenge for a young actor, and it would be ironic that Rambo directs younger Rambo having played it for twenty years plus”.
In 2016, Stallone revealed that Rambo V was no longer in production. Principal photography for the movie that eventually did get made began in October of last year in Bulgaria.
Despite the end-of-the-line sounding name, there is genuine hope that Rambo: Last Blood may not be the last audiences see of the veteran film war hero.
During this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Stallone said he would continue portraying Rambo if the fifth film succeeded. Only a few weeks ago Stallone confirmed that he has plans for a prequel to the series. Although he would not reprise the title role, he was quoted as saying he would like to explore who Rambo was before the war:
I always thought of Rambo when he was 16 or 17 – I hope they can do the prequel – he was the best person you could find. He was the captain of the team; he was the most popular kid in school; and the war changed him.
A character study movie of that ilk is one I would see as a worthwhile addition to the franchise.
IT’S A FILM I’D LOVE TO SEE MADE.
Ps. The guy in this video rates the Rambo films in the exact order of quality I do. Coincidence? Or can I finally stop looking for my film critic soul-mate? Either way, for the final word on John Rambo check this out …
Pss. Did I say final word? Of course I meant this would be the final word…
FIRST BLOOD, the novel written by David Morrell, may have come out in 1972 but here’s something I bet you didn’t know. Another novel, titled THE FIRST BLOOD, was published the year before that in 1971.
As well as being a comic book artist, American author Lou Cameron (1924 – 2010) was indeed a prolific writer, with more than 300 books bearing his name.
His work usually boasted muscular, no-nonsense prose through a prism of wry cynicism, sharp observation and a signature combination of gusto with pulp-style gritty realism. He was also considered an expert at devising unexpected, 11th hour plot twists. Now you know.