For the fourth “Rambo” film, simply titled “Rambo” (2008), director/co-writer Sylvester Stallone taps into one of the world’s longest-running civil wars. The Burma (aka Myanmar) military’s attempt to extinguish the Karen ethnic group has been going on since 1949, right after Burma gained its independence from Britain. What better location for the most violent “Rambo” film than a country whose entire independent history has been perpetual violence?
Wading into the “Rambo” sequels, I braced myself for the point at which they’d get dumb. It doesn’t happen with the underrated “Rambo: First Blood — Part II” (1985), a top-shelf example of 1980s action with a tight plot that gives Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) a chance to “win” in Vietnam. But it does unfortunately happen with “Rambo III” (1988). Granted, this is the best kind of dumb action movie, as some of cinema’s most quotable one-liners come from this flick.
Rambo: Last Blood” is an efficient, brutal, gritty and appropriate capper (if it is indeed the capper) to Sylvester Stallone’s five-film series. It poetically marks the final point on a bell curve: “First Blood” is contained and personal. “Rambo: First Blood Part II” widens the scope and allows closure (as much as that’s possible) on the Vietnam years. “Rambo III” is an explosion-laden spectacle, but it loses character and plausibility. The fourth film, “Rambo,” reminds us of the brutality of non-cinematic war. “Last Blood” is focused and intimate again.
Rambo: First Blood Part II” (1985), following the 1982 masterpiece “First Blood,” is generally seen as the point at which “Rambo” turns into a dumb action series, but that’s unfair. Certainly, it has all the stereotypes of over-the-top Eighties spectacle such as the Russian helicopter’s single bomb blowing up an entire waterfall and hillside, Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) unfurling explosive arrows that blow people up on impact, and the meme-worthy shot of muscleman Rambo letting loose with his machine gun and a savage yell.
With “Rambo: Last Blood” – Sylvester Stallone’s supposedly last (haha) go-around with the famous Vietnam veteran — hitting theaters this week, I’m taking a look back at the stories that started it all: David Morrell’s 1972 novel “First Blood,” and the movie adaptation that came a decade later:
“First Blood” – More than just a great action movie, the first entry in the “Rambo” series – directed by Ted Kotcheff – is a powerful anti-war opus. John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is a war machine who has had all human emotion stripped away by the horrors of battle, or so it seems through much of the film as he methodically eliminates the officers of a corrupt small-town sheriff (Brian Dennehy).
Underscored by its revenge scenario and dark cinematography, “First Blood” is an emotionally charged character study. When Rambo drops his weapons and delivers a sobbing, stuttering speech to his former commander (Richard Crenna), the impact is undeniable.
– John Hansen, “Best of the action genre,” NDSU Spectrum, May 2000
“Rambo” – A Claymore mine that blows up a whole forest, a villain that feeds prisoners to starving pigs, and a final battle that’s nothing more than 20 minutes of Rambo mowing down bad guys with truck-mounted machine guns … really, what’s not to like? If you were approaching this fourth “Rambo” entry as a serious exploration of political unrest in southeast Asia, you missed the point. You also missed the best unintentional comedy of the year.
– John Hansen, johnvhansen.com, May 6, 2009