Although he did not first appear until six years after Sylvester Stallone’s breakthrough performance as Rocky Balboa, it feels like John Rambo has been a fixture of the big screen for almost as long as Stallone himself. Since his debut in FIRST BLOOD in 1982, the character has appeared in four films. The fifth, RAMBO: LAST BLOOD, opening on September 20, may bring his story to a close.
In each movie, the Vietnam veteran struggles with civilian life in increasingly violent ways. Now, he travels to Mexico to enact revenge upon a cartel responsible for kidnapping a friend’s daughter. Here’s the long, lonely road that has taken John Rambo from Vietnam to his final run.
They Drew First Blood
John Rambo’s first outing might surprise those who only know the more violent sequels. Directed by Ted Kotcheff, whose diverse films range from Australian shocker WAKE IN FRIGHT to ’80s comedy WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S, FIRST BLOOD adapted the novel of the same name by David Morrell. It introduces John Rambo (Stallone), a veteran who runs afoul of the law with disastrous consequences after Teasle (Brian Dennehy), a small-town sheriff, decides that Rambo is an unwanted nuisance.
The former Green Beret flees into the forests of the Pacific Northwest, pursued both by the authorities and Rambo’s commanding officer, Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), before Teasle forces a climactic confrontation in his own station. Earning more than $125 million in theatres, the film evidenced Stallone’s growing muscle at the box office while offering a pulpy tribute to men and women of the armed forces whose sacrifices don’t always receive the respect and appreciation they deserve.
Back to the Jungle
Three years later, Stallone co-wrote and starred in the first sequel, RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II. (He wrote it with future TERMINATOR auteur James Cameron!) It’s a very violent redemption story. Sentenced to prison for the events of the first film, Stallone is approached by Trautman with an unenviable opportunity to make a deal. He can lead a mission into Vietnam, to rescue stranded prisoners of war, in exchange for a full pardon.
The mission unravels after Rambo betrays orders in order to save several of the ailing soldiers, stranding him in enemy territory with injured men as they learn that the Vietnamese are being trained and armed by the Russians. Though decidedly less morally complex than its predecessor, the film went on to gross $300 million, firmly establishing RAMBO as a new franchise for one of the world’s biggest stars.
A Surprise Revival
Stallone also co-wrote RAMBO III, which features another rescue mission — albeit one that hits closer to the character’s heart. Trautman is captured by Soviets while delivering supplies to their enemies, forcing Rambo back into action one more time. This chapter performed much more poorly than the hit first sequel and interest in the franchise went quiet for almost two decades.
In the wake of Stallone’s success with part-reboot/part-sequel ROCKY BALBOA, the actor, writer and producer revived his other film series in 2008 with RAMBO. A brutally violent return to the world that Stallone and his character had attempted to escape, the film follows the ex-soldier as he is drawn into a conflict to protect a group of missionaries after attempting to retire off the grid in Thailand. Inspired by the likes of Mel Gibson’s APOCALYPTO, Stallone directed the film with an unflinching — and often difficult to stomach — attention to the viciousness of war.
Gonna Fight Till He Can’t No More
We know who John Rambo is and what he does, but LAST BLOOD appears to take the character in a slightly new direction. Rambo ventures into Mexico to rescue the daughter of a friend, who has been kidnapped by cartels — and, based on the trailer, he’ll have to defend his homestead against invaders, too.
Weary but indestructible, bloodthirsty but honorable, John Rambo has been America’s conscience — for good and bad — for almost 40 years. For his sake, and for ours, LAST BLOOD indeed deserves to be the last and perhaps greatest story in the character’s saga.
RAMBO: LAST BLOOD opens on September 20.