Welcome to the first installment of Franchise Friday! What began as a mild-mannered effort to catch up on lauded anthologies of decades past quickly morphed into this – an earnest tackling of previously unseen cinema via long-winded ranting. As always, I plan on making this a weekly feature until something inevitably comes up, but in the meantime, take my word for it. Enjoy!
Highly representative of the testosterone era of typically mindless cinema, Stallone’s John Rambo is the quintessential fictional war hero – battle-hardened, nearly infallible and an advocate of letting actions speak louder than words. Capitalizing more on the blood and bombast that permeated First Blood amid commentary on America’s post-Vietnam sentiments, the second and third entries into the fabled Green Beret’s legacy don’t hold a candle to the one that started it all. Schlocky to a fault and wildly exploitative of character, First Blood Part II and Rambo III aren’t necessarily worth anyone’s time, but hey, the franchise’s longevity is hard to ignore, and continue to discuss it I shall.
Starting from the top, First Blood, laudably paints John Rambo as an archetypal victim of post-‘Nam circumstance – a man called forth by his country to serve it, just to be shunned by those he’d fought for. Ignorant of the horrors the affected vet has witnessed and continues to suffer with, law officials in a rural town push our protagonist to a breaking point. Obviously unaware of whom they’re dealing with and the violent pratfalls headed their way, a PTSD-triggered outburst thrusts all involved into a role-reversed cat-and-mouse standoff.
Details aside, this adaptation of the David Morrell novel is adept in illustrating exactly what Morrell intended to. Non-jingoistic but still entertaining enough to thrill a broader audience, First Blood was indeed one of the rare ‘80s actioners that dared to be at least mildly multifaceted. Culminating a bit heavy-handedly via an explosive latter act monologue, the film remains subjectively unbalanced in a forgivable sense.
For all intents and purposes, First Blood‘s successors were purposefully produced in an effort to satisfy the bloodthirsty masses. While First Blood: Part II and Rambo III basally entertain via differing Colonel Trautman-issued impetuses, it becomes all-too-apparent that rote villainous tropes were only employed to appealingly exploit our hero’s skill set. After all, who doesn’t get a kick out of big-budgeted spectacle in both that and this day and age? It’s just a shame that it all falls victim to non-dynamic filler ranging from an unnecessary love interest to increasingly awkward humanization of Rambo’s sole confidant.
Thus brings us to the fourth and most recent chapter in the titular dynamo’s anthology – 2008’s flagrantly self-serious Rambo. As part two of Stallone’s earnest (if unnecessary) revival of his heyday, the film aptly paints the aging tortured soul as a murderous personification of a fine wine. Confronted by a troupe of do-gooders intent on lending a helping hand to the Burmese underprivileged, our hero quite hesitantly serves as the guide to their destination. After shit foreseeably hits the fan, Sir Rambo’s forced to join the ranks of arrogant mercenaries intent on saving the day if only to recoup a fat paycheck.
Barring its obvious conceptual self-indulgence, Rambo at least succeeds in perpetuating the icon’s legacy in a serviceable manner, more specifically in the form of a man with nothing left to lose that’s (finally) come to grips with his true nature. Although the film’s questionable adherence to unflinchingly violent “realism” did and will continue to affect viewers negatively, to fault Rambo on the basis of its intended presentation could be construed as “missing the point.” Is the film any variation of worthwhile? In terms of shock value and dormant nostalgia’s sake, well, yes, however the tonally muddy reboot in question fails to engage beyond base-level conflict, subsequent tension and an ungodly (world record-setting) amount of faux ammunition and bloodshed.
Having viewed its successors out of literal necessity – the box set was lent to me by a coworker – I can confidently say that the franchise is merely a chronological string of guilty pleasures. Although First Blood does and will continue to have an impact based on historical principle, the fact that the crowning achievement of three-ish hours’ worth of sequel material is wound cauterization via gunpowder is a bit sad. Despite Rambo being a step in the right (albeit unnecessarily existent) direction, the legend of John Rambo is an agreeably unbalanced one that benefits from Stallone’s conviction as well as a partially deft adherence to the character’s skill set, even if all of doesn’t measure up to much.