According to the file read aloud by Charles Napier's sniveling bureaucrat Marshall Murdock in 1985's Rambo: First Blood Part II, John Rambo was born on July 6, 1947. That makes him almost the exact same age as Stallone, the 73-year actor who embodies his combination of unchecked aggression and unvarnished wisdom. The character works so well for Stallone because it calls on him to put his gargantuan body on display in movie after movie; taken together, the five Rambo films, which span more than 30 years, play like a Boyhood-esque meditation on one man's quest to turn himself into a slab of rippling muscles.
But the Rambo movies have never been just about Rambo -- or Stallone's increasingly distracting physical shape. In his mostly positive three-star review of First Blood, writer Roger Ebert criticized the movie's climactic speech, which finds Rambo lamenting the handling of the Vietnam War and telling his mentor Sam Trautman that "nothing is over." Where most of the film plays like a gritty action-adventure, this monologue serves as a showcase for Stallone's impassioned acting and his muddled sloganeering. Cannily, Ebert identifies this sequence as being derivative of other dramas of the era like Coming Home, Rolling Thunder, and Taxi Driver. "Some things are scarier and more emotionally moving when they're left unsaid," he writes.
Rambo: First Blood Part II, which featured a script co-written by Stallone and Terminator director James Cameron, continued the tradition of saying the quiet part loud. Really loud. In the first scene, Trautman recruits Rambo, hacking away at giant rocks in a prison quarry, to lead a search-and-rescue mission to locate POWs thought to be stuck behind enemy lines in Vietnam. (The narrative drew from a popular national news story with little basis in fact.) "Sir, do we get to win this time?" asks Rambo, implying that if Rambo had been in charge of the war, it would have ended differently. The New York Times' Vincent Canby noted the nationalistic wish fulfillment in his largely ambivalent review, writing the the movie is, "designed to win the war that officially ended 10 years ago in humiliating defeat."
The rest of the film, directed with borderline parodic macho gusto by George P. Cosmatos, carries through on enacting that militaristic fantasy. Using knives, boats, guns, helicopters, and, yes, an obscene amount of mud, Rambo lays siege to Soviet troops and Vietnamese soldiers in his dogged efforts to rescue his fellow Americans. The message was strong enough that then-President Ronald Reagan heard it clearly. "Boy, after seeing Rambo last night, I know what to do the next time this happens," he joked on a hot mic before a televised speech in 1985. But even in this over-the-top cartoon version, Rambo still directs his most righteous anger at Murdock, a symbol of cynical and feckless American leadership whom he attacks with a knife in the film's final moments.