The Reason Stallone's 'Rambo' Is the Most Gory, Shockingly Relevant Sequel Ever Made
John Rambo spent the 1980s knifing, booby-trapping, and exploding his way into the American consciousness. But to resurrect this killer of a character for the 2000s, Sylvester Stallone dug deep into the heart of his hero... and dear God, that heart was dark.
Released in early 2008 to solid box-office success and minimal critical favor, Rambo promised a back-to-basics approach to Stallone's hit action franchise, just as 2006's acclaimed, heartwarming Rocky Balboa had done for The Italian Stallion. Stallone even planned to title the movie John Rambo to make the comparison even more direct, and wound up using that title for the film's longer, more character-driven extended cut. But while the fourth and final film in the Rambo franchise gave Sly's troubled Vietnam veteran a happy ending at last -- its closing shot shows the 60-year-old killing machine returning to his family farm in Arizona for the first time in decades -- it also gives us a character to fear, not root for. This evolution of Rambo as a character and mainstream action franchise, in turn, reveals uncomfortable, disturbing truths about the United States, and after a recent revisit, suggests that our own violent history should be treated with far more nuance than unquestioned cheerleading.
Set in the killing fields of Burma, Rambo is a brutal and bracing revisionist take on a hero whose name is synonymous with mindless action-movie excess, from the man who helped craft that excess in the first place. Yet it's precisely because of its unprecedented savagery that the film feels truer to John Rambo's roots than either of the sequels that preceded it: the movie, this time directed by Stallone, takes the philosophical tensions and fear of warfare present in the franchise since its politically fraught initial installment, loads them into a machine gun, and fires them directly at our collective face. Using all the tools at an old Hollywood hand’s disposal, it reflects the national mood by depicting its angry American as both suffering and inflicting trauma, in as traumatizing a manner as big-budget action movies have ever attempted.
John Rambo made his silver-screen debut in 1982's First Blood, adapted from the David Morell novel of the same name. Set in America's Pacific Northwest, the film features a conflict that's ideologically unthinkable in 2018: soldier vs. cops. Here, Stallone's ex-Green Beret killing machine is just a friendly, soft-spoken vagrant wandering around in a quixotic quest to find the last surviving member of his team from 'Nam, who's succumbed to cancer caused by exposure to Agent Orange. Dejected, homeless, and hungry, Rambo runs afoul of a small-town sheriff (played with welcome nuance by Brian Dennehy), who objects to his unwashed clothes and hippie hairstyle, and tries to chase him out of town. When Rambo resists, the sheriff arrests him on ginned-up charges, only for the thoroughly traumatized vet to escape and systematically take down every cop and weekend-warrior National Guardsman sent to recapture or kill him. The movie ends with Rambo, haunted to the brink of insanity by his memories from the war, sobbing into the arms of his former commander, Colonel Trautman (the franchise's only other recurring character, played by Richard Crenna).
First Blood's take on America's genocidal Indochinese adventure, and its opposition to conformist cops, is so left-wing, it's practically pink on first glance. But before he breaks down and surrenders, Rambo goes off on a right-leaning rant about getting spit on by protesters after "someone wouldn't let us win." It was this line from the climactic monologue, not his PTSD memories of wiping pieces of his friend off his own body or waking up and not knowing where he is or who he can talk to, that pointed the way toward the franchise's next two installments.
1985's preposterously titled Rambo: First Blood Part II and 1988's Rambo III are pure Reaganite fantasias. In II, Trautman pulls Rambo out of a Stateside prison labor camp (where he's serving time for his First Blood escapades) and sent to Vietnam to investigate rumors of unrescued American POWs, allowing him to refight and win America's most shameful military loss. In III, he's extracted from the Buddhist monastery where he works in Thailand and helps the holy warriors of Afghanistan rescue his mentor Trautman from the clutches of the invading Soviet army.
If nothing else, these sequels are interesting from an action-choreography perspective: Stallone hones his body into a weapon, then unleashes it on his enemies with the same high-energy fighting style he uses in First Blood, but with a way higher body count. For my money, Rambo III's use of horses and tanks, plus the striking sequence in which Rambo stalks his Soviet enemies in a cave, put it ahead of the second film in the series. Moreover, since Rambo's allies are from Afghanistan and his enemies are from the USSR, it's merely guilty of red-baiting, while the brutal Vietnamese communists of First Blood Part II add an uncomfortable dose of racist stereotyping into the mix.
Rambo III is otherwise quite stupid, reducing its title character's broken-hearted father-son relationship with Col. Trautman to buddy-comedy bullshit. Meanwhile, there’s an unspoken, unmistakably Reaganesque message built right into the plot itself: Sure, Vietnam was rough on our hero, just as it was rough on America. But put our boy in the right country and help him arm the right anti-communist rebels, and victory over evil, or at least a body count approximating it, can be ours once more.
Both sequels contain elements that undermine their surface-level politics. Part II's antagonists include a Washington intelligence-agency bureaucrat with a photo of Ronald Reagan on his wall, who's nevertheless willing and able to sell out American POWs to save face for the government; Rambo III shows Trautman telling his Soviet captors that the Vietnam War was a colossal mistake. These ideological fissures are narrow at best, but peer through them and you can still see the wayward, mentally ill soldier triggered into domestic terrorism by shit-kicking cops back in First Blood.
Picking up 20 years later, Rambo takes those odd ideological fissures, rips them open, and lives inside them. It may take place in Southeast Asian jungles and reach a level of violence so apocalyptic that its predecessors look G-rated, but it nevertheless reads as a direct response to the questions posed in First Blood. Literally, in fact. "Why you pushing me?" Rambo asks the antagonistic sheriff in that film, before warning him later on, "Don't push it, or I'll give you a war you won't believe." In Rambo, that war finally arrives in earnest, its commencement marked by a pronouncement that echoes Rambo's words from over a quarter century before. "When you're pushed," he says, "killing's as easy as breathing."
While Rambo harkens back to its lead character's origins, in many crucial ways it's an even bigger exception than First Blood to the franchise rules, making a case that Rambo is as much a character to fear as admire. Set along the border of military-junta era Burma, where government forces are murderously persecuting the Karen ethnic minority, it's the first Rambo movie centered on a conflict in which the United States took no major part and had no rooting interest beyond lip service to human-rights concerns. This frees writer-director-star Stallone to explore a sort of pure war, without the extra thematic and ethical burden of American patriotism or Cold War rivalry to complicate matters.
Juxtaposing the jauntily optimistic ending of Rambo III (Rambo and Trautman drive off together, joking that they're going soft, as the film closes with a dedication to "the gallant people of Afghanistan") with the character's cynical speech to missionary Sarah Miller (found in the longer, more character-driven extended edition of the movie) about the universal character of war -- "Old men start it, young men fight it, no one wins, everybody in the middle dies, and nobody tells the truth." -- it's reasonable to infer that subsequent, uh, developments in Afghanistan and the light they shed on the wisdom of American intervention abroad led Rambo to simply end his tortured relationship with his country altogether. Who'd have expected John Freaking Rambo, of all characters, to reach this conclusion when the film was released, at the tail end of the George W. Bush administration, before Obama was elected, and when our still-ongoing war on terror was a mere 6-and-a-half years old?
Had Stallone set his return to the franchise in Iraq or Afghanistan, of course, he'd have been forced to confront the fact that it's America who does most of the "pushing." And even here, in Burma, the bodies of unflatteringly depicted, largely interchangeable people from a foreign country are still the stage upon which these concerns play out. But the hero of Rambo: First Blood Part II, who demanded to know "Do we get to win this time?" and said all he and every other veteran wants is "for our country to love us as much as we love it!" is gone. "You didn't kill for your country," this new Rambo tells himself in the theatrical cut of the film. "You killed for yourself." The red, white, and blue overtones of the previous sequels, and even the original film, are gone. All that's left is blood red.
Rambo's other innovation/deviation, and this is key to understanding its approach to war, is the manner in which that blood gets spilled. First Blood, First Blood Part II, and Rambo III all share the traditional pacing and plotting techniques of the modern action film: ups and downs, bursts and lulls, captures and escapes, memorable secondary villains to encounter and defeat, and battles of both words and wits with the Big Bad prior to the final, decisive confrontation.
Like no other action movie I've ever seen (and brother, I've seen plenty), Rambo shoves a grenade in this hallowed structure and blows it to kingdom come. Sure, there are a couple reels of hemming and hawing as the missionaries show up and eventually persuade Rambo to take them upriver into Burma. He has to do a little killing on the way to save them from pirates, but that's the extent of his involvement in any kind of military capacity -- he just drops them off and sails on back, already haunted by his own actions.
But when the pastor of the missionaries' church appears, revealing that the missionaries have gone missing and asking Rambo's help in guiding a team of mercenaries to their last known location, all hesitation ceases. Rambo takes the job, joins the mercenaries, infiltrates the military's base, rescues the few surviving prisoners, flees, and methodically murders every man sent to stop him. That's it. He doesn't get taken prisoner, he doesn't rest up during lulls in the action, he doesn't have to face off against any second-in-command muscle, nothing. It's like taking the job flips a switch. All he does is kill until there's no one left to be killed. Compare this to the pacing of the other three films, or any other action movie that comes readily to mind (just for example, think about Die Hard, or The Terminator, or even the more recent Mad Max: Fury Road), and you'll see just how goddamn weird this is.
So are the methods with which Rambo does his killing here. His famous bow and arrows do make a brief appearance, taking out a small band of soldiers who are in the middle of tormenting prisoners by making them run a minefield gauntlet for sport. And the knife-sword hybrid he forges -- it looks more like the hooked swords wielded by the Uruk-hai in The Lord of the Rings than his previous blades -- gets a workout, decapitating one man and disemboweling another. He also rips a dude's throat out, slowly and methodically. It's like watching John Rambo become Jason Voorhees: In a PTSD-flashback nightmare, unused footage from First Blood is edited to make it appear as though Trautman shot Rambo to death rather than accepting his surrender, like Dr. Frankenstein destroying his creation.
Yet the vast majority of Rambo's killing is done with even less physical dynamism than a lumbering horror-movie slasher. This Rambo is a world away from the figure who nimbly leapt through the forests of the Pacific Northwest and the jungles of Vietnam, or who rode through the rocky wilderness of Afghanistan on horseback like a knight errant. In the climactic chase sequence, he eliminates one squad pursuing him simply by triggering a mine next to a gigantic unexploded British bomb left over from World War II, and the resulting shockwave levels half the jungle. The grand, grisly finale, sees Rambo spend the entire battle immobile behind a stationary machine gun mounted on the back of a jeep, raining bullets down upon the enemy like Zeus hurling lightning bolts from Olympus. Seeing him scream and strain as he swivels the gun this way and that -- slicing foot soldiers in two, tearing through the passengers in a personnel carrier driving toward the battle, annihilating a gunboat entering the fray from the river -- is seeing action-movie violence stripped of all its glamour and excitement, reduced to a hulking, 60-year-old brute delivering death from a distance. The metaphors for an aging American empire launching drone attacks at weddings from half a world away write themselves, just a few short years before the drone program ramped up during the Obama administration.
What's more, Rambo is the most grotesquely, graphically violent action movie I've ever seen. It's not just the CGI-enhanced gouts of blood, or the size of the holes blasted through enemy bodies when they get hit by a sniper's bullets, or the sheer number of severed limbs and shredded torsos, though they do add up to make the cartoonish mass slaughter of Rambo III look like the relatively non-lethal combat of First Blood; the sheer viciousness and cruelty of the killing is more notable even than the gore. Rambo begins with news footage of the Burmese conflict and corpses left behind, which in the '80s would've seemed as bizarre as an Indiana Jones movie opening with archival footage from liberated concentration camps. And when the evil military detachment attacks the village where the missionaries are treating the sick and injured, the savagery is so complete it's hard to describe without sounding like a psychopath. In the theatrical release, no fewer than four children are murdered onscreen; the extended edition cuts the kid who gets shot in the chest at point-blank range and the one who gets slowly bayonetted in an extreme close-up, but keeps the boy who gets blown away when a bullet passes through his father's body and into him, as well as the child who gets torn from his screaming mother's arms and tossed head over heels into a raging fire.
Adults fare little better; their limbless bodies fly through the air like throwing stars, their corpses are left hanging or fed to pigs or simply allowed to rot where they dropped, their heads are mounted on sticks like something out of Apocalypse Now. The Burmese soldiers are also equal-opportunity rapists, assaulting both female and male prisoners. (Again, the extended edition tones down the original, this time by trimming some of the commander's most flagrant, and arguably homophobically depicted, gestures toward the young man he victimizes.)
Despite the ease with which humans extinguish life in the movie, Rambo comes across as less exploitative than the treatment of the Vietnamese and Afghan people in the two previous installments. This stems in part from Stallone’s terrifyingly flat-affect performance and no-nonsense direction, which eschew maudlin sentiment in favor of gritted-teeth rage, but also -- unlike II and III -- from the fact that the film depicts people from the country where it’s set as heroes, villains, and victims, instead of settling for one or two out of three. However unflattering and orientalist these depictions may be, Stallone is admitting for the first time that this is their fight, and that the supposed moral might of America as represented by Rambo is superfluous (at best) to their struggle.
But through its strange structure and horrific violence, Rambo goes even further. It depicts war as something "in our blood," as Rambo himself puts it. There’s no higher thought or political virtue involved, just the mundane, mindless drive to murder people. By portraying John Rambo as a living weapon that, once activated, cannot be deactivated, the film makes good on its thesis statement: "When you're pushed, killing's as easy as breathing." Here, violence rages out of control the moment a point of no return is passed, and it makes you wonder, "Have we all passed the point of no return?"
In Rambo, Stallone reexamines one of his signature characters and unearths the monster within. This terrifying angel of death is the same person we cheered for as he refought Vietnam, then rebooted it in Afghanistan; the nightmares of slaughter and madness that drove him to destroy a small town have found an avatar in the man himself. It shows a filmmaker, and a character, grappling with the true nature of violence and war in a way that no similar franchise has ever been willing to do, in a country that has yet to do it. Ten years after the fact, it's lost none of its strange, disturbing power.