It’s not impossible to understand why audiences would admire John J. Rambo. A humble soldier who served his nation honorably, only to return home to be ostracized by his fellow countrymen for fighting in a controversial war, he has only ever wanted to do the right thing. He’s not the most brilliant orator — his skill is killing, not speaking — but deep down, he’s a sensitive soul, psychologically scarred by what he saw in Vietnam and carrying around that emotional baggage for the rest of his days. There’s something deeply noble, even tragic, about Rambo and his endless quest to find peace.
Here’s the problem, though: He’s played by Sylvester Stallone, which undercuts a lot of what makes the character so potentially compelling. Maybe initially, Rambo was a misunderstood figure, a wild animal trapped in a “civilized” world he doesn’t understand, but as the franchise grew bigger and Stallone more famous, the character stopped being sympathetic and, instead, became a weird sort of American wish-fulfillment mechanism. At first, Rambo was a victim of our country’s sins — now, he exonerates and solves them.
Rambo: Last Blood is the first Rambo movie in 11 years — the original First Blood came out in 1982 — but it speaks to the American temperament in the same way that the earlier sequels did. The world is filled with difficult problems that won’t go away overnight. They sting and they linger, and no amount of optimism or negotiating will cure them. Fortunately, at the movies, we’ve got Rambo — he’ll just go in there and kill everyone.
In this fifth installment, which the producers swear is the final chapter, Rambo is tending to his ranch in Arizona while still combatting the PTSD that’s inflicted him for decades. He’s never had much time for family, but he’s opened up his home to teenager Gabriela (Yvette Monreal) and her sweet grandmother Maria (Adriana Barraza), who watch over this tormented older man. But Gabriela wants to journey to Mexico to reconnect with her estranged father — her mother has been dead for some time — against Rambo’s wishes. (Rambo knows that the guy is, in Trump-speak, a bad hombre.) Nevertheless, she goes across the border, discovering two things: (1) Rambo was right about her dad being a jerk; and (2) if you’re a women who ends up in a Mexican club in a cut-rate movie thriller, you will almost certainly get roofied and kidnapped into a sex-trafficking ring. And now it’s up to Rambo to save her.
Co-written by Stallone and directed by Get the Gringo’s Adrian Grunberg, Last Blood feels like it was fashioned out of a series of cable-news scare topics: Dirty Mexicans! Lewd sex rings! Runaway teens! The movie’s intentionally more stripped-down than previous Rambo adventures — he doesn’t shoot a single bazooka — and is meant to be a pseudo-Western of sorts in which our aged warrior faces off against the forces of evil for one last showdown. But as always, Rambo is here to take out the trash, laying waste to difficult societal issues with a snap of the fingers — or, more accurately, a thrust of that big-ass knife he’s been carrying around for a half-century.
This wasn’t how Rambo started out. Based on David Morrell’s 1972 novel, First Blood presented us with a soft-spoken soldier who mostly kept to himself, seeking out his old Green Beret buddies because they were the only people who understood what he’d been through. In that first film, Rambo encountered some jerk cops who didn’t like him because he was a Vietnam vet — basically, they consider him a drifter and a bum — and so they antagonize him, not realizing that they’re setting off a powder keg.
When Rambo exploded in First Blood, it was a pained, delayed reaction to the trauma of Vietnam — sure, the movie might have been tacky and exploitative, but that link to many soldiers’ actual trauma gave his story an unexpected poignancy. And Stallone was equal to the task: Good ol’ underdog Rocky will forever be the character that embodies the actor’s spirit and soul, but in First Blood, he tapped into some of that same helplessness and vulnerability, especially during a surprisingly emotional final speech. When Rambo gets carted off to jail at the end of First Blood, it doesn’t feel like a victory — it feels like a lament for a broken man who did nothing wrong.
It’s telling, however, that First Blood director Ted Kotcheff struggled to get the movie off the ground. As he once told Filmmaker, the original studio, Warner Bros., “decided they didn’t want to make the film, because Vietnam was one of the worst military disasters in centuries and everybody hated the war. [Studio head Bob Shapiro] said, ‘The right wing thinks the veterans are a bunch of losers and the left wing thinks they’re baby killers. We’ve got Ronald Reagan as president now and old-fashioned patriotism is back in. This is not a patriotic film.’”
Those obstacles weren’t an issue for the sequels, which took care of the problem not only by making Rambo an ass-kicking hero but also by having him essentially win the Vietnam War in the sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II, in which Rambo rescues a bunch of POWs. For 1988’s Rambo III, John checked another item off our national anxiety list, pitting him against those godless-commie Soviets (in Afghanistan, no less).
Nobody had to doubt the patriotism of Part II and Rambo III, which played like love letters to Reagan’s view of American strength. Somehow, though, earlier this year, Stallone insisted, “[Rambo] was never supposed to be, by any means, a political statement. It became one. … I’m not a political animal. I never have been. I don’t want to be. I’m just a storyteller.” Stallone can object as much as he likes, but those sequels very much catered to an audience who wanted to see worrying newspaper headlines reduced to rah-rah displays of American might. In that same interview, Stallone basically acknowledged his complicity, saying, “Once Reagan said, ‘I saw Rambo, and he’s a Republican!’”
We went decades without Rambo solving America’s problems, although there were rumors that, post-9/11, Stallone was working on a movie in which the action hero took on the Taliban, which seems like a very John Rambo thing to do. But finally in 2008, we got Rambo, concerning John going into Myanmar, a country with which the U.S. had frosty relations at the time because of their human-rights abuses, to save some Christian missionaries. Stallone, who directed Rambo, called the war-torn country “a hellhole”:
“I witnessed the aftermath — survivors with legs cut off and all kinds of land-mine injuries, maggot-infested wounds and ears cut off. We saw many elephants with blown off legs. We hear about Vietnam and Cambodia, and this was more horrific. This is full-scale genocide. It would be a whitewashing not to show what’s over there. I think there is a story that needs to be told.”
Probably not a lot of moviegoers paid attention to those atrocities, but in the wake of 9/11, it was nonetheless comforting for some to see Rambo once again killing tons of foreign-looking bad guys, setting an imperiled world back on its axis. At a time of deep anxiety, John would, once again, make everything right.
By comparison, battling some Mexican criminals in Last Blood is small potatoes after Rambo’s all-out wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Myanmar. But that shift in focus nonetheless speaks to our national moment, where we seem less scared of evil regimes thousands of miles away but utterly frightened by who might be sneaking across our borders. Last Blood is a garbage movie — uninspired, indifferently acted, violent without being cathartic — but it’s infused with the same reactionary spirit that’s animated every Rambo sequel.
Near the beginning of Part II, Rambo’s trusted confidant Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) tells him he’ll be released from prison for what he did in First Blood if he undertakes a dangerous mission in Vietnam — the logic being that Rambo is one of the few men on Earth who knows the terrain. Rambo accepts, but he has a question: “Do we get to win this time?” That’s the question at the heart of every Rambo movie after First Blood, which understood that winning wasn’t always possible. Since then, Stallone hasn’t allowed for any lose-lose scenarios. America always has to win. The only whiff of poignancy in Last Blood is the aging actor’s vain attempt to keep that myth alive for an audience that clearly needs to believe it.
Here are three other takeaways from Rambo: Last Blood…
#1. Meet the man who designed Rambo’s knife.
It takes a while in Last Blood before Rambo pulls out his signature weapon, a frighteningly sharp and long hunting knife. It’s been his accessory of choice since First Blood, and I always wondered if it was a particular brand of knife or something specifically made for him. Turns out, we have Jimmy Lile to thank for that fearsome blade.
I point you to a 1987 issue of Black Belt, which breaks down the origin of Rambo’s knife. According to writer Mark Jackson, Stallone approached Lile, a professional knife-maker, about crafting Rambo’s weapon. Jackson writes that “Lile imagined himself in an isolated survival situation and deliberately limited his resources to only one tool with which he would have to get by.” He transformed a Bowie knife into a survival weapon that could hold different items (like a compass, matches and needle and thread) while possessing a blade capable of handling both firewood and “the canopy of a downed aircraft” equally skillfully. (Fellow knife-maker Gil Hibben went on to create Rambo knives for later installments.)
And in case you’re wondering, yes, you can buy “Rambo knives” online just about everywhere. Sadly, the headband and tank top are sold separately.
#2. Does anyone remember the animated Rambo series?
In between Part II and Rambo III, there was another piece of exciting Rambo content to consume, especially for those too young to see the R-rated movies. That was 1986’s short-lived Rambo: The Force of Freedom, an animated series in which our hero fought crime around the world, assisted by a ninja, a master of disguise and a “mechanical genius known as Turbo.”
At the time, there were animated action series like Transformers and G.I. Joe based on popular toys, but not much in the way of kids’ shows inspired by violent R-rated films, which made this adaptation controversial. Neil Ross, who voiced Rambo in The Force of Freedom, later said, “I seem to recall that there was a certain rumble in the press about it. But if you look at the actual shows, they were almost laughably non-violent. Rambo bends over backwards to avoid violence.
The Force of Freedom lasted less than a year, but you can still find random clips of it on YouTube. My favorite is this one, which just compiles non-sequiturs from different episodes into a crazy quilt of 1980s animated weirdness. Apparently, Rambo went to space in one episode? And fought dinosaurs in another? It’s amazing this thing actually existed.
#3. So, did Rambo give a shout-out to the Mujahideen or what?
In Rambo III, Rambo teams up with Afghan freedom fighters to take on the Russians. Back then, there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with that — the 1980s calculus was “Soviets bad, Afghans good” — but ever since 9/11, there’s been confusion about whether or not Rambo III saluted those freedom fighters, known as the Mujahideen. After all, the Mujahideen helped give birth to the Taliban, which was sympathetic to Osama bin Laden’s mission. So let’s clear that up.
For a while now, there’s been a belief that Rambo III originally ended with a dedication “to the brave Mujahideen fighters of Afghanistan” — and that it was later changed to a more benign salute “to the gallant people of Afghanistan” as a face-saving, ass-covering measure:
But as funny as it would be to assume that Stallone was that wrong in terms of throwing his support behind America’s enemies, it appears this is an urban legend. A few years ago, a lengthy thread on Skeptics Stack Exchange tried to solve this mystery, with users linking to a New York Times review from the film’s original release that mentioned the “gallant people of Afghanistan” line. Still, the belief persists that the alternate credit exists. (Writer Jesse Hawken, who tweeted the two screenshots, swears he saw the Mujahideen reference when he saw Rambo III back in 1988.)
For what it’s worth, I’ve now watched the film’s ending on three separate YouTube links, and they each say “the gallant people of Afghanistan.” That, of course, doesn’t change truthers’ belief that the credit was changed somewhere down the line — or the fact that, y’know, Rambo does basically help what will become the Taliban during the movie. It’s almost like America isn’t always so good at knowing who its allies are.