This article contains spoilers for Rambo: Last Blood.
There is a scene at the bloody climax of Rambo: Last Blood during which the ageing titular hero, having already apprehended his target by shooting arrows into all four of his limbs, proceeds to hack away at his rib cage using a large hunting knife before yanking out his heart with his bare hands. All of this unfolds in grizzly, wince-inducing detail before our very eyes and comes at the end of an incessantly gory sequence that sees Rambo dispatch dozens of non-descript goons in a flurry of bullets and booby-traps — think Home Alone meets Saw.
Believe it or not, there was a time when Rambo was fun.
The iconic character, who began life as an early ‘70s literary creation by author David Morrell before spawning a now-five film franchise spanning the best part of 40 years, has never been a stranger to excess, of course — in fact, the series’ brand of often implausible, always over the top action has become its lasting legacy. But, in 2019, Rambo’s bone-crunching, flesh-splattered escapades have bludgeoned their way to uncharted territory for the character: beyond the borders of good taste which, in the process, leaves a very bad one in the mouth.
It’s a far cry from Rambo’s rather subdued cinematic roots. Given what has come since, its difficult to recall a time when Rambo was a reclusive, PTSD-suffering Vietnam vet. wandering the streets of small-town America, absent of purpose or a true sense of belonging. But in Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood, the film that inaugurated the character onto the silver screen and into popular culture back in 1982, John Rambo was just that. The film, an understated character study that favoured intriguing nuance and unspoken traumas over body count, was a more meaningful examination of the US’ treatment of its returning soldiers that had the occasional outburst of violence. Still, only one person actually dies on screen, and even then, its central tough guy is hardly to blame. Rather than simply flexing some bicep, Stallone flexes his acting talent with a portrayal that impressively marries a macho façade with a subdued sorrow: as much a victim as he is a soldier.
The franchise’s following two instalments, however — the clunkily titled Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III — took things in an entirely different tonal direction. The reflexive, poignant sensibility of Kotcheff’s film was instead replaced by a lean, mean revenge narrative filled with countless deaths, explosions and a good ol’ fashioned Mexican standoff-meets-medieval joust between a tank and a chopper. The Rambo who had once desperately tried to conceal himself in the woods outside Hope, Washington, troubled and desperate, had become a fully-fledged action movie caricature, complete with a look — bullet belt draped over one shoulder and the legendary, but never explained, red headband — that would become a staple feature of the fancy-dress party circuit.
Over the course of three films, Stallone’s Rambo had gained both muscle and popularity, while also rapidly increasing the amount of blood on his hands. As the violence racked up in ever-more inventive ways, however, the deeper, more meaningful substance of John Rambo disappeared as quickly and mysteriously as his t-shirt. While the sequels always bore violence with an exploitative tinge, they were almost always entertaining. And, with action so immoderate, with Rambo’s nonchalant attitude to killing so imprudent, and with bloodshed so cartoonish, the films could safely exist in the category of pulpy, silly popcorn fair, devoured by audiences at a comfortable narrative distance.
Then Rambo had a breather. A Terrence Malick style 20-year hiatus from the silver screen followed the series’ third film, which saw a then World Record 108 on-screen deaths and ended with Rambo leaving Afghanistan with long-time mentor Col. Sam Trautman (played by the late Richard Crenna).
2008’s return to the franchise, however — simply titled Rambo — suggested something far more serious. Set during the crisis in Burma, the series re-introduced Rambo as a now-visibly aged recluse living in a small village in the jungle where, naturally, he holds down a job as a snake capturer. Despite being the closest in tone to First Blood — fleeting first act moments suggest Rambo is still quietly battling with trauma — Rambo’s resurgence, if nothing else, was memorable for its notable shift in its aptitude for violence. Perhaps a result of the rapid development in visual effects during the two decades he was away, the gore was suddenly a lot more graphic, a lot more shocking, and altogether more unpleasant. In one particularly grizzly sequence, a 62-year old Stallone stands at the trigger of a jeep-mounted machine gun and cuts down an entire army of Burmese mercenaries in a deafening flurry of bullets, bellows, blood and guts.
In hindsight, it was a sign of things to come. With the release of Last Blood last week, John Rambo’s trip across the Mexican border to rescue his teenage niece, despite early attempts to recapture the human soul of the first film, is ultimately marred both by ugly, Trump-era, xenophobic stereotypes and cheap, nasty, insensitive revelling in ultraviolence. Given the current socio-political climate, it’s not a look that suits the series’ eponymous hero.
There’s also an unshakeable ignorance to the violence on show. In a similar vein to how the found footage subgenre of horror has come to believe jump scares have the monopoly on terror, or how struggling comedies fall back on toilet humour in a desperate bid to generate laughter — both of which, when used smartly, can be truly effective, of course — Last Blood appears to exclusively equate grittiness with bloodshed. It’s a narrow, simplistic outlook to have, particularly when a much more engrossing movie would see Rambo fighting with just one person: himself. As it is, the only thing Last Blood seems to equate with bloodshed is boredom.
But, as its very title indicates, Last Blood carries a feeling of finality. The film’s ending plays out with a slow-motion montage of Rambo’s key moments across five movies, accompanied by Stallone’s gruff vocals giving a reflective monologue about his acceptance of his outcast status — “I tried to come home” he mutters, “but I never really arrived”.
If, however, Last Blood proves to ignore its own promise and open the door for further franchise instalments, then Rambo could really do with reining it in. Ironically, for Rambo to cut deepest, he needs to spend much less time with a knife in his hand.
Rambo: Last Blood is out in UK cinemas now.