The Rambo Saga

He was the original action hero; the first grizzled vet to come up against evil warlords home and abroad; the father of a thousand clich├ęs; but, do the films hold up compared to their descendants? Is Rambo still the biggest badass in movie history?

There's only one way to find out; cue the music and hit the jump:

First Blood

The "plot": The first Rambo movie is a real eye-opener for the uninitiated. It's based on a novel; yes, with words; a hard-edged, political thriller about a Vietnam veteran who hitch-hikes through a small town and runs afoul of the local constabulary, who have no idea who they're messing with.

Yaargh! What follows is historical fact, yar regularly scheduled dose of boobs and explosions will continue shortly

If you don't know the politics: The Vietnam War saw the US take the side of South Vietnam in a civil war against North Vietnam and its Russian allies in a bid to stop the expansion of communism. The propaganda, however, was that the troops were going in to save a group of primitive foreigners from the big bad Soviets.

The reality was very different. The war was fought in a harsh climate over unknown terrain, which favoured the local guerilla forces over the US' more sophisticated tactics and the battle was hard fought. In addition, the American soldiers were hardly seen as heroes, but instead, as much invaders as the Soviets, with resistance movements in South Vietnam even attacking troops who thought they were helping them. A combination of the heat, the harsh conditions, the unwinnable war and the seeming ingratitude, led many troops to barbarism and many atrocities were committed and witnessed.

Eventually, these mentally-scarred soldiers returned home as the US withdrew in defeat, hoping for a heroes welcome. Instead, the fledgling hippy movement greeted them with accusation. In their absence, the tide of public opinion had turned against the war, which most people now saw as the US sticking its nose where it didn't belong. Also, numerous images and reports of these atrocities had found their way back to the US, convincing the public that the soldiers were "baby killers" and worse.

Many soldiers were conscripted, meaning not only that it wasn't their choice to go out there in the first place, but that there was also no place in the military for them following the war. With no pastoral care, this meant the the States was flooded with a group of highly-trained and psychologically-damaged commandos who were confronted with hatred everywhere they went; an extremely volatile situation.

If you're interested in allegorical portrayals of this issue, you could do worse than to seek out an episode of the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series entitled "The Hunted", or, the more literary may like to read Joe Haldeman's excellent The Forever War.

Verdict: This situation was exactly what David Morrell's novel was attempting to illustrate. John Rambo is precisely one of these ticking time bombs: turned into the perfect weapon, then let loose on US soil by the country's own government. When confronted by a xenophobic local militia, our hero is taciturn and peaceful, until pushed too far by a fascistic deputy. He then slips into "war mode" and begins a vicious, though initially pacificistic and non-homicidal, campaign against the local law enforcement, then the state police and finally the national guard.

Unlike the novel, Rambo here is an almost-completely sympathetic character. This anti-hero treatment adds some impressive moments of macho bad-assery that were to become the saga's stock in trade. Still, this is a film filled with both some of the best cheesy action moments ever to grace the silver screen, and also a reasonable plot and something intelligent to say.

Rating: Classic

First Blood: Part II

The "plot": As stated above, what really appealed to cinema-goers about Rambo, was not its commentary on the Vietnam war, but Rambo's commando antics. As such, it was only a matter of time before someone suggested sending Rambo back to Vietnam to kick some commie ass. Along the way, our hero has some time for romance with B-movie actress Julia Nickson, who is about as Vietnamese as we are, before rescuing some PoWs and heading back to base for revenge on the "suits" who set him up.

If you don't know the politics: It's no secret that a lot of PoWs were held during the Vietnam war. Allegedly, many of these were left behind when the US pulled out and no attempt was made to rescue them in order to avoid re-igniting hostilities with North Vietnam.

Despite numerous organisations claiming there are PoWs in Vietnam to this day, a Senate Select Committee on the subject has found no evidence of the existence of abandoned soldiers in captivity in Vietnam.

Verdict: Stallone is never one to miss an opportunity to exploit a hotbed topic; however, the political subplot of this sequel is beside the point. This is a balls-to-the-wall actioner, with minimal brain-power requirements. While the intellectual aspects may have been cut out, this is still just as effective a commando movie. The climactic helicopter chase between Rambo and Steven Berkoff's Russian officer is a masterclass in tension and fist-pumping victory.

The final speech may attempt to bring back the veteran theme, but is really just humorous. This is a big, dumb action movie, but nonetheless an enjoyable one; so long as you can ignore the flagrant racism rife throughout the plot.

Rating: Better than you remember

Rambo III

The "plot": Moving on a generation, Rambo's back in action, but this time he's sent out to Afghanistan and, since this time he's going to rescue his old commanding officer, this time... it's personal. Still, the political edge is there, you see, the film is "dedicated to the gallant people of Afghanistan" who overthrew their communist oppressors... like Al Quaeda... oh boy...

If you don't know the politics: Once again wading in to a foreign conflict in order to halt the Soviet march, the US took the side of the local Mujahideen rebels against a communist invasion in Afghanistan... eventually. You see, the States was initially reticent to become involved in another foreign conflict, yet a group of celebrities and politicians lodged a campaign to push the US to provide weapons, training and aid to the Mujahideen.

Of course, this all backfired. Once the Soviets were sent packing, the more extremist elements of the rebels, now financed, trained and armed by the US, turned their jihad on the "corruption" of the West. This culminated in the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the London Underground, respectively. The folly that was the campaign of support for the Mujahideen is document by the entertaining Tom Hanks movie, Charlie Wilson's War.

Verdict: Oh dear.

A lot of things about this film come close to jumping the shark for the whole series. The treatment of the Mujahideen as a charity case, in hindsight, leaves the entire film dangerously close to self parody, if not downright offensive. Still, Stallone was not to know how the situation would turn out at the time, so you can't really blame him so much as pity him.

What really pushes the envelope, however, is that scene. Nothing we have seen so far can possibly compare to the most insane moment in the entire series and possibly film history in its entirety. Speared through the side by a shrapnel stake, Rambo nonetheless continues to fight until a convenient moment to perform some field medicine. Without so much as a swig of spirits as anaesthetic, he pulls the stake from his side, then breaks open a bullet and pours the gunpowder into his wound. He then lights the gunpowder and cauterises a hole right through his side with a puff of flame; as you do...

Despite all this craziness, this is, again, a competent action flick. The interaction between Rambo and sidekick Richard Crenna is fun and the variety of bad guys getting shot, stabbed and blowed up keep the action hounds barking. In fact, for a long time, the film appeared in the Guinness Book of Records as the most violent movie in history with 221 individual acts of violence and 108 deaths; as parodied with an on-screen kill count in the Charlie Sheen spoof Hot Shots! Part Deux. This accolade makes it worth watching alone.

Rating: Better than you remember


The "plot": A retired and grumpy Rambo is guilt-tripped into taking a group of naive missionaries into war-torn Burma, where they promptly get captured by a brutal warlord, who keeps them safely waiting for Rambo to arrive, despite repeatedly forcing the locals to play a version of  British Bulldog with landmines. Surely enough, Rambo tags along with a bunch of not-nearly-as-hard-as-he-is mercenaries and saves the day.

If you don't know the politics: Put simply, the majority, ruling Burmese do not like the small group of Karen farmers who live within their country. Their treatment by the Burmese military is such that the situation is a prime concern for the world's human rights organisations. Ethnic cleansing and various other atrocities have been reported, leading many of the Karenni to seek refuge in neighbouring countries.

Verdict: Never one to let a foreign hot topic lie, Stallone focuses his final shot at the franchise on the Burmese situation. To excuse this, Rambo has, for some reason, moved to Thailand. There's no Trautman due to the sad passing of Crenna and Stallone looks somewhat like a bloated corpse.

In truth, the whole film is little more than a series of people underestimating Rambo while he ignores them... then continues to ignore them... then lets someone else kill the bad guys. In fact, other than one quick-draw moment, Rambo's main contribution is to take control of a large, jeep-mounted machine gun; hardly impressive. Meanwhile, the rather uninteresting mercenaries steal all the action.

Whilst the always-interesting Julie Benz adds both some acting chops and some much-needed aesthetics, overall this is a stunted film with little emotional heft, no intellectual edge and barely any testosterone-fuelled bad-assery. In short, this isn't a Rambo movie. 

Rumours suggest that Stallone originally wanted to make a Dog Soldiers-style movie where Rambo took on a group of werewolves. At least this bat's-arse concept could have been fun. Oh well, at least the final entry in the Rambo franchise is better than The Expendables...

Rating:  Best forgotten

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