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Saturday, Nov 23, 2019

Rambo Last Blood: A final message from the original action hero

Stallone is now 73. We last saw him as Rambo 10 years ago, and by then the character had gone from rebellious in the early ’80s to deeply dark and twisted. What will his last words be?

hollywood Updated: Sep 14, 2019 19:29 IST
Manik Sharma
Manik Sharma
Hindustan Times
Sylvester Stallone’s quietly magnetic portrayal made Rambo universally popular, and the soldier’s shadow loomed over the action heros that followed.
Sylvester Stallone’s quietly magnetic portrayal made Rambo universally popular, and the soldier’s shadow loomed over the action heros that followed.

In one scene in Rambo: First Blood (1982), Sylvester Stallone holds a knife to the neck of the local sheriff, somewhere in the woods in small-town northwest America, and says ‘Don’t push it or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe’.

John Rambo has been pushed for over three decades, and has single-handedly waged wars and brought bedlam to the lives of men he usually gives a polite warning to first. Though Stallone’s quietly magnetic portrayal of the archetypal action hero became universally popular, it is interesting to examine how America’s politics cast its shadow on the character, as much as Stallone cast one on the action stars that followed.

The fifth Rambo movie — Last Blood — will be released in India on September 20. Since Stallone is now 73, it’s safe to assume this will be the character’s last outing, so here’s a look back at the evolution of the character that became the gold standard for action heroes.

In 1982, the same year as First Blood, a third instalment of the Rocky franchise was released; it had already made Stallone a household name, and an Academy award nominee. His bodybuilder’s frame wasn’t new to the screens, but the sight of him with a gun in his hands was.

In Rambo’s wake: Action heroes of the ’80s & ’90s
  • Steven Seagal: Best known for his fixed grin, odd fight moves and espionage films like Under Siege in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger: The face of the brawny, gun-toting action hero of the 1980s, 1990s, and of course the record-breaking Terminator franchise.
  • Jean-Claude Van Damme: Perhaps the most like Rambo, he is best known for martial-arts-focused revenge films like Bloodsport and Street Fighter.
  • Harrison Ford: After Star Wars and Indiana Jones came the action hero stage of The Fugitive, Clear & Present Danger, Air Force One.
  • Bruce Willis: The tough-talking cop John McClane of Die Hard still defines a certain cheeky, understated, masculinity on screen.

In First Blood, John Rambo, a former Vietnam War veteran, visits Hope, Washington, to meet an ex-colleague he eventually learns has passed away. Ragged, unkempt and reclusive, he stands out and is therefore apprehended by the local sheriff ‘on suspicion’. Stallone spends the rest of the film trying to survive in Hope’s forests, waging war against the local officers who want him out.

So Rambo didn’t just introduce the pecs and shirtless display of abs to the superhero genre, it also took on the abusive and cynical nature of local law-enforcement in 1980s America. And it invented the favourable coincidence of action heroes with access to military-level training and weaponry.

Rambo’s weapons here were the bow and arrow and the knife. The first film’s success led to the sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), released once again in the same year as a Rocky film (there would eventually be eight Rocky movies; the last one, Creed (2015), segueing into the story of the son of a rival of the boxer Rocky Balboa).

Back to 1985, Stallone’s cache, his reputation, was at its peak. And producers in Hollywood wanted to cash in. But with popularity comes a sense of responsibility towards narratives outside the cult of cinema. Rambo’s politics, therefore, underwent drastic change.

The second film came out in the midst of America’s cold war with Soviet Russia. So Rambo became pro-Establishment. The action shifted to Vietnam, the soldier was sent back to find and bring home prisoners of war, and he ended up blowing up half of a Vietnamese forest in a fervor of nationalists pride.

In keeping with then US President Ronald Reagan’s vision, Rambo essentially prevailed in a war that the US had (in the real world) technically, embarrassingly lost. 

Rocky 4 (1985) carried the theme into the boxing ring too, as Balboa defeated the ‘savage’ Soviet boxer Drogo. Incidentally, the USSR responded in kind, with propaganda action films like The Detached Mission (1985), where Soviet soldiers bravely battled and won against sneaky NATO crooks.

The third Rambo film took Stallone’s war-weary hero to Afghanistan, where he fought on the side of the locals (and America) in the Soviet-Afghan war. The forests were replaced by desert, but Rambo’s brutal methods, his cold, sombre approach to violent set pieces, remained the same. The hero had, however, begun to brood, question the nature of war and why people fight.

The success of Rambo spawned a search for the next action hero in American cinema. The likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the rather more popular (and cleverer) Bruce Willis of the Die Hard series arrived on the scene, each with a different set of skills and characteristics.

John Rambo’s shadow loomed large, but it would be two decades before Stallone returned to his much-loved role, for Rambo (2008). This was one of the most violent, viscerally nightmarish films ever put together. Stallone’s aging hero waged war in a Burmese jungle, without a political compass or so much as a frown. Rambo, the film suggested, had been all along the child of war and violence, as much as he sought to escape it.

As the new Rambo rolls into theatres, one wonders what final message the killing machine, the original action hero, will leave us with, other than of course, the blood and corpses.