Sylvester Stallone in First Blood (All Photos: Lionsgate)
With Rambo: Last Blood now in theaters (and reviewed here), here’s a look at all the previous installments in the series.
Based on David Morrell’s novel, First Blood (1982) is the first and best of the franchise. In his most famous role next to Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallone stars as John Rambo, a Vietnam vet who finds himself harassed by a small town’s intolerant sheriff (Brian Dennehy). After being arrested on bogus charges, Rambo breaks free and heads into the woods, whereupon he declares war on the law enforcement yahoos who attempt to recapture him. Richard Crenna, who would also appear in the first two sequels, co-stars as Colonel Trautman, the man who turned Rambo into a fighting machine during the war, and that’s David Caruso as the most sympathetic of the deputies. Rating (out of four): ★★★
A modest sleeper hit, First Blood inspired Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), which turned out to be one of the top-grossing films of its year (second only to Back to the Future). The slight hints at character complexity on display in the first film have been excised at this point, resulting in a straightforward — and tedious — action yarn in which Rambo single-handedly saves a group of POWs still being held in Vietnam years after the war has ended. Incidentally, one of the screenwriters was James Cameron, showing none of the ingenuity he brought to his scripts for The Terminator the year before and Aliens the year after. Rating: ★★
Rambo III (1988) somehow manages to be even more silly than its immediate predecessor, with the taciturn muscleman sneaking into Afghanistan to rescue Colonel Trautman from the Russians. “Who do you think this man is, God?” sneers a vicious Russkie to Trautman. “God would have mercy,” replies the colonel. “Rambo won’t.” In other words, this is a vanity project of the highest order, although American audiences were clearly burnt out: Despite being one of the big titles to open the ’88 summer movie season, it failed to earn back its budget stateside (though it was huge overseas). Rating: ★½
Likewise, Rambo (2008) also failed to recoup its budget in U.S. theaters, though bringing the character back after a 20-year hiatus probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Here, Rambo helps a group of Christian relief workers escape from their captors in war-ravaged Burma. Stallone (who also directed) obviously wanted to shed light on the real-life atrocities being committed in that country, but wrapping that message in a movie featuring a comic-book superman proves to be a miscalculation, as actual newsreel footage of victims, combined with the movie’s incredibly high gore quotient (kids are bayoneted through the chest, women are raped and shot, others are alternately disemboweled or beheaded), leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Rating: ★½