State of the Franchise: Rambo

It’s certainly an interesting day and age we live in when it comes to cinema. A successful film gets older and needs an update? Crank out a remake. Oh no. We screwed up on this attempt to bring characters to the big screen (i.e. Suicide Squad)? Try again. There’s basically no shame from filmmakers and studios to do whatever they can to make the most money possible. While some of these scenarios may be irritating, there’s still a lot of good coming out of Hollywood filmmaking too. One of the biggest surprises is a recent trend of popular film franchises from yesteryear getting brand new sequels and spinoffs. In 2017, Blade Runner finally got a long awaited sequel and last year a proper sequel to John Carpenter’s 1978 film, Halloween, hit it big at the box office. This year will even see a followup to Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Sure, other lesser quality sequels to some of these films are retconned in the process but it’s encouraging to see that people are actually trying to expand on stories that people love.

One person who has really benefited from this is action star Sylvester Stallone. Back in the mid 2000’s, Stallone experienced a career renaissance by revisiting two of his most beloved franchises. 2006 reintroduced the Italian Stallion Rocky Balboa in a self titled film while 2008 brought back the former Green Beret, John Rambo, in the redundantly titled Rambo. Sly wasn’t done there as he brought back the Rocky character in 2015’s Creed, a spinoff of Stallone’s beloved franchise. The film was critically acclaimed and propelled Stallone back into the hearts of moviegoers once again. That film even landed him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor which he sadly didn’t win. A sequel, Creed II, hit theaters in 2018 and was very successful as well. Now, at age 73, Stallone is re-resurrecting John Rambo eleven years after the release of the last film in that series. With the release of Rambo: Last Blood set for this weekend, it’s a perfect time for the return of Cinema Smack’s State of the Franchise after a shocking year-long hiatus!

While Stallone may be synonymous with the Rambo character, film fans may be shocked to find out that Rambo isn’t even a cinematic creation. The character first appeared in the 1972 novel, First Blood, by David Morrell, who also wrote the novelizations of the first two film sequels.  He was inspired to write the book after hearing Vietnam stories from his students. Morrell modeled the character of Rambo after World War II hero Audie Murphy who received the Medal of Honor for holding off an entire company of German soldiers for an hour at the Colmar Pocket. Then, he led a successful counterattack while wounded with no ammunition. Murphy was only 19 at the time.

The plot of both the book and the film are relatively similar. They see Vietnam veteran John Rambo (Stallone in the film), who also suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, hitchhiking through Madison County, Kentucky. He’s picked up by Police Chief Wilfred Teasle (Brian Dennehy) for being a vagrant and dropped at the city limits. Rambo repeatedly returns and is arrested. After a war flashback, Rambo attacks the police officers and retreats into the mountains where he hunts the officers, civilians, and National Guardsmen. For the most part, the film adaptation follows the book quite well. Though, there are some major changes. The film version adds the first name of John to Rambo’s name and also shows the character’s restraint from killing. In the book, Rambo isn’t as squeaky clean. The most drastic change is in the ending which we won’t ruin here but the book features far more death. Stallone himself did a number of rewrites on the script to make Rambo a more sympathetic character.

For the feature film adaptation of First Blood, producers originally looked at a number of different people for the starring roles. Prior to the casting of Sylvester Stallone, the producers considered Steve McQueen. However, McQueen was deemed too old for the role at the time. For the role of Teasle, both Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall were approached but turned the role down. The role of Colonel Sam Trautman, Rambo’s superior officer during Vietnam and voice of reason, was originally offered to Lee Marvin who declined. Kirk Douglas was cast but eventually dropped out due to the changes in the film’s ending. From here, Richard Crenna took over the role and Trautman became the most popular character of his career. He reprised his role in the next two sequels before his death in 2003.

Needless to say, 1982’s First Blood was a hit at the box office. It topped the US box office for three straight weeks and pulled in $125 million worldwide against a production budget of only $14 million. That being said, First Blood was actually not a hit with critics. Receiving mixed reviews, many questioned the film’s credibility due to some of the abuse that Rambo takes throughout the film. Nowadays, the film is considered a classic piece of action cinema. While it’s definitely a fun movie, it does have its share of flaws. Looking back, the events are blown out of proportion and most certainly needless by all characters. The best parts of the movie involve Rambo’s interactions with the police officers in the forest which all happens relatively early. There are some ups and downs with First Blood but the ups provide some really great action moments. The performances are all great and Stallone’s final monologue as Rambo provides massive emotional depth to the character that some of the sequels sorely lack.

The creative and emotional highs of the first film would not last long as Rambo: First Blood Part II was released in 1985. This film sees Colonel Trautman (Crenna) approach Rambo (Stallone) in prison. Trautman recruits him to document a potential prisoner-of-war scenario in Vietnam in exchange for a full pardon. Rambo is instructed by Marshall Murdock (Charles Napier) to photograph the camp but is not to rescue any prisoners or engage enemies. Of course, Rambo doesn’t abide by this. After a mishap with his parachute, Rambo meets with his contact, Co-Bao (Julia Nickson), who leads him to the camp. Rambo spots a prisoner and rescues him before killing a bunch of Vietnamese pirates and blowing up their boat with a rocket launcher. Rambo is captured before learning that the Soviet Union is supplying the Vietnamese with weapons. He eventually escapes and wages war on his enemies.

Frankly, Rambo: First Blood Part II is as dumb as it sounds. It’s just Sly slaughtering people and blowing stuff up. Whereas First Blood is an interesting character study mixed with some cool action, the poorly named First Blood Part II is what the franchise has become known for. Even upon its release, the sequel was met with negative reviews but, surprisingly it made over $300 million worldwide. It cleaned up a handful of Razzie Awards including Worst Actor, Worst Screenplay, and Worst Picture. The film was actually written by Stallone and James Cameron. Yes, that James Cameron who was fresh off his work on The Terminator the year before. The idea of returning Rambo to Vietnam isn’t a bad one in theory but, in execution, it’s just 80’s action fluff. It was released the same year as Rocky IV which is one of the cheesiest films of that franchise so maybe it’s best to just chalk this up to the time period. This film was also the main influence for the slew of Rambo video games released.

Of course, with such huge returns at the box office, another sequel was inevitable. This time, the First Blood title would be dropped completely to simply make way for Rambo III. In this film, Colonel Trautman is putting together a team of mercenaries to supply the Mujahideen in Thailand for conflict with the Soviet Union. Rambo refuses as he claims to have given up his violent ways. Trautman and his team are ambushed and Trautman is taken hostage. Embassy official Robert Griggs (Kurtwood Smith) relays this information to Rambo who insists that Griggs allows him to lead a rescue mission for Trautman. If he’s captured or dies, Rambo will be disavowed. In classic Rambo fashion, the rescue mission turns into an all out slaughter by the film’s end.

Released in 1988, Rambo III faced a lot of turmoil. The production saw Stallone reject a script and many crew members were fired including original director Russell Mulcahy. He was replaced by Peter MacDonald. Regardless, Rambo III made more money for the franchise and was the most vicious installment yet. It even landed in the 1990 Guinness Book of World Records as the most violent movie ever made. When it comes to this series, it’s probably not accurate to say that Rambo III is a much better film than its predecessor. Though, it’s much more entertaining. It’s more of what First Blood Part II started but with fewer lulls in the action and some better character moments overall. Richard Crenna’s Colonel Trautman takes on a bigger role and is much more welcome than Julia Nickson’s Co-Bao from the previous film.

From here, it would take nearly twenty years for another sequel to be made. In 2008, the confusingly titled Rambo was released. This film sees Rambo as a mild mannered snake catcher and boatman living in Thailand. A group of missionaries led by Michael Burnett (Paul Schulze) and his wife, Sarah (Julie Benz), requests Rambo’s services to lead them into war-torn Burma to aid a village in need. Meanwhile, the brutal Major Tint (Maung Maung Khin) pillages the small villages leaving nothing but carnage in his wake. After reluctantly ferrying the missionaries into Burma, they’re taken hostage. A group of mercenaries arrives to rescue the group and, as usual, Rambo can’t help but to join the crew.

Simply put, 2008’s Rambo is awesome. It’s so awesome. Though, it’s not for the faint of heart. The film is an absolute bloodbath with depictions of torture, limbs flying off, and people blowing up. Rambo is very quiet and reserved for parts of the film but he certainly doesn’t stay that way for long. For quite some time, Stallone himself held up the making of this sequel due to not wanting to do action movies anymore. In addition, the film’s original producer, Carolco Pictures, went out of business with Miramax purchasing the rights in 1997. Stallone delayed the film’s production until landing on an idea that he felt captured the essence of Rambo. Needless to say, this film does just that. Stallone even found himself in the director’s for this go-round. Oddly enough, Rambo is the lowest grossing film of the bunch but still made over $113 million worldwide against a production budget of only $50 million. While First Blood may certainly get most of the votes for the best film in the series, there’s definitely a case to be made for the 2008 sequel. It definitely trumps both of the previous sequels if nothing else.

Now, in 2019, John Rambo is hitting the big screen for what’s shaping up to be the last time if the title is to believed. With Sylvester Stallone being 73 at the time of this writing, Rambo: Last Blood has to be the swansong for the character. Although he has always been known as an action star, Stallone has really carved out a solid career resurgence in the past decade plus. He always has a hand in his projects and has taken care of both the Rocky and Rambo franchises that he’s known for. He also birthed a new action franchise in the form of The Expendables trilogy which features seemingly every action star of the past thirty years. Stallone has been a total stalwart of the action genre since he first hit the scene. Even though this may be the last time we see him as the character, there’s no doubt that Rambo: Last Blood will be a bloodsoaked spectacle for fans the world over.

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One Thought to “State of the Franchise: Rambo”

  1. […] a lot of time discussing the history of the character as we already did that earlier this week here. During Rambo’s last go-round, the former Green Beret was in Burma mowing down waves of […]

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