It may not be clear on the surface, but the Rambo franchise has traditionally been one of the most politically timely franchises in American movies. Behind all of the action, violence, and testosterone, the four Slyvester Stallone-starring movies all have narratives that match senses of American morale at the time of their respective releases.
The series’ original trilogy came out during the Reagan administration and their depiction of American heroism very much fit the kind of national mythos that the country pined for at the time. 1982’s “First Blood” showed Rambo returning from Vietnam. While it showcased the vulnerabilities of Vietnam veterans in America, it more potently reaffirmed these vets as tough, hard-bodied war heroes.
The 1985 sequel then gave Rambo the chance to go back to Vietnam and rescue stranded POWs, rewriting America’s military failures as victories. Once again, it fit in with Reagan’s hyper-nationalistic vision of the country. “Rambo III” then took the character to Afghanistan and showed him as more of an aggressor. Nonetheless, the film depicted this aggression in a positive light, once again paralleling Reagan’s sense of America’s purpose in the world, and specifically its actions during the Soviet-Afghan War.
Then, the late 2008 sequel, simply titled “Rambo,” again showed Rambo rescuing Americans from foreign enemies. While a long way off from the Reagan administration, Rambo’s 2008 return was still timely, as it was fit for a post-9/11 America that perhaps yearned for 1980s-style Hollywood protagonists to come back and depict uncompromising, triumphant heroics on the screen. After all, this was the same decade that also saw the return of Indiana Jones, “Die Hard’s” John McClane, and Rocky.
The character’s history and its alignment with American politics then raises the question—why is Rambo coming back in 2019?
It has been over eleven years since Stallone last played Rambo. Now he is saddling up the guns, knives, bows, and arrows for what seems like the last time in “Rambo: Last Blood.” Rumors of a fifth installment to the franchise date back to 2010, when Millennium Films hinted at a sequel to their 2008 movie. Setbacks and wrong turns, however, have delayed the project until now.
So far, every Rambo movie in the franchise has had a new director—Stallone himself directed the 2008 installment. For “Last Blood,” those reigns have been handed off to Adrian Grunberg, an up-and-coming filmmaker who has far more assisting credits to his name than his three directorial titles. However, he likely has good source material to guide him, for Stallone and Matthew Cirulnick wrote the screenplay.
Plot-wise, “Last Blood” will focus on the aged John Rambo (even more aged than he was in 2008) rescuing his niece, who has been kidnapped by Mexican Cartel. It sounds quite similar to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1985 “Commando” and Liam Neeson’s Taken movies, employing the father-daughter (or in this case uncle-niece) kidnap and rescue trope. This convention is not a negative one necessarily. In fact it has produced some very good movies. Nevertheless, it has been done many times before.
At the same time, Last Blood also looks like it will mix up expectations a little by adding a dash of Western influence into its action narrative. Most of the movie is likely to take place in Mexico and the trailer shows Rambo living on a desert ranch, riding horses to the tune of a country remix of Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Old Town Road.”
After all, Rambo has always been a bit of a cowboy hero for a newer generation. Like Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp or John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, Stallone’s Rambo is a loner, deadest on justice in an unjust society. Perhaps the version of Rambo we will see in “Last Blood” will be closer to Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn, though, the old cowboy who resurfaces for one final job in 1969’s “True Grit.”
Still, the original question remains—why is Rambo coming back now? And what kind of America will he be fighting for this time around?
Hitting a Nerve or Missing the Mark?
Despite how platitudinous of a statement it may be, America is very divisive at the moment, likely more so than when Rambo debuted during the Reagan administration or even than when he returned in the Bush years. What exactly is worth fighting for is not agreed upon across the country. Therefore, the larger socio-political interpretations of Rambo’s contemporary motivations will be harder to place.
Among the “Last Blood’s” themes will probably be revenge and redemption, as well as service, family, and pride. In today’s America, though, none of these terms are one-track, uniform signifiers. They have different definitions based on who you are talking to and what you are talking about. American mythos comes in many different forms, and Hollywood may be left-leaning when it comes to the stories it produces, but Rambo has traditionally been a red-blooded hero.
Nevertheless, it is not as if Rambo was walking around in the previous four movies with Reagan-Bush stickers pinned on his chest and anti-democrat slogans stitched on his sleeves. Politics were rarely made explicit in the films, and such interpretations, naturally, are voiced after the movie is finished and released to the general public.
Realistically, it is more likely that Rambo is coming back in 2019 because he is a valuable piece of intellectual property and studios want to capitalize on the retro-hero turned badass old-timer fad popularized by Hugh Jackman in “Logan” and Jamie Lee Curtis in “Halloween”.
Likewise, Stallone made a splashing comeback when he reprised Rocky in the Creed franchise, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. If he can still play Rocky to perfection after forty years, then why shouldn’t he be able to play Rambo?
Of course, no movie will ever be free from ideology, but “Last Blood” was, no doubt, made more with entertainment and marketability in mind than social commentary. After all, most people remember the Rambo movies not for their theoretical significance, but for their characterization, action, and excitement. In the end, there will be many ways to read “Rambo: Last Blood,” and they should be explored within the context of the franchise’s legacy.
For now, though, choosing to close the film theory and history books and simply enjoy the movie as good old, popcorn entertainment is viable, and quite possibly, the most appealing option.
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