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By almost any measure, Sylvester Stallone’s career is defined by the Rocky movies. They’re responsible for the majority of his biggest hits as a leading man, all three of his Oscar nominations, and an ongoing (albeit heavily fictionalized) autobiography. Yet it’s probably still a toss-up as to whether Stallone is most identified as Rocky Balboa or as John Rambo, the haunted-veteran hero of five gussied-up B-movies from the past 37 years.

The ongoing popularity of the Rocky-derived Creed series suggests that maybe Balboa has the edge for the moment, but an informal survey of parodies and caricatures over the last few decades might tilt the balance in favor of Rambo. The stoic-yet-wily ex-soldier even won a few head-to-head match-ups: Rocky IV was a big hit in the fall of 1985, but it didn’t gross as much as Rambo: First Blood Part II from earlier that year. Rambo III may have seen a major drop-off, but it did better than Rocky V—and was, at the time, afforded one of Hollywood’s biggest-ever budgets.

The hubris that made Rambo III a James Cameron-level mega-production (despite not even being the one where Cameron has a screenplay credit) is probably why it’s remained a fairly popular spoof target. It’s a testament to the power of Rambo that both Hot Shots! Part Deux and MacGruber saw fit to parody the former-action-hero-retired-to-monastery set-up to Rambo III, despite coming out years or decades after an action movie that made slightly less money than Willow.

But the series didn’t begin as catnip for comedians. There isn’t nearly so much to spoof in First Blood (1982), a comparably small-scale thriller about Vietnam vet and drifter John Rambo (Stallone) getting mixed up with some nasty cops in a small Pacific Northwest town. Featuring one of Stallone’s most affecting dramatic performances and steady direction from Ted Kotcheff, First Blood is the good kind of B-picture, shamelessly entertaining while still rooted in a strong sense of character. Stallone does a wonderful job suggesting the simmering conflicts underneath the skin of a man who keeps moving—not necessarily trying to outrun his past, but to stay a few blocks ahead of it. When a sheriff (Brian Dennehy) tries to force him out of town, Rambo’s survival instincts—what kept him alive through his time in Vietnam—kick in, and he becomes the target of a manhunt. The thrills, while undeniable, have a tragic dimension.

The fact that the second movie is subtitled First Blood Part II (1985) is an immediate tipoff to its looming ridiculousness. That’s not to say First Blood is strictly a sober drama with a touch of action. This is still a movie about Sylvester Stallone absconding into the forest to fight off pursuers with improvised survivalist traps. Richard Crenna shows up halfway through, ostensibly in his capacity as the soldier’s former commander, but really as Rambo’s hype-man, ready to tell the outmatched cops all about how John Rambo is the best of the best, can eat things that would make a billy goat puke, etc, etc. But the pulpiness of First Blood gives the movie some extra zest; it takes John Rambo’s plight seriously, but it very much anticipates dad cinema like Jack Reacher or The Equalizer that depends on a tension between the movie-star hero’s purported reluctance to commit violence and the audience’s desire to see him pushed to the point where he must, usually with excitingly minimal resources.

Given how entertainingly First Blood escalates from Rambo looking for a diner recommendation to engaging in a primal battle with a bunch of cops, it’s impressive that Stallone (who also co-wrote) brings back some ambivalence before it’s over. Toward the end, Rambo gives a tearful monologue that functions as the real climax to the PTSD micro-flashbacks he has periodically experienced throughout the film. Compare this to First Blood Part II, which restages Rambo’s breakdown as a noisy, righteous one: Betrayed by military operators who considered him expendable, he screams while emptying a machine gun clip into their makeshift office.

First Blood Part II doesn’t start off as a high-octane distortion of everything good about its predecessor, but it gets there pretty quickly. The movie opens as an extension of the first film, with Rambo in prison, serving out a sentence for his earlier antics. He’s approached by Crenna’s Colonel Trautman, recruiting him for a mission to rescue POWs back in Vietnam, and with one famous line, the Rambo series flips a toggle from quiet drama to hyperbolic spectacle. Faced with the opportunity to re-enter a Southeast Asia war zone, Rambo looks at his commander and asks, “Do we get to win this time?”

It’s a question that sort of answers itself when the movie proceeds with close-ups of glistening muscles and knife blades (by Rambo III, they both look downright plasticized), and dopey, Stallone-y aphorisms like “To survive a war, you gotta become war.” First Blood Part II is a bigger, splashier action-adventure piece, but it’s not especially exciting, except possibly for audiences in desperate need of a gauzily shot, motivational murder of its one major female character. Rambo III (1988), wherein Rambo jumps into the Soviet-Afghan war to save Trautman alongside the Mujahideen fighters of Afghanistan, actually has marginally more to offer than its predecessor in terms of action set pieces, with a cleaner prisoner-break-out throughline and a visually striking late-movie cave-set sequence (which nonetheless raises questions about how a wildly expensive Hollywood blockbuster could still spend so much of its climax in a dimly lit cave). If the idea of Rambo assisting a jihadi force causes some contemporary-viewing discomfort, well, James Bond did more or less the exact same thing in The Living Daylights.

The fourth movie, simply Rambo (2008), makes even more effort to situate itself within serious geopolitical strife (while also allying itself with a group that will hopefully not be later associated with the Taliban). It picks up 20 years later with a newly re-retired John Rambo reluctantly assisting a group of missionaries providing aid to citizens of war-torn Burma, as Rambo’s desire to be left alone has curdled into a kind of sour isolationism. He breaks his seething silences with grunted mini-lectures about the futility of trying to change this rotten world and then, of course, rises to action to rescue people when required, blasting away approximately half of the Burmese military with an enormous jeep-mounted machine gun.

The second and third Rambo movies supposedly set records in their day for number of people pretend-killed by various explosions and hails of gunfire in a Hollywood movie, but with so many pyrotechnics, those deaths are sometimes implied rather than illustrated in grisly detail. The fourth movie, as well as the slightly smaller-scale Rambo: Last Blood (2019), seem determined to show their work, adding an unseemly gorehound edge to the proceedings. No longer de facto war movies but also rejecting the sensitivity of the first movie, they proceed assuming that the series’ fans have long since become so numbed by “normal” movie violence that they need to see bodies exploding and torn apart just to feel something, anything. On that level, Last Blood is the nastier, gnarlier, uglier movie, treating nearly its entire cast of new characters as pure misery fodder, whether it’s the “justified” deaths of the movie’s Mexican bad guys, the disgust meted out for the nonviolent characters who merely help the bad guys (and are also Mexican), or the plot-motivating peril of the handful of Mexican Americans who comprise Rambo’s new makeshift family in Arizona.

At the time of its 2008 release, the fourth movie counted as a decades-later legacy sequel. Now Last Blood plays like a legacy sequel to the classic First Blood and to the decidedly non-classic Rambo. Like its immediate predecessor, it’s painted with blood splatter; like the first movie, it takes place Stateside (for about half of the running time, anyway), and involves Rambo on his own personal mission, setting elaborate traps. Punctuating the intimate kills with all of that gore means that Rambo comes across, more than ever, like a hulking slasher waiting for something to trigger the mayhem. Yet despite his propensity for stalking prey from the shadows, this is also a talkier Rambo; without tallying an exact count, I’d wager Stallone has more lines in the first 20 minutes of Last Blood than he does during the entirety of some previous Rambo pictures. The dialogue is often clunky, befitting this Rambo version of Taken, but there’s some novelty in seeing Rambo spending time on U.S. soil, looking at least marginally more comfortable in his own skin.

By repeatedly sending Rambo off to other countries, the sequels do suggest an affecting elaboration on the themes of the first film: that a man who fought for his country is nonetheless unable to find peace there when he’s finally sent home. But that idea is repeated instead of developed, and for most of the series there isn’t much that’s particularly remarkable about Rambo except the screenplays’ dictation that he not die. If the Rocky series plays like an alternate-universe version of Stallone himself, the Rambo movies play like something Rocky Balboa would have wound up starring in if he had a film career managed by Paulie. (The Stallone movie that Rocky Balboa would have chosen for himself is probably Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.)

It makes sense, then, that while the Rocky movies feel genuinely apolitical—casually unthinking about their optics, casually willing to make adjustments in subsequent installments, and basically in keeping with Balboa’s purported love for “everyone, mostly”—the Rambo movies are apolitical in a more insidious, self-glorifying, sometimes borderline-nihilistic fashion. That is to say, they’re political movies that stubbornly refuse to admit it and are muddled enough in their thinking for barely plausible deniability.

Stallone himself has described Rambo as neutral, and by all evidence the character—not exactly one to engage in spirited political debate, from what we can tell—would probably agree. First Blood’s attempts to express this based on how Rambo is antagonized are earnest, if sometimes confusing. Dennehy’s sheriff singles out Rambo after catching sight of him ambling through town, informing him menacingly that “wearing that flag” on his military jacket is “asking for trouble.” This implies a distaste for Vietnam vets that fits with Rambo’s later breakdown, where he talks about returning home to the derision and spittle of protestors. But the sheriff also makes cracks about Rambo’s shaggy haircut, suggesting an unlikely equal disdain for vets and hippies/hobos, and providing an incoherent ideology in opposition to Rambo’s supposed lack thereof. It’s easy to affect a vaguely apolitical distrust of authority when that authority itself doesn’t appear to stand for much of anything.

As the series presses on, the neutrality of Rambo himself seems increasingly willful, even stubborn, in his tacit insistence that he’s just doing his (murderous) job, just following orders, just tying up those loose ends in Vietnam for a belated win. This doesn’t automatically make John Rambo a morally repugnant character; in the second and third films, his returns to the field recall arguments against the United States unilaterally pulling out of armed conflicts—even if the motivations were bad, it would be irresponsible to simply cut and run. At the same time, Rambo’s struggle to reconcile peaceful isolation with his machine-gunning, throat-ripping skill set becomes less convincing the longer it goes on.

Perhaps because Stallone is a more effective actor when he’s not grimly pontificating, Rambo’s later-movie ruminations on war and the dark heart of man come across as protesting too much. It’s just part of the Rambo shtick—which, as it turns out, is sort of a poor man’s ideology. By the fourth movie, Rambo still wears his hair long, but not because it indicates anything about his liminal space between soldier and hobo. He wears it that way because it’s been codified as the Rambo look. His desire to find peace has been replaced, or at least augmented, with a weariness over whether anyone can truly make a difference in the world.

This strain of screw-everyone isolationism is probably what leads Last Blood to indulge in some MAGA-fashionable fearmongering about just what goes on south of that scary U.S.-Mexico border. Rambo doesn’t personally give voice to the anti-immigration rhetoric that dovetails so nicely with depictions of Mexico as a cesspool of disfigurements and sex slavery—he’s allowed to remain superficially neutral, campaigning hard on his anti-sex-slavery platform. But more than ever, he seems prepped for the kind of personal doomsday that Fox News warns people about. Rambo’s weapons are now enshrined in his home (along with some war medals), and even during a peaceful period of his life, he spends a lot of time in the custom-dug tunnels underneath his property, where he maintains a handy deadly-traps workshop. Back in Rambo, Our Hero saves a woman from people who he says “would have raped her 50 times”—a prediction that more or less comes true for a character in Last Blood, an eventuality that Rambo appears disturbingly ready to face.

Last Blood isn’t entirely ignorant of how this readiness for war fits into Rambo’s PTSD in the original film. It could be read as part of a self-fulfilling prophecy, how Rambo’s willingness to head into battle means that he’ll always find more battles to fight. But, as is usually the case in this series, Stallone’s writing and the journeyman-level filmmaking turns a potentially complicated situation into a victory for a “neutral” character who never loses a battle. Last Blood plays a little like a swan song, but Stallone and company can’t resist kicking that can a little further down the road, leaving room for more sequels that could rehash this one just as Rambo III replays First Blood Part II.

This is how the Rambo sequels ultimately and accidentally transcend their politics: by settling in to kill time. They’re an ongoing failure to use a compelling character. Given these movies’ wonky naming conventions and the precedent set by Rocky Balboa, it’s a little surprising that Stallone hasn’t yet committed to calling one of the later-period sequels John Rambo. (It was a working title for the fourth entry, before the filmmakers presumably realized that the shorthand of Rambo better fit that not-particularly-contemplative explode-a-thon.) But it’s also a relief that none of the sequels have taken that moniker because none of them have earned the touching contemplation Stallone has brought to his later-period Rocky adventures. Imagine a sequel that actually followed John Rambo as a pulpy but grounded character, instead of re-enlisting him in a schematic battle plan. In the current telling, it’s clear that after First Blood, Rambo doesn’t find peace. But he does get to win, over and over, notching diminished and incongruous victories across the years.

Final ranking:

1. First Blood (1982)
2. Rambo III (1988)
3. Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
4. Rambo: Last Blood (2019)
5. Rambo (2008)

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About the author

Jesse Hassenger

Contributor, The A.V. Club. I also write fiction, edit textbooks, and help run SportsAlcohol.com, a pop culture blog and podcast. Star Wars prequels forever!