Rambo: A Retrospective on a Cultural Icon

Caution, some **SPOILERS** lie ahead, although none about the new movie.

I went to go see Rambo this weekend and I was throughly impressed. The 96-or so minute run time was entirely too short and left me wanting more, more, more! I may be overstating my case, but I really enjoyed this movie. I would recommend that you go out and see it as well, except you probably have already made up your mind about this film. You're well aware of the Rambo character from its place in pop culture and therefore already know whether or not you'll enjoy this kind of mindless, action violence.

Or do you?

The Rambo series, on whole, is largely remembered for the middle two films. First Blood II: Rambo and Rambo III were fun, cheese-filled, pro-America action fests. The scenarios were over the top and the explosions were numerous. This invincible, one-liner spitting, muscle-ripped Rambo is the Rambo that everyone remembers.

But it wasn't always that way.

The first Rambo movie, which didn't even have Rambo in the title, First Blood, was an effective albeit action-oriented look at the post-war life of a Vietnam vet. This isn't your soldier boy Rambo from the sequels, this is a broken husk of a man who simply has no place in a world where he can't hold a job and is despised as a baby-killer. The first film opens of John Rambo drifting from town to town before getting arrested for vagrancy in a hick, backwoods town. He's an emotionally distraught man, suffering from post-war stress, and is pushed too far by abusive law enforcement officers.

It's interesting that a character that would go on to become symbolic of America would spend his first cinematic endeavor killing and maiming police officers. While John Rambo is pushed into the actions he takes, he's clearly on the wrong side of the law. Luckily for theater-goers, this point is largely ignored. Also, the movie leaves out an interesting thematic element from the book it is based on.

Side note: Yes, Rambo is based on a book. It's titled First Blood and was written by David Morrell. It's a good read if you haven't picked it up.

In the book, Rambo is less a character and more a force of nature. The small town sheriff, who is the antagonist in the film, is more the protagonist in the book. The sheriff is a Korean War vet, while Rambo is a Vietnam vet. The two men are similar, with similar experiences and training. The difference is that the sheriff came back to an America that hailed him as a hero, whereas Rambo came home and was shunned and then forgotten. The author also fully acknowledges that the actions Rambo takes are extremely illegal and not justifiable. Rambo, as a character, is beyond the point of redemption.

And that's why he has to die.

There's the aforementioned spoiler. Yes, boys and girls, Rambo dies in the book. He doesn't go to jail only to get released early for taking on a mission rescuing POWS. He doesn't go on to become a symbol of the Reagan-era or a rallying point against communism. Rambo isn't a good man, and he isn't cheered for by the audience. He kills a lot of good people with little incentive and no justification. The movie glosses over this point, but makes it no less true. Yet, somehow, in the movie, we did end up cheering for him. Stallone really pulled one off (or hoodwinked the audience, you decide).

The first movie, despite glossing over Rambo's true nature, is still an effective movie. You feel for Rambo and go through the emotional ups and downs right along side him. The original sequels lost this quality, prefering to make Rambo an invincible, commie-killing machine. The newest sequel, title simply Rambo, is a return to form. We meet up with Rambo again, twenty years later. He's been trying to live in peace, but somehow war finds him again. If the new Rambo does nothing else, it brings us back into the emotional folds of the character. We understand his feelings and motivations. We appreciate him not just as this larger-than-life icon, but as a man.

And I'm happy to say, by the end of this film, Rambo finds himself. He becomes the man that the war machine wouldn't allow him to be. He finally does come back from the point of no return.

At long last, Rambo goes home.

If we never meet this character again, farewell and adieu. Rambo, you will be missed.


I'll be funnier next time, I swear.

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