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Toward a Unified Theory of Rambo Movies

Toward a Unified Theory of Rambo Movies

There are nonsensical sequel titles and then there is “Rambo: First Blood Part II.” Not just “Rambo” (that would come later). Not “Second Blood.” Not “Second First Blood,” or “First Blood Too.” But “Rambo: First Blood Part II.” It’s a silly name for a movie on its surface, and it’s even stranger in context; “Rambo” is the second part of “First Blood” like “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is the original ending George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had in mind for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” all the way back in 1981.

In reality, you could never plan for an actual “Part II” to “First Blood” because the novel it’s based on by David Morrell, along with the original version of the movie, ended with John Rambo’s death. In both mediums, “First Blood” is the story of Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), a Vietnam veteran who pisses off a sheriff named Teasle (Brian Dennehy) while hitchhiking through his town. After he’s arrested and thrown in jail, Rambo experiences combat shock flashbacks, goes insane, breaks out of prison, steals a motorcycle, and hides in the nearby mountains. In the book (which I haven’t read), he apparently kills hundreds of people, before finally dying himself in a shootout with Teasle and Col. Trautman, his former commanding officer.

In the film, Rambo is largely innocent of the crimes he’s accused of, and the deaths he causes are either inadvertent or accidental. At “First Blood”‘s climax, he injures Teasle, but spares him after Trautman (Richard Crenna) intervenes. The movie’s original ending called for an emotionally distraught Rambo to kill himself with Trautman’s gun; after test audiences disapproved, Rambo’s transformation from deranged sociopath to heroic underdog was completed with an emotionally wrenching monologue. After pouring his heart out to Trautman, Rambo surrenders.

“It’s over Johnny. It’s over!” Trautman tells Rambo just before he launches into that speech. Ironically, it would have been over if test audiences hadn’t gotten in the way. Instead, Rambo walks out of the film in Trautman’s custody, and proceeds to “First Blood Part II.” 

My original plan today was to write a piece ranking the “Rambo” movies and selecting the best film in the franchise in honor of the release of Stallone’s new action movie, “Bullet to the Head.” After rewatching the entire series, it became clear that “Rambo III” and “Rambo (IV)” should be totally eliminated from consideration; they’re essentially cinematic fan fiction, inserting the character into conflicts he has nothing to do with and little opinion about. Apart from the scene in “Rambo III” where he cauterizes a wound by pouring gun powder into his torso and lighting it on fire, there’s really nothing there worth talking about.

Which leaves “First Blood” and “Rambo: First Blood Part II.” I always knew they made for a strange pair, but watching them back-to-back heightens the tension between the films. Trying to pick the “best” is impossible because they’re so different. It’s like trying to rank apples and oranges, except those are both kinds of fruit. It’s more like trying to rank apples and laundry machines.

“First Blood” is a relatively serious psychological thriller. There are no heroes here; just damaged men who make bad decisions. Teasle sees Rambo walking down the road in his town (which, ironically, is named Hope) and decides he needs to leave. He drives him to the county line and when Rambo turns around and heads back, he arrests him. Rambo’s done nothing wrong — until he snaps and breaks out of jail. The enemy, essentially, is America, which has turned its back on Vietnam vets like Rambo and made them into pariahs.

“First Blood Part II” is an entirely silly action movie. Trautman finds Rambo working in a hard labor camp and recruits him for a special mission: sneak back into Vietnam to try to locate American prisoners of war who are still being held captive. Abandoned behind enemy lines by a sleazy bureaucrat named Murdock (Charles Napier), Rambo eventually escapes and single-handedly kills a significant portion of the Asia’s population en route to rescuing the rest of the POWs and returning with them safely to the American base. He rejects an offer from Trautman to return to the States as a hero, moaning that all he wants is for his country to love him as much as he loves it. The meddling, unhelpful role of the American government aside — Rambo is betrayed and mistreated by it in both cases — there’s not a lot connecting the two films. 

So how can “Rambo” be “Part II” of “First Blood?” Maybe I’ve still got Adam Quigley’s “Sucker Punch” video swimming in my head, but I started to fixate on trying to come up with a framework that could create a connection between the two. It’s not hard to conceive of a scenario similar to the one Quigley argues for in “Sucker Punch,” where a character is lobotomized, but imagines she isn’t, and then fantasizes an entire scenario around her escape and victory that is completely imagined.

In “First Blood” Rambo almost dies, then miraculously survives. Then, even more improbably, he’s released from a hard labor prison camp and — even more improbably — sent back to Vietnam, where — even more improbably — there are still POWs waiting to be rescued. His combat shock is inexplicably cured; it doesn’t even return when he’s tortured by Vietnamese and Soviet soldiers (they’re working together, you see). At one point in his escape, his helicopter is shot down and severely damaged; a few minutes later, he manages to get it back in the air and make an unlikely return to American territory. Maybe Rambo did kill himself, and everything that follows “First Blood” are the mad visions of a dying man.

Regardless, as different as they are, the two “First Blood”s combine to paint a single portrait of paranoid, post-Vietnam America. “First Blood” is the nightmare, of returning soldiers afraid of persecution by a society that resents them, and of communities fearful of these men they perceive as damaged goods, ready to snap at any moment. “First Blood Part II” is the fantasy, where the Vietnam War still rages, and men like Rambo have a chance to win the conflict that the government supposedly wouldn’t let him win the first time around. Whether or not the second film is entirely the fabricated delusion of a dying man after he’s shot himself, it is undeniably the fabricated yarn of a man named Sylvester Stallone, who turned a crazed killer into an American hero and found a way to make both the same guy.

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