One of, if not the most remarkable aspects of Eighties culture is the decade’s rich and varied list of iconic movies and film characters. The blockbuster – a child of the Seventies – particularly came into its own in the Eighties thanks to hits like Back to the Future, Beverly Hills Cop, and Friday the 13th. The arrival of VHS, Betamax, and the video rental store added a significant boost to cinema consumption as movies became more accessible and subsequently more memorable.
Without a doubt, the breakout star of the era was the action film. Sure, the Seventies provided its fair share of nail-biters, but most of these were either western remnants or entries from the then-popular “disaster movie” sub-genre. But the Eighties gave moviegoers something new: the action hero. Typically a self-reliant loner with a calm defiance toward authority, the action hero – or more appropriately, the anti-hero – defined the prototypical masculine product of the Reagan Era. And it all began with one man: John Rambo.
Though his conception dates back to 1972, David Morrell’s distraught and equally destructive Vietnam veteran from the novel First Blood gained worldwide attention in 1982 thanks to Sylvester Stallone‘s iconic cinematic portrayal.
First Blood became a milestone film in the action movie genre; it established the popular formula of the outnumbered protagonist successfully defending himself against an oppressive militant group in an isolated environment. Die Hard may have perfected this formula, but First Blood blazed the path. Yet despite the series’ collective reputation, First Blood is not exceptionally violent. There’s only one character death throughout the entire film. Unlike its three sequels, First Blood is an action film only on the surface; underneath it’s a sober examination of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the lasting affects of war. And say what you will about Stallone’s historically one-dimensional film characters, this is his ultimate performance (sorry, Rocky fans). Preceding Schwarzenegger’s Terminator by two years, Stallone delivers a perfectly mechanical fighting machine, right up until his emotional explosion at the film’s climax. It’s a rare moment of vulnerability for Rambo, but one that touches upon an often marginalized symptom of military serviceman and women. Until recently, action films were regularly dismissed by film critics, and almost exclusively overlooked during award season, but in today’s diversified film market, it’s not hard to imagine Stallone earning an Oscar nod for his performance
Rambo’s enduring legacy, however, was eventually built around the Eighties definitive excess. Something of a victim in First Blood, Rambo became a juggernaut of destruction in 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II. Instructed by his perennial mentor, Col. Samuel Trautman, not to go for “the old blood and guts” routine, Rambo does just that, fearlessly taking on the combined forces of North Vietnam and Russia, and cementing himself as America’s favorite anti-communist symbol (although this becomes somewhat ironic by the third film in which we see Rambo working for free at a Buddhist monastery). R:FB Part II is a much hammier affair, but that may be due to James Cameron’s participation in writing the screenplay with Stallone. Cameron at that time was still fresh out of his tutelage at the hands of Roger Corman, who never veered shy of a little schlock.
While certainly inappropriate for younger audiences, Rambo: First Blood Part II found its way into the hearts and minds of boys across the world who longed for Rambo’s resourcefulness and physical superiority – and a girlfriend that looked like Co-Bao. R:FB Part II officially ignited Rambo-mania. A toy line followed, as did a cartoon series and video games, and the Rambo franchise secured its indelibility for generations to come.
By the time Rambo III was released in 1988, the Cold War was at its apex. Possibly looking to escape the simplistic brutality of its immediate predecessor, Rambo III reached for loftier intellect, relying on the United States and Soviet Union’s legitimate entanglement, and the U.S.S.R’s occupation of Afghanistan as pretense for the action. It was a common theme at the time, but here the film’s message is eerily prophetic. Attempting to confront the main antagonist’s misguided imperialistic efforts, Col. Trautman delivers a speech someone should have replayed for George W. Bush 13 years later. Guess Dubya’s more of Charles Bronson fan.
Rambo ends up turning everybody into chop suey by the end of the film, and so much of the political backdrop is lost, but Rambo III is undoubtedly the most cerebral of the Rambo sequels (and yes, I’m aware this is a movie that opens with a stick fight).
Sadly, this is Richard Crenna’s final appearance in a Rambo film. Crenna died in 2003, long before the latest Rambo installment went into production. An integral component to the series, Crenna’s sage Col. Trautman takes on a much more utilitarian role in Rambo III, literally fighting alongside his pupil and bringing the character full circle.
As staples of Eighties culture, the first three Rambo movies have entered the American lexicon and turned Rambo into as much institution as character, and arguably shaped the idea of U.S. militarism for any boy born between 1976 and 1989 – this includes fighting wars in red bandanas while almost exclusively shirtless.
If you are at all a fan of Eighties action movies, you’ve done yourself a grave disservice if you’ve missed out on the Rambo series. Entering the franchise now, there may be elements of the films that border on parody, but this is only because they have been referenced countless times in a plethora of mediums. Indeed, the first and second sequels can go over the top, but at the same time they’ll have you up at three a.m., ordering survival knives on Amazon.com. They’re good fun (the movies; not the knives), but the original is your best bet for a more emotionally connective experience. There is a third sequel titled just plain Rambo. Easily the darkest of the series, it’s worth checking out, but falls way outside the scope of this blog’s parameters (2008). Sorry, you’re own your own with that one.