It had been twenty years since John Rambo fought alongside the Afghan soldiers in Rambo III, a high-budget, low-profit misfire that seemed to wrap up the character for good. But Sylvester Stallone’s nostalgia senses were tingling in the mid-2000s, and he had a sneaking suspicion that a fourth adventure with the reluctant super soldier would attract moviegoers. And, when all is said and done, he wasn’t wrong.
Sly signed on to direct Rambo, and he just needed to find a conflict in which to insert his hero. He settled on Burma, a country in constant turmoil under the threat of dictatorship and genocide. It made sense that Rambo would live here, just outside of the conflict, aware of it but never engaging with it. “Fuck the world,” Rambo tells Michael Burnett (Paul Schulze), a missionary doctor imploring Rambo to take them up river to Burma, to help the citizens. But Rambo has long since checked out of “the world” and its citizens, retreating to the jungle to wrestle wild cobras – because what else would he do?
To the surprise of no one, Rambo’s abstinence from conflict doesn’t last long. The missionary group, made up of predictably wooden, nondescript actors, is kidnapped, and in a twist unfamiliar to the franchise, a team of mercenaries enter stage left to work alongside Rambo. They are, of course, inept compared to Rambo, and they only accept him as the badass he is when he ices a half dozen soldiers with his trusty bow and arrow. It is one blood-splattered geek show scene in a long string of excessively violent and mean-spirited scenes, a side effect of the era in which Rambo was filmed.
The mid-2000s were an era in Hollywood where “dark” and “gritty” and “realistic” were the hot-button terms. Christopher Nolan stripped away the camp of the Batman in 2005, The Departed won Best Picture in the spring of ’07, and 2008 brought us The Dark Knight and Grindhouse, films dedicated to making their movies look a certain way. In horror, Hostel II had just come out, and the Saw torture porn franchise was running strong. Things looked grim and bathed in blue filters and shadows. Stallone decided to capitalize on these aesthetics for his story, and that meant tapping into the CGI blood machine.
Bodies regularly explode into goo in Rambo to the point where the visual is numbing; the same effect was used once in First Blood Part II, and it was a thrilling and shocking action beat. Now excessive gore dominates. Heads are chopped off, jaws blown apart by bullets and arrows, one poor bastard is liquified after catching a .50-cal machine gun in the chin from three feet away, and the purple-tinted CGI blood spraying everywhere is distracting and silly. On top of the gore fest, the villains in Rambo are excessively horrific. I understand fully that these militia commit atrocities, but we get it. This is supposed to be entertainment, and these are the villains in your Rambo action picture; the close-up murdering of children and raping of women feels gratuitous in the vain of Eli Roth carnage.
It was clearly Stallone’s intention. He defended the violence, stating it was authentic to what would really happen in these situations. That’s fine, but it also doesn’t look particularly good on the screen. Critics took the predictable stance on the film – all three First Blood sequels average between 37% and 41% on Rotten Tomatoes – but the demographic interested in this franchise was never going to stay away. Rambo capitalized on its built-in audience, and it opened in second place with a beefy $18.2 million in ticket sales. The domestic gross only hit $42 million against a $50 million budget, but $70 million overseas bolstered its profit.
In the end, we see John Rambo walking down an Arizona farm road, headed back to his family home, accepting the world again and moving on as an active part in it. It’s the farm house we see in the previews for Rambo: Last Blood, at least that will be the intention when we pick up with our reluctant hero one more time this weekend.