Two thumbs up Rambo! Critics be damned!

Rambo, the fictional character named for an apple that was likely named after a Swedish immigrant, was dubbed a ‘killing machine’ by his former boss Colonel Trautman. In Rambo 5: Last Blood he’s been lambasted, not only by the media, but by David Morrell, the Canadian author of Rambo: First Blood. On his Facebook page, he says he “felt degraded and dehumanized after he left the theatre.” And regarding the storytelling, Morrell says “film is a mess…sets look cheap…characters are post-it-note caricatures.” Morrell also provides a link to other initial negative reviews by critics.

After attending Morrell’s recent Master Class at Killer Nashville, I’m not surprised by his comments. I also asked him why he killed Rambo in the original book. His answer was illuminating. It occurred to me that after Rambo 1, Morrell no longer had full control of the character he killed off.  Stallone breathed him back to life, fed him words, and gave him new missions. They now share the same body and perhaps much more.

Rambo the war scarred, soul wounded man has always been controversial. He fought in a contentious war and got no respect. He kept fighting; he kept his secrets buried; mourned for those he loved and lost, and coped as best he could with PTSD demons. He got older—less lean, mean killing machine—more fox cunning survivor. If you want to blame someone for what you see on the screen, blame the Government, the attitude of the ignorant, and Trautman. They made Rambo (so the story line goes).

Stallone, the son of an Italian immigrant, has been called controversial many times. He was born in Hell’s Kitchen in NY. His face was injured at birth when a nerve was severed. He adapted, and played minor roles in a few unexceptional movies in the 70s. Then he wrote the screenplay for the original Rocky movie, but refused to sell it unless he could play the lead role. Rocky won three Academy awards. Since Rocky, his career and life has seen ups and downs and reinventions. He’s a survivor. He’s been married three times, lost his eldest son Sage, pleaded guilty to possessing a controlled substance, and was cleared on alleged charges of sexual assault. He’s also an advocate for gun control. Stallone has written or contributed to over a dozen screenplays. He co-wrote the treatment for Rambo 5. As I watched the movie I wondered if he’s integrated the journeys of Rocky, Rambo, and Stallone the man into Rambo 5?

I strongly disagree with most of the opening reviews and with David Morrell. I disagree even though I was frustrated that on the surface there did seem to be too much gory violence, and an over emphasis on evil south of the border cartels. I cringed at the hubris and stupidity of taking a gun and a knife to a cartel confrontation while expecting a positive outcome. Perhaps that was the intent. And I’m not going to mention the lack of resilient women. The plotline was ripped from both yesterday’s and today’s headlines. The story might have taken place just as factually somewhere in Asia, Russia, or Africa—where drugs, cartels, sex trafficking, rebellious teens with daddy/mommy issues, and bad guys versus worser guys are an ugly, dehumanizing but true reality.

As a writer and plotter, I wondered what story Rambo would reveal 37+ years later. Would it be the final chapter of a hero’s journey, the end of a quest, or something else? Would Rambo finally go home, and if so, would home heal what the world and spilled blood could not? It makes sense Rambo had to go home eventually, or die trying. There was also a tagline from a Rambo movie “what most people call Hell, Rambo calls home.” Home is Arizona, the place where the rusty mailbox says R. Rambo. We saw it several times in the Rambo movies. Arizona borders Mexico. And in addition to tequila, hand painted furniture, and straw hats, there are cartels in Culiacan, and nearby Baja, Sonora, Chihuahua… Mexico is a global center for child prostitution. These are facts we should never forget or ignore. Facts that warrant solutions beyond just build a wall. When are we going to realize we all bleed the same red blood; Berlin Part Deux anyone?

In some ways, Rambo: Last Blood echoes Rambo: First Blood, with its political themes, damaged man soldier, weapons of mass destruction, victims to be rescued and sacrificed, wrongs to be righted … But the 2019 Rambo has replaced his rolled bandana with a cowboy hat, adopted a family of sorts, and a habit of rocking. The opening looked promising, so how dare he remind us later of who we really are and always have been. How dare he remind us what we do to each other every day? How dare Rambo and Stallone show us ‘the horror’ Brando spoke of on his deathbed in Apocalypse Now.

The movie is filled with symbolism that many reviewers have either missed or ignored. The opening scene shows Rambo rocking, staring, sharing a mental monologue; then there’s the warren of booby trapped tunnels beneath his home in Arizona; his new lifestyle as cowboy and rancher, rather than warrior; his sharpening of a (devilish) pitchfork, his arsenal of weapons. The rocker is symbolic of American ingenuity, comfort and solace—it brings calm and stability. Tunnels can indicate a passage from one phase to another, or like a cave, a place where something hibernates or is reborn. The cowboy motif in 2lst century America is a symbol of defiance, lost landscapes and neglected or abused freedoms.

The gratuitous violence is symbolic of a savagery some like to think vanished with the collapse of the Roman Empire, but is still ever present worldwide. Minor themes include the sin of hubris and the blind madness of a Beserker. Then there’s the image towards the end of the movie of a bloodied, battered Rambo, collapsing into his rocker, knowing he has to survive to keep the memories of those who died alive. In Rambo 5, he gets an answer to the question he asked Trautman at the beginning of Rambo 2: “Do we get to win this time?” It’s an ironic statement because Rambo the man is a protector, an equalizer, rather than someone out to win wars. In Rambo (4) he reminds “it ain’t your country who asks you, it’s a few men up top who want it. Old men start it, young men fight it…”

Rambo still hasn’t revealed all his secrets. Can there be something worse or more profound than being covered in your dead buddy’s bloody flesh (as he related at the end of Rambo 1)? Or something worse than knowing the Government didn’t plan to rescue its POWs? Or something more apocalyptically horrid than the mutilation and murder that’s been part of Burma’s history for over a 100 years? Or the real reason he left home at 17 and enlisted?

Gruesome death may not be fathomable to some of us, or a topic for polite conversation. It means everything to John Rambo, a killing machine that never drew first blood, but drew 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th blood as easy as breath. Reviewers call these movies exploitation films that belong in the 80’s. But the world in 2019 is still being exploited by predators, cabals and cartels, all manners of badness, sans mercy, sans compassion. What’s worse, no one’s denying it. Why should Rambo disguise or hide what it requires to take down these exploiters, these maglignant cancers?

A killing machine doesn’t have emotions or a sense of restraint, unless it’s version 3 or 4 of Arnold’s Terminator. However, when Rambo’s not killing or plotting revenge, he’s philosophizing. At the end of Rambo 2, he tells Trautman, “I want our country to love us as much as we love it.” When Trautman asks Rambo how he will live, he replies “day by day.” And in Rambo (4), he reminds the Karen fighters “live for nothing, or die for something, your call.”

At the end of this 5th movie, Rambo rides off, not into the sunset, but towards the mountains—to lick his wounds—regroup—or reevaluate? I am filled with questions. Where are you going John? Need some company besides the voices in your head (no disrespect intended)? Still in my theatre seat as the credits role, I want to blurt out the question Linda Hunt uttered in The Year of Living Dangerously: “What then must we do?Was the tagline on the Rambo 5 poster ‘Everyone has one more fight in them’ referring to this movie or the next one?

In my car, still wiping away tears, Bette Midler is half singing, half talking “a pale dead moon in a sky streaked with grey—human kindness is overflowing—and I think it’s gonna rain…help the needy, show them the way…” Here in Knoxville, TN we need rain—and so much more. Her voice melds with voices and instruments from the Rambo 5 theme song Old Town Road, “I’m gonna ride ‘till I can’t no more…been in the valley…you can’t tell me nothin’… I suppose that’s right, if you’ve lived as long and hard as Rambo, and you’re still standing, what can anyone else say that matters? What is there to say to an invincible warrior? Like proud loner/architect Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, the best response might be to simply shrug, turn your back to the Toohey critics, and head for the high country. Nothing is over for Rambo until it’s over, or until Stallone says it is, I suspect.


PS: Rambo 5 so far has posted modest earnings of nearly $8M for part of the opening weekend, trailing behind Downton Abbey ($30M+). Liongate stated Rambo 5 cost ~$50M to make. According to Box Office Mojo, Rambo: First Blood Part II (Vietnam POW rescue) has grossed the most to date ($150M+) and had the strongest opening. Rambo (the 4th movie, 2008) grossed the least ($42.7M+) . . . not too shabby.