Dear Old Man Rambo,
As we share one last tale together I pause to think about the entirety of your life and story, and I find I must go back the beginning and re-watch everything closely; from First Blood until now.
First Blood is the watershed that began the franchise, and tried to hint at the journey of these soldiers that were the first to come home and NOT be heroes. Not only was the end of this film one of the most iconic attempts to give filmgoers a glimpse into the unique hell of one of these military men, it also served as one of the greatest films about human intent ever created. To this day it serves to remind me to never take any man for granted, and to never push unless I am committed completely and willing accept the consequences of that action.
Ultimately, Rambo paid the price for his rampage. We open the second film to see him breaking rock in the iconic hard labor scene. But when you look closely at him, as the movie tracks his conversation with Troutman, he doesn’t look completely miserable. There is something almost Zen in him. It’s at this point the physicality of his indomitable will is driven home even more viscerally than the demonstration of his skills in the first film. His will is an immovable force fueled by unshakable intent. It is a subtle cue that he really is a one man force of nature. In hindsight, this is a subtlety I didn’t catch the first time. Sly Stallone was not known for thematic nuance early in his career, but nonetheless, it is there.
As he conducts the recon he is hired for – and stirs up a hornets nest with POWs at stake – shit really hits it when a pick-up point betrayal leaves him at the mercy of those bad dream specters now become real. When his rampage lays waste to many enemies, Russians included, and he brings ALL the POW’s back to base, his accomplishment is a very real and cathartic exclamation point on his worth as soldier. As he marches off into the horizon, his personal journey continues, with progress made a little further down the road, perhaps.
With one and two back to back and out of the way I see threads in the bigger scheme I never noticed. When we open the third part to Rambo hardcore stick fighting to support the local monks that have taken him in, it easy to see the metaphor of a man gaining wisdom but not trying to squelch the core nature of who he already is, while using those skills in the service of what he deems a good cause. Ahh, progress! When Troutman gets the last answer he expects in Rambo saying he no longer goes to war, and sticking to his conviction about said decision, it is an iconic moment for viewer surprise as well. Troutman says he must go and as he always does, he affords Rambo the respect to accept his answer and not question him further. When he finds out soon after that Troutman is captured by the Russian army in Afghanistan, it gets personal.
Of course, as with all these films, the action and over the top set pieces take machismo to wholly ridiculous levels; but that is part of the characters iconic larger than life standing. And say what you will, it is consistent high quality and unwavering throughout the franchise. He is a destructive force of nature and a killing machine, yet, the bigger impact of the films is that he is still human and the subtlety is that he is healing throughout.
In the first he rages at the country that he defended. Unfortunately, an overzealous cop brought on the catharsis. In the second film he got to win, probably for the first time, and he brought brothers in arms home with him. In the third he doesn’t fight for armies anymore and when it is all said and done he pays personal debts of honor to Troutman by doing it one last time.
So what about the fourth and final? It is surprising in some ways and not in others. Rambo is getting to be a bit of an old man that ply’s his snake capture trade up and down a river near Burma. As always he minds his own business and when initially approached by missionary relief workers looking for a ride up river into Burma and conflict, he is his usual terse self, telling these soft Americans to go home. But later his empathy for one of the women workers convinces him to take them, much to his almost instant chagrin.
With the trip succeeding in getting them there, it isn’t long until he is approached by a church mission leader saying (surprise!), the relief workers are gone missing. You can almost hear Rambo’s sigh of exasperation. Well now, they want to have him take mercs up to the spot where he dropped off the relief workers and as the saying goes, ‘its on like Donkey Kong.’
Memorable moments ensue while ferrying the mercs, it is clear that while some have some steel in their spine, half probably wont make it. Of course one brags and bitches and moans more than the others and while he is bragging in John’s general direction the look of tired boredom Rambo offers would fit into a priceless category. It gets even better when the guy taunts John about his thousand yard stare, hardly realizing Rambo almost invented it and could snap this guy like kindling. It makes me guffaw right out loud. This installment brilliantly applies irony based on the history of the franchise.
When we get to the drop off, he gathers his trusty stealth bow and long knife and starts off into the bush with some looking at him with eyes that say, “what are you thinking?” Others are incredulous with reactions like “is that all you got?” Rambo says nary a word and is on his way. The workmanlike minimalism Stallone brings to this role on the final go round is indeed refreshing as it is all familiar ground to the viewer.
As he does what he does best in the ensuing action and saves the woman relief worker, there are moments of iron Rambo and moments of “shit this is getting harder” exasperation. The older Rambo is still impressive and twice as capable as any man on the rest of the team, which finds itself losing members more quickly as time goes by. When most of the relief workers get taken to safety there is something about her intent and commitment that speaks to John and in the last scenes of this iconic franchise there is John standing at a mail box on a dusty road rubbing the name Rambo on the side. As he starts walking down that long driveway in a wide shot toward an Arizona ranch it hits me just how much he has come full circle and instead of being a man wandering at beginning of First Blood he is now a man ending his wandering and in doing so, may find peace.
So simple yet so profound, it hits me with emotional jolt that surprises me and it immediately raises Mister Sylvester Stallone much higher in my esteem.
Thank you for sharing this long and hard story John, you honor me in the sharing. Until we meet again.