Rambo: First Blood (1982)
You don’t seem to want to accept the fact you’re dealing with an expert in guerrilla warfare… with a man who’s the best; with guns, with knives, with his bare hands. A man who’s been trained to ignore pain, ignore weather, to live off the land, to eat things that would make a billy goat puke. In Vietnam, his job was to dispose of enemy personnel. To kill! Period! Win by attrition. Well, Rambo was the best.—Colonel Trautman.
An adaptation of David Morrell’s 1972 novel, First Blood was stuck in development hell for a decade before Carolco founders Andrew G. Vajna and Mario Kassar got it off the ground. They hired Ted Kotcheff (Fun with Dick and Jane) to direct their adaptation, who sent the script to Sylvester Stallone on a Thursday and received an enthusiastic response the next morning. Stallone’s success with Rocky (1976) ensured his influence was felt on the project, and he was instrumental in softening the tone to ensure Rambo carried more of an underdog appeal. One other notable difference between the book and movie is that Rambo doesn’t intentionally kill anyone on screen, and any fatalities are accidents he clearly regrets.
First Blood (a title now revised as Rambo: First Blood thanks to the sequels turning “Rambo” into a brand) is a great example of a mid-budget movie ($15M, about $40M today) making so much money ($125M, about $327M today) that it led to sequels that dumbed everything down and made the main character a caricature. In comparison to its overblown militaristic sequels, First Blood is surprisingly sedated and more of a character piece.
Vietnam veteran and last surviving member of an elite squad of Green Berets, John Rambo (Stallone) is now lost and alone in the country he fought. His fellow Americans don’t seem to care about the sacrifices he made to sustain the freedoms they enjoy. Something of a drifter, Rambo’s picked up by Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) after arriving in the small town of Hope, Washington, after being mistaken as a vagrant on account of his army surplus jacket. After being unjustly arrested after refusing to move for trumped-up charges, Rambo suffers more ridicule and abuse from some small-minded cops unaware of his decorated military history and snaps when their rough treatment triggers flashbacks to when he was tortured as a POW.
Ultimately, Rambo breaks free and goes on the run, pursued by Teasle and his deputies, managing to give them the slip on a motorcycle heading into mountainous woodland. It’s not too long before the situation’s escalated to involve TV news reporters, the national guard, and sniffer dogs, as fugitive Rambo falls back on his survival training to evade capture.
Given Stallone’s later rivalry with fellow action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger in the late-1980s, it’s amusing to me that First Blood almost resembles a down to earth version of Predator (1987), only Stallone’s the one playing a seemingly unstoppable hunter. While it’s more of a human drama than the gung-ho sequels, First Blood is still foremost an action movie and an enjoyable one for the most part. It’s disturbing just how quickly and unreasonably Sheriff Teasle takes a dislike to drifter Rambo, ditto all the men under his command (even when they realise he’s a soldier and disrespect), but otherwise the story just about holds together. Although it does get progressively less realistic when Rambo’s ex-commanding officer, Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), arrives to help Teasle’s men and starts spouting grandiose lines that “God didn’t make Rambo—I made him!”
A late replacement for Kirk Douglas (who was asked to leave after a day’s filming because he kept changing the script), Crenna became a mainstay of the ’80s Rambo trilogy. He sadly died in 2003, so couldn’t return for the very belated sequel Rambo (2008), but this character became Crenna’s signature role at the ripe age of 59. One he even spoofed incredibly well in Hot Shots: Part Deux (1993). The only downside of Crenna’s memorable appearance is how it shifts focus away from Brian Dennehy’s Sheriff, who’s set-up so well as the petty-minded villain, but his character doesn’t go anywhere interesting once Rambo spares his life in the forest. By the end of the movie, Teasle hasn’t learned anything about his prejudices, doesn’t come to an understanding with Rambo’s side of the story, or feel any sympathy towards a man clearly suffering from PTSD (not that people knew what that was in ’82). Instead, the script opts to have Crenna soak up more of the focus, so he’s the one who goes to Rambo to ask him to surrender and hear his (genuinely moving) speech about how it felt to return home from ‘Nam and be spat at by war protesters.
Stallone wasn’t quite the megastar he became in the ’80s, but that changed once Rambo became a resounding success—despite Stallone thinking it would be a monumental failure, after watching the first three-hour long cut. A little like Rocky, he took a character that could be seen as two-dimensional and silly and treated it with more heart and subtlety than expected. This was perhaps more true of Rambo, whom readers of the source material saw as a little more than a tormented killer, with Stallone realising the part would only work if he could evoke audience sympathy and make a statement about how returning soldiers are treated by the public by fighting in controversial wars they might not agree with. The Rocky and Rambo franchises became the linchpins of Stallone’s superstardom in the decade that followed, and their huge popularity insulated him from his many flops along the way.
Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
Pressure? Let me just say that Rambo is the best combat vet I’ve ever seen. A pure fighting machine with only a desire to win a war that someone else lost. And if winning means he has to die, he’ll die. No fear, no regrets. And one more thing: what you choose to call hell, he calls home.—Colonel Trautman.
Condemned as a terrible follow-up by contemporaneous critics, this sequel from Greco-Italian director George P. Cosmatos (Of Unknown Origin) is where Rambo became a full-blown cultural icon. First Blood made a small fortune at the box office, sure, but it was the movie’s continuing popularity on VHS that guaranteed this louder and prouder sequel—written by none other than an up-and-coming James Cameron (who was about to hit the big-time himself as writer-director of The Terminator, released five months later).
It feels like Cameron approached this sequel in a similar way to Aliens (1986), which likewise continued a cerebral movie with a crowd-pleasing exaggeration of what audiences loved about it (i.e. H.R Giger’s deadly xenomorph and Stallone butchering men with a bowie knife). Both also involve warfare and the fetishisation of military weapons and vehicles, which is very Cameron.
Sylvester Stallone returned to work on Cameron’s script, earning himself another co-writing credit for his many changes. Those included getting to the action much faster, turning Rambo’s “sidekick” from a male nerd to a female love interest, simplifying the narrative, and underscoring how Rambo’s apolitical views conflict with the right-wing ideals of his selfish commanding officers. Given how Cameron would become strongly associated with Arnold Schwarzenegger (a rival of Stallone in the ’80s), I find it amusing he wrote one of Sly’s biggest hits of that same decade. Rambo even utters “I’ll be back” at one point, so it’s fascinating to ponder an alternate universe where Stallone became Cameron’s muse instead.
Anyway, a year after the events of First Blood, John Rambo is breaking up large boulders in a quarry as punishment for half-destroying a small Washington town. He’s given a reprieve by old friend Colonel Trautman, who’s arranged for Rambo to lead an infiltration mission back into the jungles of Vietnam to photograph a group of US POWs ahead of a Delta Team extracting them. Rambo agrees to the deal in exchange for a likely presidential pardon, and he’s temporarily reinstated into the US Army by bureaucratic Marshall Murdock (Charles Napier) and dropped behind enemy lines—but not before his parachute gets dangerously entangled on the plane door, forcing him to ditch most of his equipment.
Later meeting his contact, intelligence agent Co-Bao (Julia Nickson), Rambo ploughs on with his solo mission as planned, despite Trautman and Murdock being unsure if he even survived his drop. And, predictably, he later decides that taking photos of starving POWs (caged with rats and spiders) isn’t a good use of his time and skills if there’s a chance he could rescue everyone singlehanded. Then matters are complicated by the presence of Soviet troops, led by Lieutenant Colonel Podovsky (Steven Berkoff), who’ve been training the Vietnamese and don’t take kindly to Rambo sneaking around shooting their trainees in the head with arrows.
First Blood Part II isn’t as psychological or as interesting as the first movie, and it doesn’t give Stallone as many chances to make us sympathise and understand Rambo’s mindset (he won a ‘Worst Actor’ Razzie for this movie). The best example of this is Rambo’s closing speech to Crenna when the mission’s over, which echoes how the original ended on a rousing and eloquent expression of the character’s state of mind—which works because he’s usually a man of so few words. Sadly, Part II’s version is much less intelligent and emotively put, so it just comes off as a lame attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle.
However, pretty much everything audiences know about Rambo from pop culture can be found in this instalment, and those under 30 will be very surprised by just how much Hot Shots: Part Deux reenacted shot for shot. There’s even a throwaway moment when Rambo glances down at a chicken, and you can’t help expecting to see him load the frightened fowl onto his compound bow.
When it was released in 1985, First Blood Part II grossed over twice what the original managed ($300M, $730M today), and it only cost $10M more to make ($25M, $60M today). The critics pulled it apart because it was just a dumb “war movie” with less on its mind than the original, but audiences had clearly embraced this stoic and patriotic character. There was a desire to see John Rambo muscle his way through crazy against-the-odds scenarios. It was also a bit of cultural wish fulfilment and a chance for Americans to rewrite history, with a super-soldier heading back to Vietnam and defeating two of Uncle Sam’s best-known adversaries there. It’s no surprise President Ronald Reagan turned Rambo into a poster boy for the Republicans (thus ignoring the character’s disdain for party politics), and in so-doing Stallone’s second most famous character became one of the 1980s defining heroes. It was a time where big muscles and bigger guns are all that really mattered.
I do enjoy watching this movie more than the first, on its own terms, despite it being much less ambitious and nuanced. First Blood is a great idea that gets a little stuck halfway through and never fully recovers (although Rambo’s touching final speech claws things back a little), but Part II knows what it wants to be from start to finish. It’s simpler and dumber, absolutely, but it’s an aggressively entertaining action movie that made an impact on the genre and a bigger one on popular culture.
Rambo III (1988)
Yeah, well, there won’t be a victory! Every day, your war machines lose ground to a bunch of poorly-armed, poorly-equipped freedom fighters! The fact is that you underestimated your competition. If you’d studied your history, you’d know that these people have never given up to anyone. They’d rather die than be slaves to an invading army. You can’t defeat a people like that. We tried! We already had our Vietnam! Now you’re gonna have yours!—Colonel Trautman.
I like how the original Rambo trilogy straddled the 1980s from beginning to end. These movies seem to chart American confidence at the time: haunted by wartime memories of the last decade’s mistakes (First Blood), then regaining that confidence and wanting to settle old scores (First Blood Part II), and now on the top of the world and poised to finally end the Cold War (Rambo III). I mean, Rambo defeats a large portion of Soviet army single-handed in this third outing, doing with his bare hands what Ronald Reagan achieved with diplomacy and paperwork.
Rambo III marked the directorial debut of Peter MacDonald, an English camera operator (Superman: The Movie), cinematographer (Hamburger Hill), and second unit director (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Rambo: First Blood Part II). His career as a director lasted until 2001, with The NeverEnding Story III: Return to Fantasia (1994) being the sole “high point” after Rambo III, but he’s still working second units today on the likes of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). MacDonald was promoted to the director’s chair because the first choice, Russell Mulcahy (Highlander), was fired as director and cinematographer several weeks into filming by Stallone.
It’s fair to say most people consider this the worst of the three original Rambo movies, but I found it more entertaining than First Blood Part II—but only to a point. It certainly loses its way terribly in the final act, when the action becomes deadening and there aren’t any big surprises. But I enjoyed the setup with Rambo living in Thailand, helping Buddhist monks rebuild a monastery in the mountains and giving them the cash he wins fighting men in Bangkok with sticks. Colonel Trautman and Embassy official Robert Griggs (a wasted Kurtwood Smith) eventually track the elusive Rambo down, offering him the chance to support anti-Soviet fighters in a region of Afghanistan where the civilian population are suffering greatly. Rambo refuses the offer because he’s left that life behind, but after Trautman’s captured by Soviets near the border he agrees to rescue his friend with help from the Mujahideen in a mission the US government will disavow all knowledge of if he’s caught.
This sequel is a variation on First Blood Part II, but switching a humid jungle for a dusty desert, and having Trautman involved in the action instead of commenting on Rambo’s antics from afar. There are even parallels with the Vietnam War (which the US lost because they underestimated local fighters using guerrilla tactics) because the Soviet-Afghan War was a similar predicament for the Russian military. This was also a prescient movie, as the eyes of the world very much turned to the Middle East thanks to the Gulf War (1990–91) and, ever since the September 11 attacks of 2001, the region has again returned to the headlines.
Interestingly, in this story, Rambo’s essentially helping the Afghan freedom fighters who will evolve into the Taliban in the mid-1990s. The film is even dedicated “to the gallant people of Afghanistan”. It just goes to show how easily your friends can become your enemies.
Putting aside the interesting political context of Rambo III, it essentially boils down to a fairly generic action movie. Rambo becomes personally invested in the situation the Afghans are facing after a village is attacked, so starts terminating every Soviet he comes across singlehanded. It’s pure macho fantasy; a David and Goliath story where Rambo charges helicopter gunships on a horse holding a Molotov cocktail. For a while, it’s perfectly adequate entertainment, but things become repetitive and the story doesn’t end particularly well—making me wish they’d done something braver like killing Trautman. Maybe Stallone suspected this franchise could run and run, like Rocky, but with a larger budget of $60M (approx.) Rambo III only grossed $189M at the box office (that’s $403M today). This was a significant downturn to the previous instalment’s $300M ($730M today), which suggested audiences weren’t as interested in the Rambo character as we approached the 1990s.
This is the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) of the Rambo saga, being a desert-set movie that nominally ended a trilogy until both franchises were revived in 2008—with Rambo and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull respectively. If only it represented the same quality of storytelling, but it does deliver what audiences want and expect from a Rambo movie. There are even some moments that have entered pop culture, like the opening stick fight (another Hot Shots: Part Deux favourite), and a moment when Rambo cauterises a wound by emptying gunpowder from a bullet into the entry hole and setting fire to it.
4K Ultra HD & Blu-ray Special Features:
All three movies have been scanned from the original camera negatives and restored ahead of their 4K Ultra HD debuts. They all look better than ever, particularly the first movie, although each benefits the most from HDR’s boost with contrast and the sheer number of colours that can be presented on a 4K/HDR television set simultaneously. The black levels aren’t as inky as a modern movie, often appearing a little washed out in nighttime scenes but, for the most part, these movies are lifted by the more three-dimensional feel to their environments and some added clarity of detail. You can see every vein pop on Stallone’s bicep or bead of sweat on his forehead. Explosions are particularly good at times, appearing bright enough to cause a half-squint.
Unfortunately, in requesting the 4K UHD discs for review (the main reason for reinvesting in this trilogy), none of the bonus material was available to me because each movie’s extra features are exclusive to their accompanying Blu-ray discs. But it seems there’s a decent array of featurettes, interviews, outtakes, trailers, audio commentaries, and marketing materials for Rambo fans to spend some time watching through.
There are also some limited edition Steelbooks available for each of these movies.
Rambo: First Blood.
- Rambo takes the ’80s Part 1.
- Drawing First Blood – Making Of.
- Alternate Ending.
- Outtake (Humorous Ending).
- Deleted scene: Dream in Saigon.
- Original Trailer.
- How to Become Rambo Part 1.
- The Restoration.
- The Real Nam.
- Forging Heroes.
- Audio commentary by actor Sylvester Stallone.
- Audio commentary by screenwriter David Morell.
Rambo: First Blood Part II.
- Rambo takes the ’80s: Part 2.
- We get to Win This Time.
- Action in the Jungle.
- The Last American POW.
- Sean Baker – Fulfilling a Dream.
- Interview: Sylvester Stallone.
- Interview: Richard Crenna.
- Behind the Scenes.
- The Restoration.
- Original TV Spots.
- Original Trailer.
- How to Become Rambo Part 2.
- George P Cosmatos audio commentary.
- Rambo takes the ’80s: Part 3.
- Full Circle.
- A Hero’s Journey.
- Rambo’s Survival Hardware.
- Alternate Beginning.
- Deleted Scenes.
- Interview with Sylvester Stallone.
- Afghanistan: A Land in Crisis.
- Guts and Glory.
- Behind the Scenes.
- The Restoration.
- Trautman & Rambo.
- How to Become Rambo Part 3.
- Original Trailer.
- Original TV spots.
- Selling a Hero (Easter Egg).
- Peter MacDonald (Director) Audio Commentary.
Casts & Crews
directors: Ted Kotcheff (Rambo: First Blood) • George P. Cosmatos (Rambo: First Blood Part II) • Peter MacDonald (Rambo III)
writers: Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim & Sylvester Stallone (Rambo: First Blood) • Sylvester Stallone & James Cameron (Rambo: First Blood Part II) • Sylvester Stallone & Sheldon Lettich (Rambo III) All based on the novel or characters by David Morrell.
starring: Sylvester Stallone & Richard Crenna • Brian Dennehy, Bill McKinney, Jack Starrett & Michael Talbott (Rambo: First Blood) • Charles Napier, Steven Berkoff, Julia Nickson, Martin Kove & George Cheung (Rambo: First Blood Part II) • Kurtwood Smith, Marc de Jonge, Sasson Gabai, Doudi Shoua & Spiros Focas (Rambo III).