Active Essentials: Rambo
With the fourth movie on the way, Scott McKenzie looks back at Rambo's legacy
In May 2006 my fiancée Lizzie and I went on holiday to Canada. We flew to Calgary and spent two weeks driving to Vancouver via Banff and through Jasper National Park. One of the least impressive sights on the journey was Hope, British Columbia, but goddammit I wanted to visit this little town in the mountains. Why, you may ask? Well, Hope doubled as small town USA in First Blood and I was excited to visit this little haven of Hollywood memories.
The reality was very different. We picked up a tour guide and decided to follow the ‘Rambo Trail’. My excitement peaked as we headed off to find point number one. Unfortunately we could have saved a lot of time by reading ahead. It turns out that a lot of the buildings in First Blood were constructed specifically for the movie and they were subsequently blown up or deconstructed. What that meant to the trail that me and my increasingly unimpressed wife-to-be were following was that there’s actually not very much left to see apart from the H-shaped tree (see the screenshot above) and the railway tracks that Rambo jumps over on a motorbike. However, the visit wasn’t a total disaster with the discovery of the last refuge of a desperate tourist…
That’s the look of a man who has been told to look rock hard because he’s pretending to be Rambo when another car full of soon-to-be-disappointed tourists has pulled up in front of him. That’s the end of my career as a travel journalist so now it’s on with what I’m supposed to be writing about…
Top Twenty Moments
I’d like to point out that I’m well aware that Rambo isn’t exactly the greatest series of movies ever made. I considered different options for this article, knowing that writing up the top twenty moments and treating the whole series as a guilty pleasure might work so I’ve decided to go for something in between.
Given that it’s based on a novel and deals with important issues like post-traumatic stress disorder and the lack of respect for soldiers returning home from the Vietnam war, it’s no surprise that First Blood is generally regarded as the best in the series. Seeing as I was born in 1978 it’s difficult for me to imagine life before 80s action movies but this is one of the first, if not the first. Sylvester Stallone mentions in his DVD commentary that he thought there was no way this movie would ever work and the first cut that was over two hours long was very dull. Then someone made the decision to cut it down to ninety-something minutes and change and the action movie standards were set for the rest of the decade.
1. What do you use a knife like this for?
One of the things that sets First Blood apart from its Roman numerated brothers is the strong performance of the always-reliable Brian Dennehy. Who’d have thought of putting a young strongman up against a chubby middle-aged bloke? Oh, hang on a minute, that’s the setup for Rocky Balboa isn’t it? Anyway, the whole film (and the path of Rambo’s life through the series) depends on him having a convincing bust-up with Sheriff Teasle that descends into chaos for the whole town. Without Dennehy’s grumpy old antagonist we’d just have a by-the-numbers action movie with a stock bad guy, but this initial run-in between our hero and Teasle sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
2. Shave him dry
Rambo’s post-traumatic stress disorder is a theme that’s only explored in First Blood and it gives the character an added depth that he isn’t blessed with after the boys in blue carry him away at the end. The short cuts back to Rambo’s torture at the hands of the Vietcong are genuinely shocking and give us just enough information about why he’s so mentally unhinged.
3. Cliffside swan dive
The first big action scene ends with Sherrif Teasle and his cronies chasing Rambo to the edge of a cliff. With nowhere to go, he starts the long climb down and when a helicopter arrives carrying the trigger-happy Deputy, he has no choice but to make a jump for it. After he snags his arm on a branch, we get to see how a man alone in the wilderness patches himself up—with a needle and thread. The makeup is well done and the whole scene is more low key and realistic than the equivalent scene in Rambo III (see further down).
4. We ain’t hunting him, he’s hunting us
Inevitably, the hunter becomes the hunted and Rambo turns the tables on the men on his trail. Proving himself a man of nature, he fashions booby traps from only natural supplies. The results are as effective as they are brutal. Both of the sequels follow the same structure—Rambo is wronged, bad guys chase after him, then he turns round and chases after them. It’s all very simple, but it works and is one of the reasons why I come back to these movies when good sense sometimes tells me not to.
5. Enter Colonel Trautman
God bless Richard Crenna, the Rambo movies wouldn’t be the same without him. The only problem with his appearance as Colonel Trautman is that once you’ve seen him in Hot Shots! Part Deux it’s more difficult to take him seriously. I say more difficult because even before his spoof role, Trautman was an over-the-top character that stole every scene. As the movies become more and more unbelievable, he fits in more and more with the rest of the cast. It doesn’t matter that he spouts some of the corniest lines in movie history (see further down again); Colonel Trautman is one of the most memorable characters in any action movie from the 80s.
6. Rambo vs. Hope
In the end, Teasle pushes Rambo too far and he incurs the wrath of our favourite tooled-up nutcase. After stealing a truck and a machine gun, he lays waste to Hope, blowing up the petrol station and shooting the police station to pieces. Unfortunately this scene pales into insignificance next to the pure carnage of parts two and three. The sight of a water cooler feeling the business end of an M60 isn’t quite the same as seeing Rambo blowing up the man who killed the woman he loved with an explosive arrow, but this is the physical climax of the movie and at least from an action perspective the best is still yet to come from our man Rambo.
7. Time for a speech
I’ll be honest and say that I could easily have cut this down to less than twenty scenes but twenty has a nice ring to it, so twenty it is. In my best Joe Cabot voice, it’s my way or the highway. This scene almost didn’t make the cut and when watching it in a certain mood, it could easily have been included in the five not-so-great moments. The reason for this quandary is the combination of the screenplay and Sly’s performance. The words that come out of Rambo’s mouth are very emotional and probably strike a chord with Vietnam veterans, but the way the words come out of his mouth make it a bit difficult to watch. It’s probably the most incomprehensible ending to a mainstream movie, but action junkies (and Sly’s bank manager) will be happy the suicide ending wasn’t used instead.
Rambo: First Blood Part II
Interestingly (or maybe not so interesting depending on your level of geekiness), the new Rambo movie is technically the second entry in the series to be titled Rambo, since the first sequel is only subtitled First Blood Part II. If you’re still awake, I’ll stop all this nonsense and refer to this movie as Rambo II from now on.
8. Suiting up
In the same way the viewer always expects a training scene with uplifting music in a Rocky movie, a Rambo movie also needs to contain a scene where he tools up, ready for the fight ahead. It serves two purposes—to remind us that Rambo is hard as nails and to set up the devices that will be used later on in the movie. You can be certain they will be used as well because there would be theatres full of very dissatisfied customers if any movie were to show explosive arrows, but then not show lots of things being blown up with them.
9. What bring you luck?
Rambo II is a movie that could have gone one of two ways. It could have focused on Rambo’s struggle to deal with his PTSD during his time in prison and his difficulty adjusting to life on the outside. Instead, it focused on Rambo killing lots of people and blowing stuff up and this is probably the moment when he switched from a traumatised war veteran to a pumped-up superhero. When Co asks him what brings him luck, he picks the best thing he can to remind us that he’s a badass who’s more than a little mentally unhinged.
10. Pirates… Best way down river
After disregarding his orders just to take pictures of the American POWs, Rambo and Co help one of the unfortunates to escape and make their way back down the river with their pirate hosts. Predictably they get sold out, but the details aren’t really important. What matters is that this is the first excuse for a great action scene and goes some way towards clocking up the on-screen body count of sixty-seven, which was one of the highest of the time, but was still eclipsed by Commando, American Ninja and Invasion USA, also made in 1985.
Rambo’s left wishing he hadn’t disregarded his orders as the not-to-be-trusted Murdock orders the extraction team to abort, leaving our hero and his POW companion stranded on the top of a hill with the bad guys approaching. As Rambo drops his empty machine gun in the mud, we know it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better, both for him and Murdock and his computers.
12. Enter Steven Berkoff
Just when Rambo thought it couldn’t get any worse, a British thespian with a dodgy Russian accent turns up to make his life a whole lot more uncomfortable. Coming straight from playing the bad guy in Beverly Hills Cop, one of my other favourite 80s movies, he steals the show in the relatively small number of scenes he’s in. I’m glad he doesn’t show up earlier because for me, watching Steven Berkoff is like drinking champagne—a small amount is just nice, but have too much and I start to feel a bit queasy.
13. Murdock, I’m coming to get you
‘Yes!’ the audience shouts and throws a fist skywards as Rambo delivers a metaphorical punch to Murdock over the radio followed by plenty of regular punches to everyone else around him. This is the moment where Rambo does his Incredible Hulk routine and flips out, only pausing for a few moments in the killing to cop off with his indigenous companion. Which brings us neatly along to…
14. Just when it was all going so well…
Co Bao is notable for being the only female character in all five hours of the series. The Thing, Bad Taste and No Escape are all guy movies with no female presence, and I’m sure you can think of plenty of similar movies, but it’s pretty incredible to have a whole trilogy of movies with hardly any women in starring, supporting or even extra roles. The fact that Co fancies Rambo is rather predictable, but her death makes him even more mad and as far as we the viewing audience is concerned, he never goes anywhere near another woman again until the impending fourth instalment.
15. Explosions and more explosions
Rambo kills everyone. That’s all you need to know. Whether he’s stabbing them, shooting them or blowing them up with explosive arrows, there’s no doubt he’s going to get all of the POWs out of ‘Nam. Hell yeah! I’m getting a bit carried away now. Moving on…
16. Rambo vs. Murdock and his computers
Steven Berkoff might have been the Russian antagonist but the real bad guy here is the weasely Murdock, played by the great Charles Napier. With rooms full of state of the art computer equipment (well, it was state of the art in 1985 anyway), he reckons he can sweep the existence of POWs under the carpet and save the government some money. By this point you shouldn’t be surprised that Rambo doesn’t like his attitude and makes his feelings known with the help of an M60 and the one thing that brings him good luck.
It’s no coincidence that the fewest top moments occur in the third movie in the series and there are almost as many not-so-great moments further down the page because let’s face it, Rambo III isn’t exactly a great movie. It’s possible to analyse the homoeroticism until your head spins, but for me it’s just an action movie and let’s not forget that the most expensive movie ever made (circa 1988) can’t be all bad.
17. The stick fight
Our first encounter with John J Rambo in this instalment is when Colonel Trautman and Griggs (played by Kurtwood Smith) find him stick fighting in a warehouse for money to give to the monks who let him stay at their temple. What’s immediately clear is that our Sly has either been working out non-stop since part two or he’s pumping himself with more hormones than a pre-op transsexual. Either way, the fact that the size of his body is pushing the limits of believability sets our expectations at the appropriate level for everything else about the movie. The scene itself is great and is unfortunately another way the series has been tainted by countless spoofs in the years since.
18. Allah must love crazy people
I’m no expert on Afghan history, but Rambo essentially joins the Taleban, doesn’t he? There’s so much going on here thematically that I could bang on about how George W should have watched this before sending troops to the Middle East, but I don’t see the point in baiting anyone out there. Just before a load of stuff blows up, Rambo ingratiates himself with his new friends by joining in a nice game of polo, only with no mallets and a dead animal instead of a ball.
19. Fight in the caves
Afghanistan is well-known for its network of caves within the harsh landscape, so I’m glad to see they were used somewhere in the action. We’re well into silly territory here so we’ve got death by guns, exploding arrows, emergency lights and napalm-inspired dodgy one-liners.
20. F___ ‘em
This is another moment that could easily have made its way into the list further down the page. Rambo’s final line before we launch into another one of the action scenes that by this point are becoming a little too much is the height of lazy screenwriting but it also neatly sums up the man himself. We’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys, so f___ ‘em.
Five Not-So-Great Moments
This may be a love letter to the Rambo movies, but I’m no fool. My love isn’t blind and I’m well aware of the shortcomings. Here are five of the moments that let the big man down.
On his DVD commentary, Sylvester Stallone himself bemoans the inclusion of the part-time soldiers who do nothing but bungle their attempts to apprehend Rambo. Comic relief is always a good idea, especially in a dramatic action movie, but the humour here is too broad and completely goes against the tone of the movie.
2. Oh, and what you choose to call hell, he calls home
God bless Richard Crenna (again). I could very easily have put together a list of Trautman’s dodgy lines, but this is my personal ‘favourite’. It earns its place in this list because of the way it’s delivered. What Richard Crenna has said before it is more than enough to make Murdock realise that Rambo’s a mean mother, but it’s the way he starts to walk away, then turns round again to deliver the killer line like he’s just thought of it that makes me squirm into my sofa.
3. We just chipped away the small pieces
I don’t even know where to start with this one. The story Trautman tells Rambo to get him to realise he’s a mean mother by nature would probably sound inspiring if it was delivered by anyone other than Richard Crenna, but instead it just sounds unbelievably cheesy. The idea that Rambo’s mental state could be changed by an assembly-time story for children is absurd, as is the complete lack of detail in the story. Who is the artist? Why is the rock so special?
4. I’m no tourist
No, you’re not a tourist Mr Stallone, and anyone who thinks you are must be a complete idiot. If it were any old random person turning up and asking a stranger for cases full of military equipment, you might expect some snide comments but this is Sylvester Stallone, a man with shoulders so big he has to walk through double doors sideways. This is just one example of the many excuses for Roger Moore-style one-liners that litter this episode and while the mood does need to be lightened from time to time, a lot of the gags are cheap and don’t make a lot of sense.
5. Patching himself up again
The scene in First Blood where Rambo patches himself up with a needle and thread worked because it was low key and had the ‘ew’ factor that comes with something that you could almost imagine having to do yourself. When Rambo finds himself on the wrong end of some shrapnel and decides to treat the wound himself, what then happens is graphic, plain crazy and filmed like a love scene. Eli Roth is fooling himself—torture porn started in 1988.
Better Left Forgotten…
To round off this trip down memory lane, I’ll sign off with two video clips of Rambo’s darkest days. No six words strike fear into the hearts of Rambo fans more than Rambo and the Forces of Freedom…
Oh, one more thing. If you find yourself in Hope, don’t order a panini from the Blue Moose café. They’re a bit soggy.
Editorial by Scott McKenzie
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