“Rambo is a war machine that can’t be turned off,” Sylvester Stallone told Time’s Richard Zoglin in 1985. At the time, the multi-hyphenate action star was riding high on the success of First Blood: Part II, just months before Rocky IV’s almost-as-impressive holiday release ($85 million over a month vs. First Blood: Part II’s $150 million over almost three months). Before that, First Blood was (and mostly still is) fairly well-regarded as a psychodrama about John Rambo (Stallone), a traumatized Vietnam vet who feels ostracized after returning to America. But First Blood: Part II—which Stallone had greater creative control over, after rewriting James Cameron’s original script—was dismissed by several critics as ahistorical propaganda: The New York Times’s Vincent Canby said that the film was “not about the war as it was fought and as it came to an end 10 years ago, but as it has come to look to the macho mind of today.” Jay Kesler, writing for the Christian journal Transformation in 1987, paraphrased Luke 23:18 when he said that "...I fear the United States is on the verge of saying 'Give us Rambo!' We would rather have him than Jesus Christ. He is offering so much more of what our national psyche craves."
Still, it’s 2019, and a fourth sequel, Rambo: Last Blood, is now in theaters. In First Blood, Rambo was a symbol of post-war alienation; in Last Blood, he’s looking for fights to pick, this time with the Mexican cartels. Rambo’s transformation from a sullen martyr to an avenging angel has even startled author David Morrell, who originated the Rambo character in the 1972 novel First Blood. “Instead of being soulful, this new movie lacks one," Morrell told Newsweek. "I felt I was less a human being for having seen it, and today that's an unfortunate message.”
Rambo’s post-First Blood journey has steadily led him down darker, more regressive by-ways since 1985: in First Blood: Part II, he humped back to Vietnam to rescue American soldiers that were still missing in action, and also to kill a few dozen more Viet Cong and Soviet baddies, too. In Rambo III (1988), Stallone’s fatigued antihero accepts a mission to rescue his sworn frenemy Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) from the Soviets in Afghanistan, and to also help the Mujahideen fighters win their independence. Then, in Rambo (2008), the big man guns down and rips the throats out of bloodthirsty Burmese troops who have targeted a group of unarmed Christian missionaries (and also the converted Karen people) in Myanmar. With all these bodies and ghosts to his credit, one can’t help but wonder: how the hell has Rambo survived this long?
As the character transformed over the span of the movies, toy companies also raised objections (a Hasbro spokesperson said, after their company lost the bid to license Rambo toys, that “Rambo is a character from an R-rated movie”); protest groups (Peggy Charren, president of Action for Children’s Television: “The problem with Rambo as a doll is it's a doll for children, whereas the movie is not a children's movie, it’s a movie for adults.”); and censors (in England, the BBFC took issue with excessive blood “spatter” and “the glamorisation of weapons”).
First Blood: Part II still spawned three more live-action sequels, a G.I. Joe-esque cartoon spin-off—promoted with laughably inappropriate toys (most of which were officially licensed!), like this Uzi, this grenade, and this knife—and some more adult-oriented tchotchkes, like “authentically verified” bullet shells fired from guns used during the filming of Rambo III.
Over the years, Rambo has insisted that “people don’t change” and that he cannot just “switch off” his war-time training, as he said to Trautman in both First Blood: Parts II and III (and again in flashbacks in Rambo, from 2015). But now he’s living on his family’s Bowie, Arizona ranch decades after he hid from his past in Thailand. In Last Blood, Rambo tries to “keep a lid on” some unspecified psychological disorder with medication (PTSD, presumably), and by building and maintaining an elaborate network of Survivalist-friendly tunnels under his ranch. Rambo inevitably casts aside his pills like a Bizarro Popeye after Gabrielle (Yvette Montreal), the impressionable teenage grand-daughter of his Mexican family friend Maria (Adrianna Barazza), is kidnapped by Mexican human-traffickers/cartel members. Last Blood’s Mexican antagonists have led critics like Uproxx’s Vince Mancini to argue that “Trump-era Rambo is essentially a human border wall keeping out Mexican rapists and murderers.”
Mancini also notes that film’s politics are thinly veiled in their xenophobia, though that sort of intolerance is consistent with Rambo’s character. In interviews, Stallone has often tried to argue that Rambo is apolitical. In a 1988 interview with Roger Ebert, Stallone said, “I’m always taken aback by the way the character is misperceived. He is not a violent character per se. He is constantly questioning his own integrity." But, on the screen, Slant’s Keith Uhlich notes that Mexican characters like Maria, Gabrielle, and kind-hearted journalist Carmen Delgado (Paz Vega) seem to exist in the Rambo-verse “because some Mexicans, we assume, are good people.” These supporting characters in the Rambo series have often provided Stallone with a flimsy, sentimental shield from accusations of impersonal fearmongering. Increasingly, these films ask a question that serves as the basis of many conservative ideologies: What would you do if your loved ones were threatened? This has happened to supporting characters throughout the films like Rambo’s Vietnamese love interest Co (Julia Nickson) in First Blood: Part II. This has also happened to Trautman in Part II and Rambo III. In Rambo III, Trautman is presented as a well-meaning, but naive extension of the broken and mismanaged American military system (no wonder Trautman’s the one who gets kidnapped in Rambo III). If you’re Rambo, and some outsider is threatening the people you care about: you get revenge, over and over again.
When the Rambo films got darker after Trautmann’s death, Rambo’s creators considered recasting the part with James Brolin, but Stallone insisted that the character died with Crenna in 2003. Since then, Rambo’s stopped railing against and reluctantly saving the military from its own botched planning: now he rescues hapless (but “noble,” to quote a pure-hearted mercenary from Rambo) civilians, especially women, like Last Blood’s Gabrielle and Rambo’s unarmed missionary Sarah (Julie Benz). Sarah lives, but both Gabrielle and Co (a spy working for the US) die. Before Gabrielle dies, she sheds a tear for the family she lost by not listening to surrogate dad Rambo; when Co dies, Rambo cries for a romance that he missed out on (Rambo cries in Cameron’s First Blood: Part II draft, but while that scene was filmed, it didn’t make the final cut after Stallone noticed some test screening audience members laughing at Rambo’s tears).
Stallone has often been reluctant to admit, in interviews, that Rambo is a right-wing role model, like when, in 1985, he laughed at being called “the Jane Fonda of the right”. Still, Rambo posters have been used in Army recruitment offices, despite the protests of Army men like Medal of Honor winner Bob Kerrey, who said First Blood: Part II “made [the war] look like fun,” and U.S. Army Recruiting Command spokesperson Lt. Col. John F. Cullen, who pointed out that “[Rambo’s] an ex-convict...not the kind of guy we want for our poster boy.”
Now, with his latest outing in 2019, Rambo’s using a dead girl to justify a war on Mexican drug-dealers. In 37 years, Rambo has somehow maintained his presence in American pop culture. But long gone are the days of a character who personified PTSD and trauma in post-Vietnam America. The Rambo of today is a decades out-of-touch war-hawk who needs to stop blowing things up and re-consider permanent retirement.
Simon Abrams is a film critic and author based in New York.