In Stallone’s first outing as the eponymous character, Rambo: First Blood (1982), the carnage that came to define Rambo sparked from a relatively symbolic place. A veteran of the Vietnam war, Rambo is caught upon his arrival to Hope, Washington, detained by the Sheriff for ignoring his request to leave the town. Incapacitated by officers in the station, an attempt to shave his stubble results in a traumatic flashback to Rambo’s experiences as a POW: thus begins his impulsive rampage, non-lethal yet driven by repressed anger, burning up from memories of a time that continues to dirty American history.
While the action genre tends to project its fantasies through a political tunnel vision, Rambo: First Blood was different: it gestured towards a widely criticised moment in American history, questioning the treatment of those involved and exhibiting the danger that these mistreated men could cause to a society that refuses to reintegrate them. An astute viewpoint, glossed with spectacular action set pieces and a star-defining turn from Stallone, already known as the similarly dejected Rocky Balboa.
But things changed, with the subsequent sequels: the table didn’t so much turn, as get flipped, with those sat at it revealing huge weapons, ready to remove the other from the face of the Earth. Returning to Vietnam in the ironically titled Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rambo isn’t embraced by the community, as the original seemed to suggest was necessary: he’s shipped off back to Vietnam, to complete another mission with the promise of a pardon, eliminating anyone that gets in his way. How a damaged soldier immediately shifts back into metal gear solid is itself disingenuous to the original’s message. But there’s a more important theme running here, one that is born from this sequel and breaches right into the skin of the upcoming, supposedly final outing, Rambo: Last Blood. This theme is one of revenge, a bloodlust served to justify the mistakes of the past. Rambo started as a mellow meditation on alienation: it’s ended up as a fascinating justification for seeking vengeance, closing the book through brute force.
Judging by its trailers, Last Blood’s title tickles with a sense of irony: if this is the last blood to spill, then there’ll be a Shining level to clean up. But an important detail comes in the setting, and it drags it right back to the first movie: it’s back on North American soil. Set in Mexico, Rambo looks to cut the cord to his past through buckshot and bullets. But he’s not the victim of circumstance or brash justice. This time, he has family involved: a niece he seeks to save from the cartel. Why is this important? On this subject of revenge, it ties the knot on the series’ metamorphosis of Rambo from victim to agent of his vengeance: away from his role as a soldier in the second film, Last Blood casts Rambo as a vigilante.
Within the wider American discourse, this tells a unique tale over the course of this ailing franchise: Rambo has transformed from victim of an alienated America to a perpetrator of aggressive action against those that threaten American democracy. From the Viet Cong in First Blood: Part II to the Russians in Rambo III, and in the most recent movies, the Burmese army in Rambo (4) and now, the Mexican cartel in Rambo: Last Blood.
Now, this is fantasy: a wish-fulfilling retelling of history through the eyes of an all American hero, fighting against those forces that threaten America and its institutions. The Burmese attack a group of Christian missionaries for example, and it appears the Mexicans have taken the damsel – Rambo’s niece – sparking his patriarchal passion. There is nothing harmful in this subtext, the films are mere, gratuitous entertainment. But there’s a fascinating story developing here amidst the fire and fury: the developing tale of the American perspective, from regretful and self-effacing, to excessively patriotic and deterministic: Americans can help shape the future of their country. There’s an argument to be made that the violence it portrays is a negative aspect of that opportunity. Many have taken the responsibility into their own hands, taking the lives of many. I believe it is risky to have Rambo act in a way that mirrors these traumatic assailants. But it does accurately reflect the attitudes of the time: aggressive progression is promoted over reflective development. Rambo is no longer a victim of circumstance: he’s the maker of his own destiny. Manifest destiny could well be making a comeback: the U.S. President could make some ‘Make America Great Again’ bandanas in that iconic red.