Having successfully brought life back into the Rocky franchise with Rocky Balboa in 2006, it was inevitable that actor-writer-director, Sylvester Stallone, would bring back John Rambo for one last mission.
With the new film, Rambo, being the fourth in the franchise, the title character had already been through a lot of hell in the previous films – from jumping off a mountain and crashing through a set of trees First Blood to defeating the Russians (again) in Rambo III, what else was there for John Rambo to do?
Like previous two instalments, Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III, Rambo is tasked with saving the day for a group of, essentially, helpless individuals – PoWs in Part II, an imprisoned Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna) in III, and now missionaries under the capture of the Burmese military in Rambo. The theme of rescue is clearly present throughout the franchise from Part II onwards, though in Part II, Rambo is initially assigned to only take pictures of any PoWs, not save the, of which he later chooses to, which causes Murdock (Charles Napier) to leave Rambo for dead.
Furthermore, a concept that was present throughout the initial Rambo trilogy (especially the first two films), and later in 2008’s Rambo, is that the supporting characters (excluding Col. Trautman) do not know exactly how good, dangerous, or who John Rambo really is. Beginning with First Blood, the obnoxious Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) and his posse underestimate Rambo’s skillset, therefore the Vietnam veteran is at one point regarded as “just another smart ass drifter”, however, later in the film, Col. Trautman’s iconic speech really establishes the severity of what the sheriff is facing:
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.
Three years later in Rambo: First Blood Part II, soon after Rambo is betrayed and left for dead by Murdock (Charles Napier), Col. Trautman scarily informs Murdock of how extreme Rambo can be as a soldier and, perhaps, an exaggerated truth:
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.
Fast-forward to the latest franchise instalment, Rambo, and a group of mercenaries are sent to rescue the imprisoned missionaries. The leader of the mercenaries, Lewis (Graham McTavish), is often critical of Rambo, of who is there to control the boat transporting the mercenaries – from 30 minutes in, Lewis is verbally vulgar throughout Rambo, and in one instance, Lewis, beginning with, “Oi, Boatman!”, targets Rambo’s transportation duration with, “I don’t want to f***ing die of old age before I get there, so move!” Only a few minutes later, Lewis adds, “Has [the trip] got you nervous, ‘cause really you should appreciate the action […] got to be better than looking at the arse-end of a snake.” This, along with “He’s the boatman, he stays with the f***ing boat!” and then, after Rambo saves the day with his bow and arrow, “Who are you, Boatman?” all establish the three-decade-long theme of supporting characters either underestimating or not having a clue whatsoever as to how skilful, dangerous, and vicious, Rambo can be or who he even is.
Of course, some viewers have known for decades that in the Rambo sequels, that there is a big, over-blown, all-out action sequence presenting Rambo as, essentially, an underdog super-soldier.
The turning points in the Rambo films where, essentially, Rambo comes out of the shadows, his character is revealed to unknowledgeable supporting characters, and is transformed into an underdog super-soldier of sorts, have been common knowledge for fans of the Rambo franchise for decades. The audience is in a position of power – they know what will happen. Knowing that said “turning points” will occur establishes anticipation for the inevitable all-out action sequence.
Action-wise, wow, Rambo is much grittier and gory than the preceding three films. Rambo presents more kills made by Rambo than the previous three films put together – one in First Blood, 75 in Rambo: First Blood Part II, and 115 in Rambo III – Rambo boasts an emphatic 254 (source: Rambo Wikia). The kills in Rambo range from shooting a pirate in the back of the head in front of the missionaries to, with Rambo’s bare hands, ripping the throat out of a Burmese Lieutenant Aye (Aung Aay Noi).
The excessively gory kills in Rambo can be assumed to be a result of the following options: the character is older, more depressed, hates the world, so with no care at all he kills viciously; as an independently made film, there were less content constraints, therefore, licence to be excessive existed; or pure shock value, as the character had been away from screens from 20 years, and with Rambo’s concepts being familiar with the previous films, there needed to be an extremity for audiences to be able to significantly differentiate Rambo to Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III.
Like the previous sequels, Rambo ultimately leaves the viewer wondering what will happen next for the character, though, there is a bigger sense of closure than what is presented at the conclusion of all of the preceding films. Ultimately, Rambo is a worthwhile viewing if you’re a fan of the franchise or Stallone, obviously, but for a specific reason, it would be just to see where the Rambo character is in more modern times or 2008 at least.