Midnight Movie Fanclub: From First Blood to Bloody Dismemberment

…or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Rambo

rambo-first-blood-part-iiI honestly can’t remember the first time I met John J. Rambo. It may have been in Afghanistan, but then again, it could have been in ‘Nam. I know for sure that by the time I did meet him, he had a pretty heavy rep. Huge muscles, huge guns, headbands, the KNIFE, and a body count higher than a U.S.-sponsored secret war were his calling cards. Rumor had it that John Rambo had the skills to take you down with weapons, hand-to-hand combat, or deadly traps. He was a righteously lethal patriopath that bad guys ran from in their nightmares – but still got their legs blown off. The guy had achieved legend status on television trailers and loose talk alone.

Anyway, when we finally met face to face in Rambo: First Blood Part II, or Rambo III, I was not disappointed. Stallone was every bit the ruthless, calculating death machine he was billed to be. He took down entire base camps of commies and endured nightmare torture sessions. He spoke softly or not at all (except when he howled like a fucking maniac while firing an 80-pound light machine gun), preferring to let carnage be his voice. He had awesome fucking hair. I saw both films in short order. I wanted a Survival Knife so bad. Arnold was a cream puff. Stallone was my new guy.

First Blood CoverSo it’s pretty weird that it never occurred to me in those early days to see First Blood. Seems like a pretty obvious thing to do. It certainly lacked the blockbuster momentum and hype of the sequels (especially FBPII), but still. I mean, the film is titled Rambo: First Blood Part II. The name is so truncated and clunky, you’d think I’d have been more curious to know its origins. I don’t know. My friends and I took to calling FBPII “Rambo” and basically denying the existence of the original. I was a pretty stupid kid.

Lucky for for me, I caught it on television late one night several years later. Having recently discovered masterwork war pics like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, I was ready to be darkly amused by John Rambo’s brand of cartoonish violence and fervent nationalism, but what I found was something completely different. I was stupified to find First Blood a thoughtfully paced, almost quiet film compared to what I’d remembered from the gory, mirthless sequels.

First Blood begins serenely, with a young, Bronsonesque Stallone trekking through the pacific northwest on foot, his well worn, standard issue Army jacket the only hint that he’s anything more than a common drifter. A brief encounter with a fallen comrade’s mother shows him to be vulnerable, lost, sorrowful. Context provides the easy jump that he’s a veteran of Vietnam who’s been back in the states for a time, but hasn’t been able to find his foothold in civilian life. This treatment fit closely with stories my Stepfather, himself a Vietnam vet, had told me about guys he had known re-entering civilian life after seeing combat. There were guys who had trouble holding a job or staying sober when they got back home, and there were stories that were far more tragic. It wasn’t something we talked about much, in part because I sensed it was something he didn’t quite know how to explain. What I took away was the feeling that these guys deserved empathy. John J. Rambo is one of these guys in First Blood.

Just as First Blood moves easily through Rambo’s character intro, it turns subversively toward the initial point of conflict. John enters town and is scooped up and forcibly escorted to the other side by an overzealous cop with a wicked Cheshire Cat grin. Brian Dennehy’s total dickhead Sheriff Teasle is so perfectly hateable in this film that I’m still not ready to forgive him. The male version of Nurse Ratched, he’s power-obsessed and stubborn, and it’s clear that he’s on a similar collision course with fate the second he and John Rambo bash heads. When Rambo refuses to be bullied out of town, Teasle flashes a wicked, spoiled child’s temper and arrests him at gunpoint.

first-bloodThings progress nightmarishly fast for Rambo after his arrest for vagrancy. His defiance earns him humiliating verbal and physical abuse at the police station. Like a wild animal backed into a corner, he seizes his first opportunity at escape, and assaults like 20 officers in the process. It is a damn awesome scene, and not just because you get to see David Caruso get punched in his fucking mouth (it also has a sweet motorcycle chase). He eventually retreats into the foothills of the nearby mountains with the police force close on his heels.

And from here, the film settles into it’s primary conflict, a war of attrition between one man and the society that rejects him. It’s full of awesome surprises and truly great action. It’s spartan compared to sequels. The cinematography is gorgeous, and there are real, impactful moments between multiple characters. It’s an action film with a brain and something to talk about. I’m not completely alone in my opinion that Stallone has never been better than he is in this film. He is physically and emotionally on point. It’s really great and I won’t spoil it by attempting to recount it here. Just please watch the thing if you haven’t.

As years have gone by, my love for First Blood hasn’t waned. It was tempting to write off the bombastic sequels after seeing it, but nostalgia has kept them close to my heart. Rambo II and III are what they are. Splashy, blood and guts action films lightly dusted with some heavy-handed political notions. As with James Cameron’s Aliens (who co-wrote FBPII), I have learned that if I just relax my hold on the ideals of the first film and let the sequels just be what they are, I can enjoy them. They are ridiculous. The writing is bad, but in an earnest way that makes it sort of lovable. You trade subtlety for a much larger budget that gives you bigger sets, casts, explosions, and general carnage. Yes, it’s inefficient, but goddammit it’s fun! It’s a roller coaster, not a Smart Car.

Rambo CoverWhich leads me to the insane, gooey pile of flaming entrails that is 2008’s Rambo. By now, Stallone is writing his own ticket, and what a ticket it was. This film is so insanely, gratuitously gory, it’s almost as if he was waiting for Mel Gibson to soften American audiences with Apocalypto before he could safely release it. Rambo overstates the bloody reality of war by what I estimate to be a standard fuckload. LOTS of people are SAWN IN HALF by machine gun fire. Rambo wings a guy with an arrow, then shoots him in the head with another arrow, sending the guy flying onto a land mine, which explodes. This film could have been made as an attempt to literally define the term “overkill”. Where John J. Rambo would have sliced your hamstring and left you alive in First Blood, he now simply decapitates you and rinses off in the warm stream of your spurting carotid artery. It’s fucking gross. Like, Dead Alive or Bad Taste gross, except this is not SciFi or horror. This is Stallone’s macabre vision of war, and he is dragging you through it by your fucking hair.

Gone are all traces of the young John J. Rambo’s forlorn, conflicted nature, or even his savage, vengeful nature. In 2008, the most an aging Rambo can muster is painful looking shrug of his freaky huge shoulders and a LOT of sweat. This is definitely the sweatiest Rambo to date. I guess it is set in Burma, but I still wonder if he’s got a gland thing. Stallone’s physique is a perfect reflection of the films overwought violence. Rambo’s movements, once althletic and graceful, are labored, the action figure man of old now entombed in mounds of flesh. Like its namesake, the film struggles frequently to get out of its own way, but does manage to look awesome in carefully choreographed moments.

Rambo IV 2Anyway, Rambo has some mercenaries, and some ethnic cleansing (Illustrated often and with zeal) and some silly, hapless, Christian missionaries who want to bring bibles to starving, persecuted, orphaned children in a war zone. Lucky for all of them, (except for the Burmese genocidiers) there is also one John J. Rambo. Everyone hates him at first, (except for the one pretty missionary lady who is attracted to huge old guys who won’t let go of their youth and look like cast off experiments from Hemlock Grove or old prize fighters who have spent too many post retirement years in Japan alternately abusing cosmetic surgery and growth hormones in search of one last big payout), but after 90 minutes of 2.6 KPM (kills per minute), they love him. Because SPOILER ALERT – he saves them, which I think also makes him happy, but maybe it makes him sad. I don’t know, it’s hard to tell cuz he can’t really move his face anymore?

Rambo is So. Fucking. Stupid. It’s everything First Blood never wanted to be, and it is those things as hard as it can be. It trades a sharpened stick for a claymore because it’s not smart enough to kill you with the stick. Dumb? Yes. But Rambo is just smart enough to know its limitations and makes up for them up with steaming, bloody guts and raucous firepower.

And for that, I love it.

– justin midnight

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