The entire saga of Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo could have been solved if one small town sheriff in Hope, Washington had let the man get something to eat. Instead, we have decades of carnage (plus an animated series, novelizations, video games and comic book spin-offs).
With the release of Rambo: Last Blood Friday, the fifth film in the Rambo franchise, it appears that this will at least be Stallone’s final portrayal of Vietnam war veteran John Rambo. (Although, you never really know, as Stallone has gone on record stating he wants to revive his Rocky franchise as well as create reboots for one-offs like Cobra and Demolition Man).
Still, whether you’re a fan of the Italian Stallion or not, you have to admire the man’s decades-worth of contributions to American cinema. In honor of the Rambo saga (likely) coming to an end, we present a quick guide ranking for every aspiring screenwriter, action movie star, or filmmaker to who may want to don the red bandana next.
4. Rambo (2008)
Released twenty years after Rambo III, the fourth installment of the Rambo franchise was given the simple title of “Rambo”. A lot had changed, both thematically and in the real world, for Stallone and his grizzled vet. Rambo found itself released in a much different era than the "shoot ‘em up, big hair and big explosions" of the ‘80s. Instead, Rambo came out at a time where grounded and gritty reboots of action heroes were big hits with audiences, and John Rambo was hoping to find success similar to movies like Batman Begins and Casino Royale.
While it has been called one of the most excessive and violent films of the franchise, Rambo's hyper-real portrayals of war make it a much deeper movie -- but not necessarily a more enjoyable movie from a critical or commercial perspective.
3. Rambo III (1988)
By the time Rambo III came out, Sylvester Stallone was truly one of the biggest global box office stars and was at the height of his career. The action genre was in full swing in the late '80s, with the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Jean-Claude Van Damme releasing multiple action films. The Rambo franchise had a lot riding on this third installment, which made choosing the subject, location, and the script a tricky prospect.
From Rambo III screenwriter Sheldon Lettich:
“The writing process itself was somewhat difficult. Because there was so much riding on this movie, so much in the way of expectation that it would be an equal or even bigger success than the previous Rambo movies, there was a lot of nervousness and indecision with both Stallone and the producers. I had pitched the idea to Stallone that the third Rambo movie should take place in Afghanistan, which at the time had devolved into the Soviet Union’s version of the Vietnam War. Stallone had the same idea.”
Ultimately, Rambo III did take place in Afghanistan and features Rambo teaming up with “the gallant people of Afghanistan” (as the film’s dedication states) to defeat Soviet enemies. However, Rambo III underperformed somewhat at the box office, and critical reception was much lower than the original two films.
2. First Blood (1982)
First Blood is the better story and film, when compared to its excessive '80s action movie sequel. It’s where it all started (thanks again, Sheriff Will Teasle!) and it really was a truly remarkable movie that seemed to do everything against the grain. It’s not the pure action vehicle like the rest of the films in the franchise; instead, it's more of a slow-burn drama and thriller -- allowing for some bursts of violence in the climatic third act. A third act which also features some of Stallone's best acting, as John Rambo breaks down under the shame and stress the toll of Vietnam took on him.
Based on the 1972 novel of the same name by David Morrell, First Blood mostly follows the book's narrative. However, it was reportedly Stallone’s pre-production decision to change the character of John Rambo to be more sympathetic, to kill less, and to ultimately escape and live on by the end of the film. A choice which directly leads into the sequel...
1. Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
As we wrote about before on No Film School, Rambo: First Blood Part II is truly a perfect example of action movie writing. A combination of writers Sylvester Stallone and James Cameron (who was operating at peak action Cameron - way before his lost Avatar years), First Blood Part II is one of the greatest examples of ‘80s action filmmaking.
It has a fun, tight script that delivers on both tension and explosive set pieces, while never really getting bogged down in narrative exposition. There's little to no fat on this script, which plays out at a clip pace.
The sequel to First Blood is arguably the patient zero of '80s action movie excess. It helped spawn countless Rambo knockoffs (like Deadly Prey or Chuck Norris’ Missing in Action series) and parodies (like Weird Al in UHF or Charlie Sheen in Hot Shots! Part Deux). It simply became a part of pop culture -- for better or worse.
In the meantime, are you curious who Tarantino would choose to cast in his version of Rambo?
Where would you rank Last Blood? Let us know in the comments below!