Sequel Surprises: Rambo
Sequel Surprises is a new bi-weekly column by staff member Mathew Bradley Tschirgi. Within, he'll shed a light on some overlooked sequels in major franchises that are well worth your time. For the first installment he takes a look the 2008 return of Rambo.
Whenever Sylvester Stallone’s career takes a dive, he returns to one of three faithful franchises: Rocky, Rambo, and The Expendables. After a string of straight-to-video cheapies like Eye See You and Avenging Angelo, the Italian Stallion needed to pick up the pace. After wowing audiences with a subdued performance in Rocky Balboa, he decided to give his fans another treat with 2008’s Rambo. Released overseas as John Rambo (as we learned in First Blood, his full name is John J. Rambo), this brutal flick delivers a stripped-down experience free of the lunkheaded patriotism of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III. War is real, ugly, and takes no prisoners.
Rambo whittles away his days in Burma as a snake catcher and boat driver. When a group of Christian missionaries ask him to grant them safe passage across the border to provide aid to the Karen tribe, he initially refuses. The area’s loaded with bad dudes, but Rambo takes them after some prodding. Shortly after landing, they are captured and Rambo goes to rescue them with a team of missionaries. Bullets are spent, bodies are dropped, and sacrifices are made. Rambo ends the film wearing the army fatigues he began First Blood with, ready to confront his father (?!?) as we hear the composer Brian Tyler reprise Jerry Goldsmith’s majestic “It’s A Long Road” theme.
Rambo exceeds because it takes its subject matter seriously. Near the start of the film, we’re presented savage news clips showing atrocities in Burma and it's a harbinger of things to come. Although the villains have little dialogue, they make peasants run through rice paddies laced with mines for sport, rape children, and hack off limbs. Sylvester Stallone directs the film with a lot of close-ups to shove the audience’s face in the violence at hand. Of particular interest is the Extended Cut, which gives Rambo’s violence a character arc of sorts. He starts the flick swearing off violence. As he knocks off some pirates at close range early on, we don’t see the gore, but only hear the roar of the gunfire. As his kills increase throughout the film, they become more and more bloody until Rambo commandeers a .50 caliber machine gun mounted behind a truck and mows down dozens of bodies in an orgiastic slaughter. It’s a shocking sequence made all the more so by the gradual reveal of violence in the Extended Cut; the Theatrical Cut added blood and gore in every Rambo kill, making the final massacre less effective.
Not every movie needs a convoluted narrative full of back-stabbing and betrayal. Rambo’s lean story and simple characters allow the flick to concentrate on its intensity until it reaches a fever pitch of a finale. Seeing Rambo with a group of mercenaries is less lame than it sounds because of his age and how dangerous his mission is. They amount to little more than a group of red shirts, which works just well enough for the story. No muss, no fuss, just guts: Rambo is one sequel worth your time. Even better, you can probably get enough out of the character from just this flick, although First Blood and Rambo would make for one hell of a double feature.