The first Rocky film famously made Sylvester Stallone’s career, but it’s worth remembering that his other ongoing franchise, Rambo, was one he initially thought would kill it.
Based on a 1972 David Morrell novel — the author, oddly, would go on to write two novelizations of the franchise’s sequels — First Blood was originally supposed to be much darker, with the lead character, John Rambo, being much less sympathetic. Steve McQueen was slated to be Rambo and probably would have been had he not been considered too old. Not until a red-hot Stallone approached the project — which Dustin Hoffman was also once attached to — did Rambo become the tortured but valiant veteran. By the sequels, he had transformed into an ultrapumped, flag-waving superhero.
The original cut of First Blood, directed by Ted Kotcheff (who would go on to direct Weekend at Bernie’s!), was more than three hours long. And to hear Stallone tell it, the film was a disaster. So bad, in fact, that, according to the DVD commentary, Stallone offered to buy the film back so no one would ever see it. He ended up acquiescing to a 92-minute cut, and that’s the film that hit theaters — and became such a smash that, 37 years later, we’re getting a fifth Rambo film.
Thus: our ranking of all five Rambo films, including the newest installment, Rambo: Last Blood. We’d say this is the final one … but we’ve said that before.
5. Rambo: Last Blood (2019)
The Rambo of 2008, which brought the moribund franchise back to life, came out before Taken helped popularize a wave of geezer action movies that would later include The Expendables. But Last Blood really feels like Stallone’s attempt to capitalize on Liam Neeson’s particular-set-of-skills aesthetic by pitting his septuagenarian warrior against a group of nasty Mexican criminals who run an underground sex ring. (Their mistake: ensnaring Rambo’s niece, played by Yvette Monreal, in their illicit enterprise.) A fever dream of Trump’s worst vision of our neighbors south of the border, Last Blood is racist when it isn’t pure schlock, as Rambo dispenses with bad guys while occasionally lamenting the darkness of men’s hearts. (Or something — it’s harder to make out what he’s saying than usual.) Earlier installments at least had the courage of their ridiculous convictions, but this one just feels stupid and lazy, a desperate stab at propping up an intellectual property long past its prime. The end credits show clips from previous Rambo movies, and they all look like masterpieces compared with this slop.
4. Rambo III (1988)
In a sign of just how much the cost of making an action film has risen in the past three decades, Rambo III was, at the time of its release, the most expensive film ever made, at $63 million. You can’t see much of it onscreen, though, as this sequel, co-written by Stallone, of course, is pretty dreadful. Stallone is absurdly jacked in a way that makes him look less like a former solider than a lower-tier professional wrestler, and the thrust of the movie’s plot — Rambo heads to Afghanistan to save his mentor, Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna), from the Soviets, who want to rule Afghanistan in a strategy that would cause them and the world no future problems whatsoever — is mostly straight-from-old-cliffhangers ridiculous. The whole film is parodied wonderfully in Hot Shots! Part Deux (also, delightfully, starring Crenna), but honestly, if you watch the movies side by side today, it’s sort of difficult to tell which is which.
3. Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
The film that really started the whole Rambo mythology, this one (directed by the late George P. Cosmatos, who not only later directed Tombstone but is also the father of lunatic Mandy director Panos Cosmatos) essentially drops the whole “sullen vet not appreciated by America upon returning home” idea of the first film and turns Rambo into the Greatest American Hero. Listen, the guy is shirtless and carrying a bazooka on the poster: You know what you’re in for with this one. The movie makes head feints at being more concerned with POWs left behind in Vietnam, but it mostly exists to see Stallone shooting machine guns in slow motion as his pectorals vibrate. The whole thing is ridiculous in a way only the 1980s could produce, and we would be lying if we didn’t say, terrible as it is, we didn’t sort of love it.
2. Rambo (2008)
The first Rambo installment to be directed by Stallone — and the one that really spurred the Expendables resurgence — Rambo answers the “Why do we need another Rambo movie?” question with the most obvious and, honestly, quite persuasive answer: because you can make movies so much more violent in 2008 than you could in 1988. It is stunning how profoundly graphic Rambo is, and Stallone doesn’t pretend he’s not relishing every second of it. This movie has to set some sort of record for exploding brains: There are so many exploding brains. Though nothing can really top Rambo punching a man’s head off.
This film is obviously not for everyone. But for pure cartoonish, borderline-insane ultraviolence, Stallone outdid himself. We don’t know if it’s necessarily good. But it’s definitely something we haven’t forgotten.
1. First Blood (1982)
Hard as it is to believe, there was a time when Rambo was not synonymous with Sylvester Stallone — and there was a period when casting Stallone in the role seemed risky. As First Blood director Kotcheff said in 2016, “[T]he perceived wisdom in Hollywood at that time was that Stallone was only successful in Rocky movies. The other films he had made — Paradise Alley, F.I.S.T., Nighthawks, I can’t remember what else — they had all died. I said, ‘I don’t give a damn what the perceived wisdom is; he’s perfect for the part. He’s tough, but he’s also empathetic and capable of great sensitivity. I can’t see anybody else playing that part.’”
Unlike the Rambo films that came after, First Blood is more of a character study, with John Rambo running afoul of some nasty, small-minded cops in the Pacific Northwest, forcing him to fight for his life. The emphasis is on suspense, not action, and indeed the movie has the soul of a one-man-against-the-world exploitation flick, albeit with an emotional undercurrent that continues to resonate today. In 1982, Vietnam was still a fraught national topic, and Stallone’s surprisingly vulnerable performance honors the soldiers who came home to a country that wasn’t ready to embrace them. Rambo’s big speech at the end of First Blood may be overblown, but Stallone sells the character’s disillusionment. It’s a shame the sequels would wipe away that nuance for blockbuster bravado. First Blood may be B-movie pulp, but it has a surprisingly sobering center.