When the Death Wish remake starring Bruce Willis came out last year, I said there was “no good time for a movie like Death Wish”, a movie about a white man using vigilante violence against minority communities. You know what is a movie like Death Wish? Rambo. Specifically, Rambos 2-4. First Blood, the first Rambo movie, is okay. It’s about the trauma of Vietnam, and features John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) fighting a corrupt police force on US soil. There is only one death in First Blood, and it’s accidental at that. But people didn’t really take the anti-war message from First Blood, they just liked the parts with Sylvester Stallone trapping people in the woods, so the next Rambo movie dropped Stallone into a jungle to fight the Vietnamese and their Soviet allies, and the Rambo franchise quickly became a psychotic Cold War death fantasy. After First Blood, the Rambo movies are racist, jingoistic, colonialist, imperialist, and, ironically for a franchise that started with a pacifist message, pro-war. It’s not a great franchise.
Guess what? It’s back! Rambo: Last Blood has a teaser trailer, showing John Rambo taking on what appears to be a Mexican cartel. OH GREAT, THIS AGAIN. The best part about this teaser is Rambo’s cool horse. The second-best part is “Old Town Road”. The rest of it can get f-cked, we do NOT need movies like this, and John Rambo belongs in the past. This is not a character that updates well, just like Death Wish. But Sarah, how can you praise John Wick and bag on Rambo? Action movies like John Wick work because the fantasy is not about superiority and subjugation, the fantasy of John Wick is the action itself. It’s set in a heightened world we almost but don’t quite recognize, with just enough separation to divorce it from our reality. We know, intellectually, that John Wick can never be real, so it gives us the emotional freedom to enjoy the mayhem (same principle applies to Looney Tunes).
But Rambo is our world. John Rambo is the veteran of a real war (John Wick Chapter 3 suggests that John Wick comes from a superhero-esque training house), with a real veteran’s problems. At least in the first movie, he struggles with PTSD. He has a friend who passes away from cancer triggered by Agent Orange, a real problem afflicting thousands of Vietnam veterans by the 1980s. He is traumatized in a very real and recognizable way, and the corrupt cops he fights are also recognizable, literally and metaphorically, as stand-ins for the failure of the US government to properly care for its veterans. In the later movies, Rambo takes on a proxy for the Cold War, fighting real US enemies. There is no fantasy to Rambo, it’s just indulging in a murderous catharsis, feeding an imperialist desire for subjugation. Rambo became ugly, and we do not need this brand of ugliness in 2019 at the movies, not when we have it in real life. I understand the era of Big IP is driving these franchise revivals, but filmmakers and studios need to understand that movies like Rambo have no place in the present. Rambo belongs in the past. It should have stayed there.