There’s something to be said about the durability of Sylvester Stallone’s action brand. Since the release of his career defining Rocky in 1976, Stallone’s creative body of film work has been continuously prolific. Regardless of critical acclaim, respective projects may have received, his catalogue is shaped like a cultural time capsule. From the transformation of Rocky from New Hollywood 70s drama to action serial in the 1980s to the characterization of John Rambo as a broken and isolated Vietnam veteran to unsung American hero of Reagan’s America, Stallone reminds us that genre studies is a cultural discourse and as such it evolves with time.
It’s with this, that the soon-to-be released actioner Rambo: Last Blood harkens back to the time of old school 80’s action epics that places anti-heroes into arenas of carnage all while reminding audiences of the power of the American male. In fact, it’s the Stallone starring First Blood (1982) directed by Ted Kotcheff that ushered in the era of 80s action set pieces. Like Star Wars (1977) and the birth of the space opera, First Blood was an onscreen spectacle not seen before with guns, grand stunts and explosions galore. Although Hollywood had a history of producing action adventure serials, the gun trotting and explosive antics of a Vietnam veteran pushed too far and suffering from PTSD, was new and riveting cinema. Furthermore, the material was brave in that it placed the violence of the war directly into the “heart” of America with the pulse and complexity of the Vietnam War living throughout the narrative.
From there, as early American thinking evolved from a distaste of Vietnam (and the memory of its failure) to a pro- American military philosophy and foreign policy about re-victory during the height of the Reagan era, the tale of Rambo evolved from physiologically broken outcast to hard-bodied American hero who saves POWs from Vietnam (Rambo: First Blood Part 2, 1985) and halting the Russian invasion of Afghanistan (Rambo 3, 1988). Its with the original trilogy that a summary of 1980s American political thinking can be traced. With the release of Rambo in 2008, filmgoers where treated to a hyper-violent franchise entry that continued with Rambo: First Blood Part 2‘s saviour narrative. Now, living in Thailand, Rambo enters the communist country of Burma to save a group of Christian missionaries. Like in the past, Rambo with his military know-how must become a reluctant saviour.
Now, with the forthcoming release of Rambo: Last Stand, the story of John Rambo embraces the action genre’s cultural sensibilities as a Trump-Era exploration of domestic policy. Now back home on his Texas ranch, Rambo goes to war against a Mexican Drug-Cartel (Trump’s unilateral threat) who has kidnapped the grandchild on his family friend and caretaker (aligned with Trump’s assertion that Mexico is dangerous and thus a wall is needed).
Recognizing that genre artifacts rise from a shared political consciousness, the film seems to align itself with conservative thinking and the notion that Mexico (stereotypically defined by its crime) is a domestic threat. Needless to say, Rambo as he has done before, will fight to protect the American way.
It’s through a cultural exploration of the Rambo films that we’re reminded that genre provides for an exploration of the individual and the collective. It’s interesting to see how audiences respond to this Taken-like entry into the Rambo series.
As I look forward to taking my students to see the film, I’m confident that this Rambo entry for the Trump Era will provide for some very rich conversation.