By the time David Morrell’s novel, First Blood, eventually made it to cinema screens, the film had been passed around Hollywood for a decade, with most notable actors of the time (including Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Robert Redford) turning it down. When the script eventually reached Sylvester Stallone he was already established as Rocky, with the third movie on its way and it was his rising star power that would ultimately lead to the global franchise, as the studio and director had no plans to let Rambo live beyond the first film.
The only downside to the success of the Rambo films is that the perception most people carry of the character is based on the overblown, macho, caricature he became in the eighties and not the tortured soul depicted in First Blood. Rambo is fundamentally misunderstood, so it’s no coincidence that Stallone has been motivated to keep returning to him to keep challenging that view.
“Yeah I tried – in the first one they wanted him to be eliminated like in the book and I said ‘That doesn’t fly’ because this is going to be an ongoing concern for generations of these returning vets, so I wanted to keep that story alive, but without hitting it over the head,” he tells Den Of Geek, when we sat down with him to discuss the latest entry, Rambo: Last Blood.
Having saved him from a fatal ending during his initial outing (suicide in the deleted scene from First Blood, but shot in the book) Stallone continued to use Rambo as a mirror, reflecting issues of the time and drawing attention to them via mainstream media. “You see that this guy cannot integrate back into society, so I tried to keep him moving from actual situations, read from the headlines – the POW, Afghanistan, Burma – things that people don’t really know about,” Stallone confirms. It’s a trend that now continues in Last Blood.
“Then finally, immigration, Mexico and what’s going on now and Rambo being the only non-Hispanic in the movie, I thought was interesting and it’s a family, it’s the first time we have a family [around him] and yet has he got the curse of Job? He cannot find peace and then when they attack his family, then everyone in the audience, I know, will say ‘Oh I get it because now, I would do the same thing.”
One of the most interesting elements in the new film, is that on the surface Rambo appears to have settled over the last ten years, training horses and helping people, but the ghosts of his past still continue to haunt him. Daily life, even when surrounded by love, is a struggle – we see him self-medicating, making knives (even in the guise of letter openers) and living underground, with life above acting almost like a façade.
“Absolutely [it is]. Did you get the symbolism of the tunnels? I mean he’s in Dante’s Inferno, he doesn’t want to be above ground, it’s like ‘I can’t handle that’ [looks up]. So down there he’s more comfortable, in hell.”
While it’s tragic that inner peace still escapes John J. there’s something strangely comforting about keeping the character true to his origins while evolving the circumstances around him, and he’s certainly more in touch with humanity than he was in the fourth movie – ironic as the original idea for his return in 2008 is what’s now evolved into Last Blood.
“Yeah absolutely, you’re right it was [the concept] for number four and I had pitched the idea to others, because sometimes I just hate writing! So I’ll say ‘Here’s the story, just bring it in and I’ll fill it out’ and what comes back is wholly just a mess. I had a conversation with Robert Rodriguez about this same thing, where he goes ‘You know you’re just better off writing it yourself’ and then of course you end up with the writers guild and all kinds of battles like ‘Did he write it?’ No he didn’t write it!
“But anyway, the idea I thought with the Mexican thing was ok and then I called up the Soldier Of Fortune magazine and said ‘What is the worst hell hole on the planet, that no one knows about?’ and they go ‘Burma, Myanmar – the longest civil war in history’,” Stallone says in their matter of fact tone. “And there was something intriguing about putting him in the jungle and he’s become a beast – I put on about 30lbs, he deals with snakes and all this heavy handed symbolism, he’s up the river Styx and is the boatman and that kind of a thing [smiles]. But unfortunately that film was cut too tight, the girl was his only bright spot – it’s kind of like what happens in this one – he thought if he could keep that innocence alive, he’s finally completed the mission and it crosses over into this film [Last Blood] and he’s carrying that burden… but then he has an issue.”
The switching of concepts works on multiple levels, to the point where it seems impossible to think of the films the other way round. The second to fifth entries involved wars bigger than the man himself, but First and Last Blood are centred on personal conflict and the need to resort to guerrilla tactics to even the odds. Since Rambo is also one of the most visually iconic action heroes of all time, the evolution of his look also flows much more naturally – in IV, having not seen him in twenty years, he still had the hair, the headband and the bow, with the knife changing style.
Now we see him back in his M65 Vietnam jacket with the classic knife, but there’s a conscious reason as to what elements from his past are chosen, as Stallone explains. “I think that he’s regressed a little bit, so he starts going back to things he really feels comfortable in, yet the hair doesn’t work – he’s basically half Indian, so he’s like ‘You know what? I just want to leave all that behind, to not be what I was. This [gestures tying his headband on] doesn’t work for me.’ It’s like seeing guys in a rock group from the sixties and their hair’s down here, but there’s like eight hairs left, it doesn’t work anymore.
“So he’s tried to evolve past that, he would try to integrate into society, but I felt [he needed] a new knife – because obviously he wouldn’t bring that knife [from part IV] back which is a machete and has a lot of bad karma. But the bow is consistent, because he is half Indian, so if there was ever another Rambo flashback [we’d see him] at seventeen on a reservation, that’s where he grew up. It’s interesting the little things that you try to incorporate, even the music of The Doors, makes you think ‘Ah okay this is where his mentality is, back there’ of all the songs to choose to disorient those people, he goes right back into the heart of darkness.”
When you think about the cinematic hardships Rambo has endured on screen since 1982, it’s easy to understand why he’s regressing, especially during a key moment in Last Blood where he accumulates yet another scar, this time of the physical variety when his cheek is cut, but does Stallone himself live through the history of the character when filming, thinking back to previous moments of torture? “Yeah absolutely, it’s like here we go again, it’s unbelievable. You think he’d moved past (that stage) and now it’s even more savage – a man signs his mark on your face and it’s like the mark of Cain and so I thought ‘Ok, I’m really going to embrace this’ because it’s not fun having this thing hanging on your face! [laughs] And I also thought it was age appropriate for Rambo, if you want to call it that way, that he’s not invulnerable. People think when they see the trailer that he’s surrounded by forty guys and he’s gonna beat ’em all up! And you go ‘No, no, no, that’s not happening.’
“He goes through his own personal hell in this, physically and mentally, unlike we’ve ever seen before, but the thing is that again the inability to maintain this family relationship because of outside circumstances, meaning the criminal element and the girl… See to me the girl is the key to the whole thing, just like Adrian was the key for Rocky, and without that element, that innocence, then it’s just Rambo going about his war-like mannerisms, but this something much deeper.”
For American audiences though, there’s a different kind of cut coming in the shape of the opening sequence, which sees Rambo helping out some hikers trapped by some precarious weather – when there’s a fatality, which isn’t his fault, it nicely frames how death still haunts him. It’s a solid start to the film and one that the man himself was in favour of.
“Yeah you know they work on statistics over there and it wasn’t quite… they didn’t get it, the younger guys. That whole waterfall opening with the flood is to show that Rambo’s just so bored, but he needs to do something to salvage his soul, because he has survivor’s guilt and he even fails at that, so I thought (it would work) but it didn’t fly!” Stallone says laughing.
More’s the pity, as the start of Last Blood forms a great symmetry with First Blood, where we see the character back in a rainy forest, but this time helping law enforcement rather than being pursued by them. “You’re right, I didn’t think of that!” he exclaims.
When Rambo then returns to the ranch he resides in, following the initial tragedy, he’s even told that the war is over and he quietly replies with ‘You just don’t turn it off’ which is the infamous line that starts his breakdown at the end of the very first film, a moment we especially loved. “Well that’s only in Europe! They took it out in America. In the American version it starts literally after the flood, in other words it’s morning, he’s taking his pills and goes riding. That first six minutes, they tested it and they felt as it tested a little bit less than they wanted – I love it – but I guess you’ll see that on the making of!” Stallone says smiling.
With the link between the first and fifth film playing such a large part of the narrative, as well as our interview, it seemed like a fitting end to ask what his proudest moment was from both First and Last Blood.
“Proudest moment, wow. I would have to say the proudest moment is, of course, the last scene (in First Blood). The physicality is one thing, that almost becomes some sort of sadistic Olympics, but (it’s great) when you can actually vocalise and act and bring out people going ‘That’s the way I feel.’
“And then in (Last Blood)… I don’t know how far you saw, but the proudest moment is when he’s with the girl and he’s having that… it’s not even a problem, but that very poignant moment when she says ‘I want to go meet my father’ and you see him going through all these PTSDs. But also the last battle scene, where to me I literally wanted to make it Dante’s Inferno, I wanted to do something that is so personal – it’s not all kinds of big weaponry and armies, it’s going through hell and trying to come through the other side. So of course I didn’t answer your question! [he laughs] Part one you got for sure, but in the last there’s about five things I really like!”
Rambo: Last Blood is released in UK cinemas on the 19th September and the 20th in the USA.