Franchise Expansion Or Implosion: Rambo

by Ben Martin

Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)

Sylvester Stallone is a cornerstone of the action genre. Throughout his career, Stallone has created two of the most beloved underdogs ever. One of these underdogs is, of course, John Rambo. A character who, for better or worse, has become an American icon. The return of Rambo is right around the corner with the latest (and presumably final) installment in this movie series, Rambo: Last Blood. Twenty years is a long time, but a good soldier never truly retires and nor do some film franchises. In this installment, I’ll examine Rambo (2008)!

Movie franchises and the sequels that comprise them are good for one thing above all else. That is, getting the butts of audiences in seats who seek comfort and entertainment in familiarity. But franchises also provide something else to the people involved in them. If all goes well, a sequel can pull an actor, writer, or director out of a career slump. This is especially true for  Sylvester Stallone, who knocks the mothballs off his Rocky or Rambo franchises anytime his career hits the skids. Say what you want about the guy, but he helped create two film series with a couple of incredibly endearing respective protagonists. Rambo (2008) (also titled John Rambo internationally), is a case of career resuscitation; but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.
Despite being a predictable move on Stallone’s part, the road to this fourth installment was fittingly, a long one. In the late 90s, Miramax Films acquired the franchise rights and were keen to get the American icon who is Rambo back on the silver screen. However, Stallone was holding out on the prospect as he could not find a story that satisfied him. While many gestated for a while, one which included our hero taking on a white supremacist group; none came to fruition. Eventually, the movie rights went into turnaround and were picked up by Lionsgate Films. Shortly after this acquisition occurred, Stallone knew how he wanted to approach Rambo’s return.
After the sour reception of Rambo III (1988) two decades earlier;  Stallone knew he wanted to make something more in-line with First Blood (1982). In other words, the franchise would stray away from the overblown jingoism it had become and back into violent, dark territory. (Fittingly, First Blood director Ted Kotcheff would go on to serve as a technical consultant on the picture.) As if to bring the seriousness of this fourth entry home, the movie was initially titled, Rambo: To Hell & Back. Thankfully, though, that ultimately silly title was rejected in favor of the confusing yet straightforward title Rambo.

Stallone’s political M.O. for the movie in review was to make the setting one of a brutal, albeit, little known conflict. After consulting with the U.N., the Burmese genocide was chosen as the backdrop for the film. A country which Stallone later described as “A hellhole.” As a result, this movie finds John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) leading a peaceful, though ultimately sad and jaded existence in Thailand. However, Rambo’s violent past comes back to the forefront when he begrudgingly joins a group of mercenaries on a mission to save a group of kidnapped Christian missionaries in Burma. 
Not that politics matter all that much. I’m sure Stallone had the best intentions from that socio-political standpoint; but frankly, this movie glosses over the basics of the genocide in Burma in its first two minutes. Following that, we get reacquainted with our hero and are thrown straight into the action. I can’t say that I have a real problem with such an approach, but it also doesn’t back Stallone’s touting Rambo as another political piece. This political posturing is not by the fact the whole missionary saving thing feels a bit forced. However, that is ultimately a minor gripe because once this film gets going, it is a brutal and gripping action flick! Is it always enjoyable? No, but I don’t believe this film is supposed to be, and it’s damn effective.

Rambo achieves everything it sets out to do. It’s a violent, down-and-dirty action picture that takes its protagonist back to the more somber tones of his origin. I believe that this movie works so well because of how Stallone chose to make it. He directed the film, as John Rambo, being in that frame of mind. Thus, he is Rambo in front of and behind the camera. The results speak for themselves as this is a visceral film that walks the line between brutal realism and hardcore exploitative action! In the end, I feel Rambo is the second-best installment in the franchise to this point. 

Unlike the previous sequels, this fourth makes its titular character into a damaged, human character again. Thereby grounding this series again and bringing back its hero’s endearing qualities. As a result, Rambo is a Franchise Expansion and a legitimate course correction! Like its predecessor, Rambo provides its leading man with a fitting ending. However, war is genuinely never over; hence, I’ll be reviewing Rambo: Last Blood (2019) next time around!

Rambo is available on Digital HD, 4K, Blu-Ray, & DVD!

Rambo: Last Blood is Now Playing!

Read my other reviews from the Rambo franchise here-
First Blood:

Rambo: First Blood Part II:

Rambo III:

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