Without 'Rambo', would there be 'Fast and the Furious'?: How Sylvester Stallone created the modern movie franchise

From its small beginnings as a small town thriller to being the most expensive film ever made, the 'Rambo' series remains adependably entertaining blood-soaked affairs

American actor and screenwriter Sylvester Stallone on the set of 'Rambo: First Blood' based on the novel by Canadian David Morrell. Getty.
American actor and screenwriter Sylvester Stallone on the set of 'Rambo: First Blood' based on the novel by Canadian David Morrell. Getty.

The latest Rambo movie is finally in cinemas, and it could well be the last. That is, if Sylvester ­Stallone’s comments around it are anything to go by. But if that is the case, the series will go off in suitably explosive style with its legacy assured. So perhaps it’s time for something of a Rambo eulogy.

This latest film would mark the end of a historic series of films that went on to be viewed as arguably the first successful modern action film franchise. Without Rambo, there would be no franchises as we’ve come to know them; no Terminator, The Fast and The Furious, John Wick or even the ­Stallone-helmed The Expendables.

Among the carnage and the one-note acting from Stallone, the Rambo films created an almost mythical world that struck the right emotional and commercial chords with three generations of audiences.

This uncanny ability to unite people remains Stallone’s biggest gift as an actor, writer and filmmaker. From the Rocky and Rambo films to The Expendables series, he knows the secret sauce is to always draw an emotional investment from the audience to counteract the mayhem on screen.

He summed it up best in an interview with the US press while promoting Last Blood. Explaining Rambo’s success, he put it down to his creative principles: “Heart, energy and humour,” he said. “If you have these three components going, I think you will have a very successful career.”

While the plot line to Last Blood is admittedly tired (Rambo fights it out with Mexican cartels), it joins the other Rambo films in ticking off these boxes. Despite their various qualities, all five do have a relatively conscientious story to tell. They also pack a certain verve and glee into the filmmaking that make them dependably entertaining blood-soaked affairs.

Stallone's last outing as Rambo could be here, in 'Rambo: Last Blood.' AP.
Stallone's last outing as Rambo could be here, in 'Rambo: Last Blood.' AP.

However, nothing beats the impact of the first three films of the series. In the space of just six years, they allowed Rambo and Stallone to remain two of most recognisable faces on the planet.

'Rambo: First Blood' started it all, but it also stood on its own

Rambo was never envisioned as high art, but if there is ever an entry to be viewed in such regard, it would undoubtedly be the debut instalment, First Blood. Released in 1982, under the direction of Ted Kotcheff (who went on to helm Weekend at Bernie’s seven years later) it is a taut and soulful piece of filmmaking.

Based on the 1972 novel by David Morrell, we are introduced to Rambo as a vagrant veteran of the Vietnam War, who, after entering a small US town called Hope, uses his survivalist skills to fend off the abusive local police force.

American actor and screenwriter Sylvester Stallone on the set of 'Rambo: First Blood' based on the novel by Canadian David Morrell. Getty.
American actor and screenwriter Sylvester Stallone on the set of 'Rambo: First Blood' based on the novel by Canadian David Morrell. Getty.

The film stands alone in the Rambo canon due to its eerie style, multilayered characterisation and emotional nuance. A lot of this is down to Morrell never intending to make a sequel to his story. The Rambo we have here is far-removed from the baby-oiled muscle flexer that we see in later instalments. Instead, he is a fragile soul severely damaged from post-traumatic stress disorder. The film’s tension often derives from witnessing Rambo’s fraying mental state and wondering whether he unleashes a violence he can’t return from.

It is interesting to note that Rambo only kills one person in the first film, a sheriff (in contrast to a walloping 74 baddies over a space of two days in part two) and even that was a defensive measure.

So without all those explosions, what made First Blood such an unexpected success? It was the character’s ultimate redemption and that was purely Stallone’s contribution.

Where the original novel has Rambo killed by his superior officer Lieutenant Trautman (elegantly played in three films by the late Richard Crenna), Stallone – as cowriter – revisited the script and allowed Rambo to live on.

It was a brilliant move. Not only did it cement Rambo’s persona as an underdog, but it allowed the film’s key themes to resonate with audiences, particularly those in the US still coming to terms with the Vietnam war. However, it would be misleading to view First Blood as an anti-war film. Instead, the fierce anger lobbed at politicians, the military industrial complex and an ambivalent society comes from the film's pro-veteran soldiers stance.

It is a theme Stallone carried throughout the Rambo series and it culminated in a special screening of Last Blood for US army and police veterans in New York last week.

How Rambo became a bonafide action hero

While First Blood surprised the critics, the next two films shook up the film industry.

Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo 3, released in 1985 and 1988 respectively, remain the birth of both the modern action blockbuster and action film franchise.

The former kick-started with a script Stallone co-wrote with Terminator creator James Cameron. Aided by late director, George P Cosmatos (Tombstone) and a 70 per cent increase in budget, the film took Rambo global. The buffed-up titular character returns to Vietnam to rescue scores of US prisoners of war ignored by the government (there is that pro-veteran stance again) and in turn blows up half the country.

The lavish and explosive action sequences in First Blood 2 were a landmark in Hollywood – rarely were film goers entertained on such a kinetic and spectacular scale. Such were the thrills, that First Blood 2 became an international phenomenon and made the character a pop culture icon.

It went on to unleash one of the most successful and influential marketing campaigns to come from Hollywood, with comic books, an animated series (Rambo: The Force of Freedom), action figures and nearly a dozen video games.

It is an approach studios went on to apply to future blockbusters, ranging from the Indiana Jones films to 2009’s Avatar. This all led to an equally immense Rambo III, where Stallone fights among the Afghanistan Mujahideen (the irony of the plot burns as much as the explosions throughout the film) to become the most expensive movie ever made at the time, with a budget estimated to range from $58 million to $63m (Dh213m to Dh231m).

Stallone went on to publicly rue the cartoonish quality of both First Blood Part II and Rambo III and, perhaps in reaction, returned to the series 20 years later with two more films that were more brutal and malevolent in tone. But there is no denying the massive successes of those early films. Not only did they go on to shape scores of action film franchises to come, but they also cemented Rambo’s status as the original action hero.

Updated: September 25, 2019 10:54 PM

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