John Rambo has had a more complicated journey than most franchise heroes. The blockbuster character, played for the past 37 years by Sylvester Stallone, has symbolized the evils of war, the awesomeness of war, the evils of America, the awesomeness of America, the evils of violence, the awesomeness of violence -- sometimes in the same film. He’s come to represent the nation’s complicated views about war, which are at turns condemned and celebrated, often without much concern for continuity or rationality. Watching the whole “Rambo” franchise is like having a conversation with somebody who has convictions, but isn’t 100% sure who they are. The films are sometimes cartoonishly self-serious, sometimes accidentally amusing, and occasionally genuine eye-openers.
5. "Rambo: Last Blood" (2019)
Rambo spent 10 years living a good life along the Mexican-American border, but when human traffickers kidnap his niece, it’s up to the one-man army to slaughter everyone all over again. “Last Blood” has some astounding acts of violence. But the storyline is specifically tailored to make a white American hero who lives on a ranch and rides a horse look entirely justified in murdering practically every person of color he can find. Director Adrian Grunberg’s film exploits xenophobia and fear-mongering to produce “crowd-pleasing” acts of violence. “Last Blood” is as grotesque as it is irresponsible.
4. "Rambo: First Blood Part II" (1985)
George P. Cosmatos’ sequel to the original, harrowing antiwar thriller sends Rambo back into Vietnam. His mission is to find and rescue POWs, but the movie’s mission is to give audiences a “happier” ending to the war, one in which macho movie star Sylvester Stallone murders America’s enemies, both foreign and domestic. “First Blood Part II” is so jingoistic it’s hard to take seriously, and that imbues the film with some value. But the production rings false, contradicting the message of the previous film and turning serious issues into fodder for two-dimensional cartoons.
3. "Rambo III" (1988)
Rambo is pulled back into action, again, this time rescuing his old commanding officer Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna), who’s being held hostage by the Russians. He teams up with the Afghan Mujahadeen and kicks all kinds of Soviet butt. It’s another rah-rah American exceptionalism story, made somewhat awkward by the fallout of the Afghan-Russian War -- and America’s real-life involvement, personified here by Rambo himself. But as blockbuster entertainment it’s slick and muscular, with over-the-top highlights that typify the "badass" brand of action cinema from the 1980s.
2. "Rambo" (2008)
Rambo has been trying to live off the grid. When Christian missionaries ask him to lead them into war-torn Burma, he refuses, but when they’re kidnapped and tortured, he’s enlisted by soldiers to help mount a rescue mission. Directed by Stallone himself, the confusingly titled “Rambo” is the best of the sequels. The excessive violence has a visceral impact, but it doesn’t feel like it’s been smoothed over. It’s exhilarating, not “fun,” and that severity elevates the simple but morally complicated plot into something nearly as potent as the original.
1. "First Blood" (1982)
Ted Kotcheff’s “First Blood” is one of the smartest action movies of the 1980s, a bitter, politically charged character piece that gradually transforms into a survivalist thriller. Stallone plays John Rambo, a Vietnam veteran who’s drifting from town to town. He runs afoul of a corrupt local sheriff played by Brian Dennehy, who arrests Rambo and tortures him until his PTSD is triggered. Rambo flees to the woods, but Dennehy and his men pursue, and it turns into a giant, deadly manhunt. The set pieces are a thrill, but at its heart this is the story of a soldier’s unexamined trauma, and Stallone gives one of his finest performances throughout Rambo’s complicated emotional breakdown. “First Blood” is thoughtful, pointed, harrowing entertainment. And an exciting, action-packed, hair-raising drama.