The trailer for "Rambo: Last Blood" has been released, and this time, John Rambo's fighting right here at home. It's been 37 years since the first Rambo film hit theaters, yet somehow the titular character remains a fan favorite among veterans young and old. At first glance, this new movie looks just like Rambo's previous outings: ripe with gritty violence and fiery explosions, but just beneath the surface, the Rambo franchise offers America's veterans a whole lot more.
The Rambo franchise has always filled a unique role in the American cultural lexicon. Over the decades (yeah, decades), the franchise has shifted under the weight of popular sentiment across a wide spectrum of themes, delivering vastly different stories through the lens of the same main character.
From a troubled special operations veteran struggling to find his place in the "civilized" world, to a killing machine with a heart in the jungles of Burma, John Rambo's character has long been a reflection of American fears about what war is, and more importantly, what it does to us. While Rambo may not offer us the most poignant approach to society's ills, it has always been there like a cultural Rosetta Stone, translating contemporary fears into blockbuster action using the same visual language sold to the coveted blockbuster demographics that came before us. The world changes, but Rambo stays the same.
Okay, so maybe his knives get bigger.
In Rambo's newest (and likely last) outing, the legendary character appears to have finally come home - working on a farm that, logic dictates, is close enough to the Mexican border to find the legendary warfighter squaring off against a powerful cartel. Unlike in previous Rambo films, which have shown the character traveling the world to fight the enemy, Last Blood brings the fight right to Rambo's door. Of course, in keeping with the character's (perhaps repetitive) journey, he seems reluctant to get involved at first, until an unseen catalyst forces his hand.
In many ways, the Rambo franchise has taken on its own sort of veteran journey, starting with the character's struggle to find a place for himself after a war that gave him purpose, maturing into the story of a reluctant expert in his field, and now, proving that we veterans can still fight for what matters even as we get older. Rambo is indeed warrior-wish-fulfillment, but not in the ways its critics might imagine. The violence depicted in Rambo may be rad, but the violence isn't the message, it's the medium.
Rambo films are always about finding a purpose that's bigger than yourself. Purpose, for many veterans, is exactly what we feel like we lack after we put up our boots for the last time. We may not see ourselves in John Rambo, but in the ludicrous universe these movies inhabit, we do see one of our own -- struggling and winning, thanks to the same hard work, grit, and determination we prize in ourselves.
Unlike most veterans, John Rambo has always been able to pull off a bandana, though.
While it may seem lofty (and even silly) to attribute such serious thought to a film with the almost comical title of "Rambo: Last Blood," it's just as silly to dismiss the lasting effect John Rambo has had on generations of moviegoers. The first Rambo film hit theaters three years before I was born and twenty-four years before I put on a uniform for the first time, but somehow, the movie weaseled its way into my brain, informing some of my expectations about service and its social and political costs. The movie gave Vietnam veterans like my father a melodramatic and passionate spokesman -- because hard emotions don't trade in nuance, and neither does Rambo. And it spurred a series of sequels, each tailored specifically to their times and the conflicts weighing on American minds.
Last Blood's Rambo is no different; as an aging veteran offers us one more wish fulfilled, proving that even as we get older, we can still fight just like we always have, and we can still sacrifice for a cause that's worthy.
Is Rambo realistic? Of course not. Is it ham-fisted storytelling? Absolutely.
Will I be there opening night? You bet I will.
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