Rank Opinions: The Rambo Cinematic Universe

Now that no more new movies exist *, Rank Opinions is the Midwest Film Journal’s way of buying into the clickbait style of ranking stuff — which is to say better than the other stuff that really is clickbait.

* Don’t panic. No one canceled new movies and didn’t tell you. We’re still watching those, too.


Dave Kienzler is an Admiral in the Nebraskan Navy, Honorary Chief of Kwa-Kwa, Cameroon, and a former professional mascot. When not penning understated and deeply insightful film criticism about the films featuring John Rambo, he is arguing that the 1980 Pride & Prejudice BBC miniseries starring David Rintoul is infinitely superior to the stupid Colin Firth version. He currently, and very begrudgingly, lives in France.


The Midwest Film Journal has been generous enough to let me expound on my thoughts about the films featuring John Rambo in the site’s Rank Opinions series. As befits the Rambo Universe, these rankings are bold, brash, aggressively unhinged and unquestionably right in all facets.

#5: Rambo: Last Blood

This movie is a crime against Rambo, which means it is a crime against America. There hasn’t been a drop off in quality between franchise installments like this since the arrival of Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace — an appropriate touchstone given Stallone’s depiction of the titular character as a homicidal Jar-Jar Binks, a wild creative misfire who looks almost cartoonishly unnatural. Stallone appears to be halfway through a metamorphosis into a life-sized wax figure of himself … or rather a larger-than-life size, as his artificially inflated bulk makes him almost unrecognizable compared to the actor in the first two films (not to mention mostly immobile and utterly incapable of physically forming expressions).   

It gives Rambo a family! David Morrell, who created the character and wrote the source novel of First Blood, called it “degrading”! It cuts down the total number of deaths from 2008’s Rambo by 82%, the lowest body count since the first movie! It’s boring!

It also does not help that I saw this movie in France, so all the extensive Spanish dialogue was subtitled in French. As I understand neither language, plot subtleties were lost on me. This is not a problem one encounters in the best Rambo movies, in which his deadened thousand-yard stare and giant knives do the talking for him. If one good thing can be said of Rambo: Last Blood, it’s the series’ continued ability to reflect baby boomers’ current mood. The first film grappled with the pain and trauma of a generation dealing with scars from loss in Vietnam. The second and third gorged on the gung-ho exuberance of a country drunk on itself in the 1980s. The fourth, a country again disillusioned by wars on terror though still willing to play the hero. And now this, an 89-minute MAGA hat of xenophobic rage that finally leans into the kind of racism the franchise has always flirted with to varying degrees. Build that wall … or, if not that, at least a massive tunnel complex into which you can lure your Mexican drug lord / rapist enemies to murder them. Last Blood is a Trump-fan fever dream by way of a Taken knockoff by way of a Saw movie.

#4: Rambo III

It has been so long since I have seen this movie that I now have it entirely conflated with Charlie Wilson’s War. I believe the plot of it involves Tom Hanks and Philip Seymour Hoffman using congressional appropriations to supply the Mujahideen with John Rambos? Honestly, that movie sounds more appealing than my memory of this one, which continued the series’ trend of upping the body count but without the commensurate escalation in delightfully bonkers insanity. As if England in the 1830s and Russia in the 1980s weren’t enough, this movie should’ve warned America that nothing good comes from getting involved in Afghanistan.

#3: First Blood

Not a bad movie, but not really a Rambo movie. Tone, message and body count are all out of a different series altogether. Only its wild implausibility links it to what the character and franchise would become. I mean, Rambo monologues at length in this! This movie is Pink Floyd under Syd Barrett, the very hungry caterpillar before it became the butterfly, the Fast and Furious universe when they were just DVD thieves. It bears almost no resemblance to the grandiose insanity to come.

#2: Rambo: First Blood Part II

This film is Rambo. It defines the term as understood in the cultural lexicon and the reason Rambo entered said lexicon in the first place. The title alone doesn’t just warn you of the insanity to come, it basks in its glory! Bleed again for the first time?!?! Forget the complicated questions of the psychological trauma war inflects on survivors. That won’t be an issue if you just kill everyone. Much simpler that way. 

#1: Rambo

Now, for the reason this ranking exists. The easiest choice for #1 since God ensured his continued monopoly right out of the gate in his Ten Commandments. Rambo is … TRANSCENDENT GENIUS. The kind of genius requiring a level of divine inspiration that makes the Bible’s divine inspiration look like downvoted posts from an L. Ron Hubbard fan-fiction Reddit thread. This is the zenith of human culture and quite possibly the apex of civilization as a whole. Incapable of being surpassed and almost as certainly incapable of being equaled, Rambo almost assures us that every terrible event of the last dozen years reflect the beginning of humanity’s decline back into the primordial ooze. You know what? Totally worth it!

So, stop reading right now and watch this movie. Rewatch this movie! Marinate in its glory. When you come back, you can read the rest of the breakdown. DO IT NOW!!!!

It was awesome, wasn’t it? I can feel your gratitude. Having seen the machete-wielding son of God, you hardly need be told of its superperfectitude. But you also don’t need to be told that it is impossible not to expound on its greatness at length. So, let’s discuss its subtleties.

First, Mr. Stallone wrote, directed, produced and starred in this movie. That is not even a trifecta, that’s a quadtuplet of heaven. Truly, Stallone is the most accomplished Renaissance man since Da Vinci … ’cept Rambo could totally rip out Mona Lisa’s throat out with his bare hands if she ever found herself in the Burmese army threatening Christian missionaries. (That is not hyperbole. Rambo does in fact rip out someone’s throat barehanded at one point. You’d be surprised, as it’s a much more time-consuming process than you’d think.)

Let us sample some dialogue written by this modern-day Bard. The excerpt below is almost the entirety of the longest conversation in the entire movie and sounds like it was written by a 6-year-old hopped up on juice boxes and for whom English is not a first language. Read it in the voice of the Almighty, otherwise known as Sly’s world-weary, gruff grunts reluctantly escaping his marble-filled mouth while he stands on a moonlit dock in a driving tropical monsoon with his HGH-engorged 60-year-old veins rippling majestically.

John Rambo: Why'd you come back?
Sarah: Waiting for you.
John Rambo: I told you before I can't help you.
Sarah: Well, we need to go and help these people. We're here to make a difference, and we believe all lives are special.
John Rambo: Some lives, some not.
Sarah: Really? If everyone thought like you, nothing would ever change.
John Rambo: Nothing does change.
Sarah: Of course it does! Nothing stays the same.
John Rambo: Live your life cause you've got a good one.
Sarah: It's what I'm trying to do!
John Rambo: No, what you're trying to do is change what is.
Sarah: And what is?
John Rambo: Go home.

I will pause for everyone to find that slow-clap GIF.

Now, for those of you ignorant enough to ignore my earlier entreaties to go see this movie: Don’t let that excerpt fool you into thinking Rambo has gone soft and that the whole movie is some sort of Buddhist meditation on life. Oh, no. Rambo can still bring the heat. As he states in what I am sure is some sort of Buddhist koan: “When you’re pushed, killing’s as easy as breathing.”

It’s almost as frequent. In fact, 236 people die in 91 minutes. THAT’S 2.59 DEATHS PER MINUTE! I am not making this up. Now, granted: Rambo himself only kills 83, but that is still an astounding number! Even more so when you consider that the first person doesn’t die until three minutes and 22 seconds in — after which the deaths come at a rate of 3.04 per minute. (Other key numbers: 0.04 spoken words per minute by Rambo; 0.5 Rambo thousand-yard stares per minute. Percentage of those stares amazing: 100.)

This man is so hardcore that when he learns that the human McGuffin has been taken by the evil Burmese, he doesn’t just rush off to rescue her but first, in a stunningly moving montage, fires up his kiln and hammers out his own machete in the fires of his rage. That’s hardcore. And so are the 236 deaths. None of them are easy mass deaths. Almost every single one involves the person being ripped apart in brutally clear and vibrant high definition. People are shot in the face with arrows. People are shot in the face with arrows and then fall onto land mines and blow up. People are eviscerated by machetes, decapitated by machetes and quite literally cut in half by machetes. They are mowed down by bullets, mortared, blown up by jury-rigged World War II-era bombs, eaten by pigs, blown backwards 10 feet by the blast of a sniper rifle that defies every law of physics, knifed, stabbed, clubbed, have their throats ripped out (see above) and most spectacularly have their heads blown off by a .50 cal machine gun. For that particular death, Rambo decapitates the guy manning the Jeep-mounted machine gun with his machete, then turns the gun on the guy in the front seat and shoots him from a distance of approximately six inches. The camera then cuts to a stunning shot of the gun shield covered in the dripping brains of the dead guy.

Kubrick, Kurosawa, Stallone.

That segment is part of an insane 15-minute climax that bears witness to more death than every other movie of the last 10 years combined. At no point in this movie do you go more than two or three minutes without a graphic death, but I think those last 10 minutes feature five to 10 deaths per second. It redefines “orgy of violence.” It is overwhelming and ridiculous and scrumtrulescent.

And then just as you are so caught up in the frenetic two-story highlight reel of hell that you are considering stabbing the guy in the theater row in front of you to death with your soda straw, the death stops and you are left with Rambo stoically surveying the carnage with one final, inevitably brilliant thousand-yard stare. Chills. Chills, I tell you. No matter how much attention is focused on the violence — and it’s not to say all of that attention isn’t totally earned — what makes this movie is the dialogue and the delivery. Breathtaking. And by breathtaking, I mean so insanely funny that I thought I might asphyxiate from laughter and the audience in the theater I first saw it in burst into spontaneous applause at the credits.

This movie is the like The Poseidon Adventure, The Running Man, The Room and every other so-epically-bad-it’s-spectacularly-funny movie all rolled into one — spiked with HGH, doused in blood and sprinkled with the most ridiculous dialogue since the invention of Mad Libs.

WATCH THIS MOVIE. RIGHT NOW. Then watch it again. You’re in quarantine. The world outside is a terrifyingly scary place full of an invisible foe that we can’t yet defeat. But inside your four walls, on that flatscreen, there is no problem that can’t be solved with a machete and some squinting. Forget the mask. Fashion yourself a bandana.

(For those of you unable or unwilling to yet appreciate the gravity of what I am saying to you, click HERE and watch a one-minute montage of the best deaths. Or go HERE and watch as Stallone claims that he did this movie to help the oppressed in Burma and, just seconds later, casually reveals that, as a result of being cast in this movie, one actor’s entire family was arrested and has not been heard from since. Or go HERE and read the full four-page listing of this movie’s stats courtesy of John Mueller at the L.A. Times, including a breakdown of how many people Rambo kills with his shirt on versus his shirt off. Pulitzer-worthy journalism.)



Guest Writer


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