Sunday, May 02, 2010

"It's over, John."

After 2008's throat-clenching, gut-busting, head-chopping Rambo revival, anyone who was hoping for Sly Stallone to take one more go at the venerable brand will have to content themselves with their DVD box sets and their memories. A fifth entry in the Rambo canon -- begun in 1982's First Blood and extended through three sequels spanning three decades -- was being touted pretty much as soon as Rambo '08 hit theaters, with Stallone mulling all kinds of fresh scenarios into which to drop the Vietnam vet (including, but not limited to, a sci-fi riff with Rambo squaring off against some kind of Predator-like creature). Things (thankfully) went quiet after that, and now it looks like the franchise's writer/director/star has decided to honorably discharge John Rambo -- this time for good.

As an admirer of the entire series (yes, even the execrable Rambo III) for as long as it's been around, this is a welcome decision, and I'm wondering what took Sly so long to make it. Stallone has taken his fair share of grief over the years, some of it unjustified, some of it very justified (hey, someone's gotta take the rap for Cobra), but he's nothing if not a shrewd businessman, knowing when to extend a brand, and when to let it lie. That's probably why 2006's Rocky Balboa was so effective, as was the Rambo revisitation just over a year later. Rather than being merely one Roman numeral too far, both were structured as saga epilogues that lent the stories a dramatic weight they mightn't otherwise have had (as noted in my reviews) by putting the bow on their respective stories.

To this day I consider First Blood an underrated classic of the genre. By presenting a protagonist whose conflicted role in a post-Vietnam America made him a notable stand-in for the nation's own wounded sense of self, First Blood became a surprisingly cerebral thriller, with a surprisingly moving final act. The two sequels in the original cycle may have made the character ubiquitous, but they also diminished the singular, emotional effectiveness of that first film by blowing him up to invincible superhero proportions. The '08 model Rambo, while preserving the franchise's violent, larger-than-life aspects, also effectively took us back to the damaged, wounded warrior of the original and gave him a fitting coda.

Representing (and critiquing) aspects of both America's post-Vietnam introspection and post-Reagan militarization, John Rambo remains one of the most significant cinematic and cultural icons of the last thirty years. However, his importance is directly rooted in a specific era, and thus rather than see him be periodically dusted off in perpetuity to ever-diminishing results, I'm glad he's being allowed to recede quietly into the cinematic sunset after a job well done.

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