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One Night with Rambo

by David Cornelius

In preparation for the release “Rambo,” I’ve decided to treat myself to a marathon session of the previous three adventures of sweaty action hero. I haven’t seen these movies since the Reagan administration. Can I make up for the absence in one night?

8:00 PM: I dig out my copy of the movies, purchased a few years back but never watched. This is the older DVD box set from Artisan, the one with the shiny metal cover that reads “Special Edition” over a graphic of the American flag, under which we see a shirtless, grimacing, bulging Stallone mowing somebody down with a heavy round of machine gun fire. Look, I’m a pinko liberal peacenik, and even I think that’s freaking awesome. DVD player’s not even on, and I already know you don’t mess with John Rambo.

You know, I should really be watching these on VHS. There’s something about Rambo that’s quintessentially 80s. But DVD it is.

8:11 PM: Took me a while to scoot my seven-year-old daughter out of the room. I doubt she’d appreciate the finer intricacies of jungle survival. Anyway. “First Blood.” Let’s roll!

8:11 PM: “Ted Kotcheff” is a funny name. I need to sneeze! Here, have my Ted Kotcheff.

8:16 PM: Brian Dennehy! He’s the sheriff that knows everybody. What a nice guy! Except he hates drifters. And dieting, apparently. But mostly drifters.

8:21 PM: It’s Christmas in Oregon. And David Caruso is our holiday elf.

8:27 PM: The dirty, nasty deputies are trying to shave Rambo, who’s having a Vietnam flashback. This can’t end well.

8:29 PM: This didn’t end well. Seven cops down (if alive), including our holiday elf. One motorcycle stolen. One set of railroad tracks jumped, which is sweet. Brian Dennehy is pissed.

8:32 PM: Brian Dennehy is in an upside-down police car. The Blues Brothers receive no royalties.

8:35 PM: Rambo’s parading about in some sort of potato sack poncho. This must explain why he spends so much time shirtless: no fashion sense.

8:36 PM: There’s a shot of Stallone standing over a massive cliff, and I’m suddenly reminded how many modern movies cheat with CGI. This is really Sly, standing atop a real cliff, and this is a real stuntman filling in. CG helps do a lot of things, but nothing beats the look of real.

8:39 PM: Damn you, evil deputy! I hope your helicopter explodes.

8:40 PM: No explostion, but Rambo just did a kickass dive off the cliff, which is almost as good.

8:41 PM: Evil deputy just fell to his death. Still no explosion. Maybe later his corpse will just explode at random. (Fingers crossed!)

8:44 PM: The guy back at the police station spits out the words “Vietnam vet” with great venom, like it means he’s a leper or rapist or Chris Daughtry fan. I smell a morality tale coming! Also: The young deputy is right. Green berets are badasses, especially if they are Sylvester Stallone.

8:47 PM: Rambo just killed a dog with his bare hands. I often forget Rambo didn’t start off as a “hero.” He’s also gone missing, and the action is now following the cops, which gives the picture a horror flick feel. “We ain’t hunting him, he’s hunting us!” says one deputy, and we’ve entered the pick-’em-off-one-by-one portion of the adventure.

8:53 PM: Something else we don’t see: After getting attacked by Rambo, Brian Dennehy sits down and cries. Very un-macho, but extremely honest and human.

8:56 PM: Richard Crenna!! What an entrance.

8:57 PM: Another switcheroo quote: “I didn’t come here to rescue Rambo from you. I came here to rescue you from him.” The movie’s taking a wrong turn, from hardass yet low-key survival tale/morality play to action hero-as-superhero testosteronapalooza.

9:02 PM: Oh, Col. Trautman, what sly tricks do you have up your sleeve?

9:04 PM: Stallone’s playing it very subdued. It’s what he does best, really - the troubled brute. His quiet dialogue with Trautman shows a lot going on unsaid; it’s all in the eyes. This is a very good performance in a movie that doesn’t really require one. Knowing how the franchise unfolds, with its absurdist action to come, I should be savoring this.

9:08 PM: So much for subtle. Rambo’s laying down the gunfire, and it rocks. Also: there’s a fine line between honest human reaction and goofball comic relief, and with the cowardly National Guardsmen, I think the movie forgot where that line falls. At least we finally get an explosion. Whee!

9:12 PM: “Killed for vagrancy in Jerkwater USA.” That’s a great line, even if what surrounds it is a bit overly preachy.

9:16 PM: Rambo’s wading through underwater tunnels with a torch. Is this “National Treasure”?

9:22 PM: “That Rambo guy? He’s on the loose again.” Hooray for overly casual reactions!

9:25 PM: Rambo just set fire to a gas station. Even considering everything that’s happened earlier, I’d still call this a mild overreaction. I do believe our hero has some anger issues. (But: explosions!!)

9:29 PM: I would assume you would need more than one fire hose to battle a gas station blaze. Just sayin’.

9:31 PM: Rambo’s running around with a ginormous machine gun and bullets draped everywhere. Potato sack shmoshato shmack. This is the Rambo I know. And he’s running toward a gun store. He’s found his home!

9:37 PM: And here comes the shouting of the movie’s message. All this yelling goes against Rambo’s quiet nature - I can buy him holding his anger in until it’s released with violence, but I can’t buy him releasing it with yelling. The scene works when Rambo chills out, gets teary, and finds the honesty of the moment. But the yelling? Still, it melts down into a very good scene, thanks to a great bit of acting by Stallone.

9:41 PM: Shitty 80s theme song!!!

9:42 PM: The credits list Bruce Greenwood as one of the Guardsmen. I didn’t recognize him, but then, I wasn’t looking.

9:43 PM: Roger Ebert has this to say: “Stallone is made to say things that would have much better been implied… We feel more deeply for him then, in fact, than we do later when he puts his grievances into words. Stallone creates the character and sells the situation with his presence itself. The screenplay should have stopped while it was ahead.” Our own Eric D. Snider adds: “It’s a shame this film became a prototype of sorts for shoot-’em-up, one-man-against-the-world action flicks, because it’s so much better than that.” And they’re right. “First Blood” drops in all the usual action elements, but its soul depends entirely on character, and how many shoot-’em-ups can say that?

10:00 PM: Break time’s over, let’s get back to Rambo. More to the point: “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” which will be the last time the titles of this franchise bother making any sense. And right from the very first frame: an explosion! Oh, this movie’s going to be different, alright.

10:01 PM: Also right from the top: Rambo himself, and Col. Trautman, and a whole pile of clumsy exposition.

10:03 PM: “Do we get to win this time?” Stallone handles the line with a bit of childlike innocence, but the line itself is foaming at the stupid, an idiot’s simplification of post-Vietnam emotions during the era.

10:04 PM: I’m surprised to see Jerry Goldsmith listed as music composer, because the theme is kinda sucky, and Goldsmith isn’t sucky. Also: this was written by Stallone and James Cameron, which makes me smile. And it’s directed by George P. Cosmatos, whom I keep wanting to call George Castanza.

10:05 PM: Martin Freaking Kove!! In a sleeveless vest!!! And Charles Napier!!!! There are not enough exclamation points in the world.

10:07 PM: Unlike the first flick, this one’s not wasting any time getting us right into the story. This is already a whole other beast, in tone, in manner, in subject. It’s as if they had this action movie and they just randomly picked an older movie character to throw in there.

10:11 PM: “What you choose to call hell, he calls home.” So the colonel only speaks in catchphrases and taglines now?

10:15 PM: Stallone’s in all black, with black helmet, and I keep thinking of Judge Dredd. Oh my.

10:16 PM: I stop the movie just as Rambo’s line gets stuck in mid-air. My wife’s home, and she’s brought dinner. Back later.

10:29 PM: My belly now full of the fast food version of chicken Caesar salad, I return to Rambo. When last I left him, he was dangling for his very life. Let’s see how it turned out, shall we?

10:30 PM: An action sequence like this was just what I needed, I think - it’s so James Bondian in that big-scale adventure sense that it effectively erases all notions of what that movie should’ve been in connection to its predecessor. This scene tells us “that was that movie, this is this one. Totally different, chump.” And we agree.

10:31 PM: John Rambo does not kill snakes. Dogs, yes. Snakes, no.

10:33 PM: Rambo’s sidekick is a woman. Is this a wacky buddy cop comedy?

10:36 PM: The weapons are revealed to be Russian. As if the movie wasn’t 80s enough, with its Vietnam angst and its ’splosions aplenty, now comes the Russian connection. Damn Commies.

10:37 PM: Stallone delivers a quiet speech, referencing the events of the first movie. It’s a nice touch, but it’s also a bit forced, as if tipping its hat out of necessity, not want.

10:38 PM: The DVD just froze up, as if agreeing with me.

10:42 PM: Back in business. And apparently all Napier and Kove have to do in this movie is sit around and drink Coke.

10:47 PM: Interesting that in the shots of the POWs, it’s not the actual human suffering that’s used to indicate a hellish environment, but a shot of two mice walking around. Meanwhile, Goldsmith’s score still blows.

10:50 PM: An arrow through the head will always be cool. Always.

10:51 PM: Does Martin Kove know he’s allowed to wear sleeves?

10:59 PM: I just realized I hadn’t written anything down lately, because I haven’t really been thinking about anything. This truly is mindless action - I’ve just zoned out, amused just enough by the violence to stay awake.

11:01 PM: Martin Kove just left Rambo behind. Never trust men without sleeves.

11:02 PM: “It was a lie, just like the whole damn war.” For what’s often viewed as a very right-wing franchise, that’s some leftie sentiment. Indeed, the whole notion of not trusting your government, of conspiracies and cover-ups, suggests a new level of grey into this morally black-and-white yarn. It was one thing for Rambo to complain about the stinky hippies, but what to make of these new accusations? Can one be jingoistic and cynical at the same time? Granted, the Rambo of the first movie was indeed anti-authority, but these new sentiments seem messier, more conflicting. (One might resolve such conflict by saying the “bad” authority figures in these films aren’t proper Americans, that they’re suits and bureaucrats who don’t jibe with Rambo’s American ways of defending the innocent and leaving folks alone. And I think I’m reading too much into things.)

11:05 PM: The Soviets are here, and they’re the main bad guys, because Vietnam is old news, and the Cold War is where it’s at. (Why not leave Vietnam out of it and just send Rambo into Russia?)

11:09 PM: Cripes, I’m a nerd. Rambo’s getting the ol’ electro-torture, and all I can think of is Han Solo on Cloud City. Sheesh.

11:14 PM: Dammit, Martin Kove, put a shirt on already.

11:15 PM: With the close-ups of bulging muscles and the fast-paced bloodshed, this is action porn. Exciting action porn, though. But just porn.

11:19 PM: Rambo’s sidekick keeps saying his name, as if we’re going to forget what it is.

11:20 PM: Rambo gets his first screen kiss, and maybe that’s his problem: the guy hasn’t gotten laid in fifteen years. Like George Carlin says, the guns and the bullets and the bombs are all shaped like dicks.

11:22 PM: The sidekick dies. I’m reminded of a typical double standard in all storytelling, not just the movies. Hundreds of Them get killed, and we cheer; one of Us dies, and we cry. I’m just as guilty as everyone else for cheering and crying, but still. Don’t the faceless cronies have families that would mourn them, too?

11:33 PM: Rambo just escaped death by machine gun fire by hiding in six inches of water. For some reason, I’m not complaining about this sort of thing. I think the movie makes you not care about reality.

11:36 PM: I can’t watch this screaming-and-shooting rescue sequence without thinking of the Rambo parody in “UHF.” Supplies!

11:42 PM: Again, I’m impressed by the stunt work. Two helicopters dancing around a river. CG just wouldn’t be the same.

11:44 PM: Again, it’s Martin Kove, no sleeves, sitting around, drinkin’ a Coke. Life is easy for Martin Kove.

11:47 PM: OK, now Rambo’s just shooting anything he can, this time dumping his load into a roomful of computers and radios. Somebody get this guy a happy ending, and soon.

11:49 PM: Rambo would die for his country, despite all that’s happened. And now Stallone gets to spit out another monologue, this time about doing what’s right and all that. I suppose it is a very gung-ho right-wing flick after all.

11:50 PM: Even shittier 80s theme song!!!

11:51 PM: MP Bartley hated, hated, hated this one, taking issue more with its politics than with its filmmaking, saying the movie “reveals an America filled with self-loathing and loathing for anyone else… here’s Rambo, a snarling Republican right poster boy strapping up the guns and going in to get the guys that the ‘previous administration’ left behind.” The Onion AV Club’s Nathan Rabin disagrees, praising the film’s ability to be “lurid, shameless pulp fiction,” and that “it may be a dishonest, xenophobic, exploitative act of historical revisionism, but it’s effective, and Jack Cardiff’s cinematography lends Rambo’s comic-book adventures an epic sweep.” My view falls somewhere in between. It’s a glorious mess, wildly fun when it shuts up and makes with the bang bang, plenty obnoxious when it piles on the USA-AOK cheerleading.

12:01 AM: “Rambo III.” Let’s do this.

12:02 AM: Big red titles! Big music stings and badass close-ups to let us know it’s Rambo, who is awesome, and large, and sweaty! Calm down, movie. Pace yourself.

12:04 AM: So it’s Rambo in one of those underground gambling halls in Thailand where two gladiators battle to the death while an angry mob cheers them on while shaking money in the air. So much for the somber realism of the first movie. Hell, so much for the somber realism of the second movie. Yikes.

12:06 AM: Is that…? It is! Kurtwood Smith!

12:07 AM: Rambo spares his opponent’s life. The crowd cheers him on. What a nice man.

12:09 AM: Stallone shares writing credit with Sheldon Lettich, who also wrote a couple Van Damme flicks. It is directed by Peter MacDonald, who also helmed “Mo’ Money” and “The NeverEnding Story III.” We are not in good hands. Also: The film is produced by a man named Buzz Feitshans, which is the greatest name ever.

12:11 AM: Clarence Boddicker’s brief history lesson on Afghanistan reminds me of “Charlie Wilson’s War.” I do hope Philip Seymour Hoffman stops by.

12:13 AM: Has Richard Crenna changed his costume since the first movie? Or is he vacuum-sealed in that suit?

12:14 AM: Col. Trautman just compared Rambo to a work of art. Priceless.

12:16 AM: Trautman’s wearing something else! And he’s being captured by Russians. Maybe the uniform is his good luck never-get-captured-by-Russkies suit.

12:25 AM: The Evil Russian has pictures of his family stuck to the mirror in his makeshift office. This is an odd touch - were they trying to humanize him in some way?

12:26 AM: For all the cartoonish nuttiness going on, Crenna’s pulling off a far better performance than necessary. It’s much welcome here.

12:27 AM: Trautman calls Afghanistan the Russian equivalent of Vietnam, an analogy often made. I wonder if this is why it was chosen, as a way of connecting Rambo’s adventures here to the previous movies, and his main reason for being. Or maybe they just knew they wanted to blow up some Russkies real good, and figured this was the best place for it.

12:34 AM: I find I just don’t care about what’s going on here. Is it because Rambo’s out of his element, no longer fueled by Vietnam angst? Or is it because the series has devolved to generic action thrills? After all, substitute anybody for Rambo, and the movie’s the same. I don’t think the absence of ’Nam themes is a fault - it’s the absence of anger in general. The first two movies were aggressive in their own ways. This one’s a movie that has to convince its hero to get mad. (That he’s there to rescue the colonel is not enough to piss him off. The movie needs him to become the defender of the good and protector of the weak, but there’s no fire in its belly about getting there.)

12:39 AM: Rambo meets a cute kid. As it’s impossible to watch this movie without thinking about how Afghanistan turned out, the sight of a little boy taking pride in being a soldier is quite unnerving.

12:40 AM: “What is football? Is played with foot?” “Not really.” That’s funny.

12:41 AM: Rambo has stopped the movie so he can play a local polo-with-sheep game. What an easy out for the filmmakers. Can’t think of anything thrilling to show? Toss in some sports! Let the locals seem Just Like Us while also adding some brainless visual excitement!

12:44 AM: Making the Afghans Just Like Us didn’t quite work. A Russian chopper is blowing up the village and slaughtering locals by the dozens, yet it plays with yawns. There’s no weight to the scene, as though MacDonald is focusing more on the stuntwork than on the people. Where’s the tension? Even on a pure action flick level, the scene’s just not compelling. Too rote.

12:52 AM: More with the kid. This wacky buddy cop thing still holds up. “Last time you paired me with a broad, chief, and now you wanna make me work with a runt?” To which the angry police chief spills coffee on his shirt, yelling “Rammmmboooooooo!!!” I hope the new “Rambo” movie pairs him with an orangutan.

12:57 AM: Rambo just took a ride by holding on to the underbelly of a tank, which makes me wish I was watching “Raiders of the Lost Ark” instead.

1:06 AM: So we’re winding down from a major action sequence, and I’m still utterly, hopelessly bored. This movie doesn’t even have the decency to be terrible - gone are chances to laugh at it - and instead it is merely mediocre, a slightly sub average actioner that’s practically daring you to zone out. Gone is the hero’s intensity (say what you will about how dumb “Part II” was, at least it has some charisma).

1:11 AM: On the other hand, we get to watch Rambo fill a wound with gunpowder and set his gut on fire, which is cool. (And, again: great effects work without computers!) But there’s little wonder in the scene (if “wonder” is the right word - fascination, maybe?), as if even the movie’s grown tired of itself.

1:21 AM: I’m amused by obligatory close-up shots of pilots who are surprised to see they’re about to explode.

1:23 AM: “Who are you?” “Your worst nightmare.” So John Rambo is the equivalent of being naked in school and you didn’t know there was a big test? Yes. Yes he is.

1:26 AM: OK, the big Russian baddie just pulled Rambo out of a hole… by his throat. Silly, perhaps, but at least it ain’t boring!

1:28 AM: And then the big Russian baddie blew up in midair. Now we’re talkin’!

1:32 AM: The kid’s back, and he hasn‘t been snuffed yet. I suppose as far as killing off sidekicks go, the franchise has an age limit.

1:34 AM: Rambo in a tank. That somehow feel like cheating.

1:35 AM: Tank and helicopter just rammed into each other, giving birth nineteen years later to the car-on-chopper action of “Live Free or Die Hard.”

1:38 AM: “We’re getting soft.” “Just a little, sir. Just a little.” That’s what she said! Also: The film is “dedicated to the gallant people of Afghanistan.” I’m too exhausted to crack wise on that one. Also also: Shitty 80s th-- wait a sec. It’s an 80s-fied cover of “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” as drawled by Bill Medley. What the hell?

1:39 AM: Jack Sommersby loved the film, hailing it as “a wall-to-wall success: colorful, exciting, and entertaining as all get-out. A stupendously alive motion picture.” I don’t see it, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m tired and woozy from the end of my Rambothon. Christopher Null from gets closer to my thoughts on the picture: “Nice production values… elevate it over its immediate predecessor, but mindless action is still mindless action.” I wouldn’t say it’s better than “Part II” - that film had a vibrancy that’s often missing from this third entry.

And with that, I end one long night with Rambo. Strangely, I still can’t wait to see the new one. You know, so I can cheer on the orangutan.

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originally posted: 01/25/08 18:05:04
last updated: 01/29/08 09:40:07
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