John Rambo is one of the more perplexing cultural artifacts of the last 40 years. It’s rare to have someone say, “I am a Rambo fan,” as opposed to, say, Sylvester Stallone’s other famous character, Rocky Balboa. It’s a character that was introduced in a fairly good movie, First Blood, about a Vietnam veteran being unfairly maligned by a crooked small town sheriff. A character who then became a caricature of itself in the next two sequels – as Rambo returns to Vietnam to rescue missing prisoners of war; then in the third movie Rambo fights Russians in Afghanistan – which kind of sums up the whole Reagan 1980s.
This weekend, we get the fifth movie in the saga, Rambo: Last Blood, a hyper-violent, often disturbing film – John Rambo’s young niece is kidnapped, brutally tortured, and raped multiple times to service this “story” – to the point it’s difficult to imagine who this movie is even made for. But there’s a moment when Rambo cuts open the skin around a bad guy’s shoulder, then grabs the man’s collarbone to break it from the inside out, that I remembered … oh, yeah, at one point Rambo was presented as a children’s cartoon.
This is what’s so confusing about the legacy of Rambo. It’s almost like today the character itself is more popular than any of the individual movies. Most of this comes from the box office success of Rambo: First Blood Part II, the first of these movies to put Rambo’s name in the actual title. The movie won five Razzies, but also made an enormous amount of money. But, today, that movie’s legacy is more about the character than the actual movie. When people want to watch classic Stallone movies, it’s kind of weird this one is rarely mentioned, even though its his biggest hit.
So, yes, of course there was a meeting where some suits came up with the idea, “Hey, how do we market Rambo to kids?” And from that meeting (or whatever it was) comes the syndicated animated series, Rambo: The Force of Freedom. There are, somehow, 65 episodes of Rambo: The Force of Freedom. You could, theoretically, watch approximately 27 hours of animated Rambo action. Anyway, yes, I watched one episode.
Look, this is a very strange cartoon. It’s not that much different than deciding Charles Bronson’s Death Wish character should have an animated series for kids, airing right after Quick Draw McGraw, or whatever. (Well there’s your idea, Hollywood: reboot Death Wish again, only now the lead character is Quick Draw McGraw.) The premise runs a little like the G.I. Joe cartoons, which I have zero doubt was a huge influence here. (In a commercial for the toy line based on this series, Rambo is introduced as “no ordinary Joe.”) Rambo is given a team, with each member having a specific talent. And instead of fighting local law enforcement or entire communist governments, he fights the same group of evil-doers every week. Only instead of Cobra, this group of folks call themselves S.A.V.A.G.E. (I looked this up, S.A.V.A.G.E. stands for “Specialist-Administrators of Vengeance, Anarchy and Global Extortion.” What a coincidence the acronym for that forms a coherent, evil-sounding word. What luck!)
In the first episode, the Specialist-Administrators of Vengeance, Anarchy and Global Extortion (or, remember, S.A.V.A.G.E., for short) has invaded a fictional South American country and Colonel Trautman knows of only one person who can save the day. What I found weird about this series is John Rambo is never called John. It’s only Rambo now. When Rambo introduces himself, he just says, “Hello, I am Rambo.” When we first meet Rambo, he’s trying to enjoy a nap on a fishing boat with a book over his face. It’s as if Rambo has finally found peace! But, no, the U.S. military has found 65 new missions for him. Just let the man be! From a helicopter Trautman yells to Rambo, “Your country needs you.” Without hesitation, Rambo shimmies up a rope to the helicopter and away he goes for his 65 new animated missions.
Rambo: The Force of Freedom is both surprisingly and, I suppose, not surprisingly, violent. Even in G.I. Joe, after the first couple of episodes, the animated guns with animated bullets were replaced by animated guns that shoot lasers. Not here, as Rambo is often dodging actual gunfire. It’s kind of startling. But what’s actually pretty hilarious is when Rambo shows up for action, he’s shirtless. What on Earth? I get he eventually becomes shirtless in the movies, but I don’t understand the concept of just showing up for battle without a shirt. I have to think the other members of The Force of Freedom talk about this behind Rambo’s back. Anyway, Rambo is exposing himself to harmful sun rays and bug bites for no reason. Imagine meeting a group of friends and one of them is just shirtless for no reason and no explanation.
My favorite line of dialogue happens about midway through the episode when Rambo is captured and presented to the leader of S.A.V.A.G.E, General Warhawk. (I do wonder what the rest of the Warhawk family is like. I feel if you vote for someone with the last name Warhawk as your leader, you kind of know what you’re getting in return.) Anyway, General Warhawk tells Rambo, “Well, if it isn’t my old friend, Rambo.” Rambo (who is definitely not voiced by Sylvester Stallone) responds, “You don’t have any friends.” That’s pretty cold. Perhaps this is why General Warhawk is so mean. He just needs a friend. Regardless, Rambo’s insult gets him a strung up and tortured over a pit of poisonous cobras. You know, for the kids.