Sylvester Stallone has had a lengthy career and he’s been in a ton of movies, such as Judge Dredd (which I have a soft spot for), The Expendables trilogy, and the underrated gem, Demolition Man. That said, I think it's safe to say that Stallone's longest-lasting legacy will always be the two R's, and that's Rocky and Rambo. We've already ranked the Rocky movies, and today, I wanted to do the same for the Rambo movies.
Ah, Rambo. Today's kids know very little about him. But, if you grew up in the ‘80s and '90s, then you know a great deal about the character. Cinematically debuting back in 1982 in First Blood (The excellent novel by David Morrell was published ten years earlier), Rambo has gone through a lot, both as a character and as a property, in his decades-long career. There are some not-so-great Rambo movies, and some spectacular Rambo movies. But, which ones are they? Well, you're about to find out.
5. Rambo: Last Blood (2019)
In this supposed last venture of the John Rambo saga, Rambo is trying to atone for his sins by living a peaceful life on a ranch with his friend, Maria. Maria’s granddaughter seeks out her estranged father, but manages to get kidnapped by the Mexican cartel. Rambo doesn’t like this, and kills people to get her back. A LOT of people.
Our very own Dirk Libbey called Rambo: Last Blood, a “dismal, dreary, and unnecessary sequel,” and I agree. Sylvester Stallone, as always, is the best part of this super gory sequel, as you feel a sort of pathos for the fact that he keeps getting dragged out of his “retirement” to kill people who don’t know who they’re messing with. But, the story feels soggy and “been there-killed that.” Plus, instead of being set in a dense jungle or on a battlefield, he’s instead setting traps on his ranch, which just feels wrong for some reason. Maybe because it’s just SO violent.
Violence has always played a part in the Rambo movies, especially in 2008’s Rambo, which I’ll get to later, but it feels even more gross than that film since this one deals in such heavy-handed stereotypes of Mexicans that it’s hard to just “enjoy” the movie. Look, when even Rambo’s original creator, David Morrell, “hates” Last Blood (not dislikes, but hates this movie), you know it has issues.
4. Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
In this sequel to the groundbreaking original, Rambo is released from jail with the promise that he can be a free man again if he goes to Vietnam and documents any potential POWs. The only caveat? He can’t engage in any combat. But, this being a Rambo movie, of course he engages in combat. What do you think this is? Gandhi?
And herein lies some early controversy on this list, since many people will tell you that Rambo: First Blood Part II is better than Rambo III, and I politely disagree. It all goes to the fact that First Blood was a violent, but meditative movie about a man suffering from PTSD, while Rambo: First Blood Part II doesn’t know what it wants to be. It plays with the idea of putting Rambo back in his element, but at the same time, it devalues the character we were introduced to in the original movie, turning this once deep character who cries from being called “a baby killer,” to a guy who would blow up a house that might contain several babies in order to destroy his enemies.
That said, I don’t think Rambo: First Blood Part II is a bad movie. While it’s not on our list of the best '80s movies, it still perfectly captures the zeitgeist. Even so, that’s both a good and a bad thing, as the whole Reaganesque “qualities” of it feel even dumber today than they did back then. So, it’s a nice time capsule, sure, but too dumb for its own good. And, for a movie that has “First Blood” in its title, that’s not good at all, since the original First Blood was anything but dumb.
3. Rambo III (1988)
Rambo III finds Rambo's old friend, Col. Trautman (played by Richard Crenna) in danger this time, as he heads to Afghanistan. Trautman gets captured by a Russian military man, and Rambo goes off to rescue him. Simple plot, but sometimes, a simple plot is all you need. (Oh, well that and about a million body bags.)
Rambo III is a dumb movie that very well may not be as good as First Blood Part II. That said, Rambo III has a better sense of what it wants to be, as it KNOWS it's just a dumb action movie with a high body count, and it doesn't try to be anything more than that. That's why I find it superior to Rambo: First Blood Part II, since it has no pretensions or desire to be a follow-up to an inarguably great movie. It just is. In that way, Rambo III isn't a spectacular film like First Blood, but it's super enjoyable if you just turn your mind off.
2. Rambo (2008)
In this fourth installment, John Rambo has retired from killing. He's much older now, and he tries to live a peaceful life. He lives by the Thai border and helped to get some missionaries across said border, only to learn later that they've since disappeared. So, Rambo gears up yet again to go on one last rescue mission. Or at least, so we all thought, until Rambo: Last Blood arrived.
You know, when I ranked every Die Hard movie, I mentioned how by the time that series got to its fourth entry, the franchise had gotten a little stale. But Rambo 4, clumsily just titled Rambo, is by far one of the best movies in this entire series. It's because we finally get glimpses again of the Rambo of old from First Blood, which makes sense since Stallone actually directed this one.
Rambo is truly tired, and you can see his rage as he comes out of retirement and basically slaughters everybody alive. The violence in this one is brutal and over-the-top, but it captures the raw hatred Rambo has for having to do this all over again for what he views as the greater good. Honestly, Rambo 2 and 3 are guilty pleasures of mine, but the fourth movie is truly where it's at. It's genuinely good.
1. First Blood (1982)
In this breakthrough film, a loner returning from Vietnam is harassed by some dickish police officers, who then throw him over the edge. When he escapes, he goes into combat mode, and it's a tense cat and mouse game until the very end, when Rambo breaks down and cries.
No question, First Blood is the best movie in the series. Unlike the Highlander movies, which I also ranked, where the first movie is really the only good one. The Rambo series at least has this one and the fourth movie, as the fourth film almost acts as a bookend to First Blood in that they feel like one complete journey.
In First Blood, we can feel Rambo's anxiety, and even his hatred for both his pursuers, as well as the hatred within himself for not being able to just "turn it off." The actions he performed in service to this country will forever haunt him, and the first movie (and most of the fourth movie) truly captures that feeling, making the first movie the best film in the franchise, and it's not even close.
What's your favorite Rambo movie? For more news on some of the other best action movies, make sure to swing by here often.
Lover of Avatar (The Last Airbender, not the blue people), video games, and anything 90s, he will talk your ear off about Godzilla, so don't get him started.
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