As of right now, Rambo hasn’t been officially confirmed for Mortal Kombat 11 – but the writing’s on the wall. A dataminer all but confirmed his presence, and a new teaser trailer seems to cheekily tease him. But as fun as it is to see the game’s bonkers roster get a new unexpected addition, I can’t help but to wonder – does anyone actually understand John Rambo?
I ask because, from where I stand, not enough people know the intent of the character. Originating in David Morrell’s stellar 1972 novel, First Blood, Rambo’s original incarnation was a salient commentary of wartime PTSD. The violent, traumatized character was inspired by some of Morrell’s students, who had returned from the Vietnam War with horrific stories of their time there.
In the novel, as well as its 1982 cinematic adaptation, Rambo was far from the “cool” action hero he’d eventually become. He was depicted as a homeless drifter, wandering from town to town – a sadly common story among Vietnam veterans. After he’s taken off the streets by malicious, violent cops, his mistreatment at their hands triggers a series of intense flashbacks. Soon, he’s escaped custody and fled into mountains, marking the beginning of a brutal confrontation that leaves both him and countless officers dead. It’s a sobering look at the way veterans are used, abused, then turned onto the streets and subjected to police brutality.
Unfortunately, sobering looks didn’t sell in the Reagan era. After Ted Kotcheff’s movie took off, sequels were in order. While Morrell did some great novelizations of these movies (as per his contract), these follow-ups strayed pretty far away from the character’s origins. Rambo isn’t a victim of violent trauma – he’s a bonafied American badass, and he’s out for blood. While Rambo: First Blood Part II kept some of the grit and grime of the character, 1988’s Rambo III is a genuine low point for the series. The movie has an unabashed Red Scare stink to it, and Rambo’s small-scale genocide (there are 108 on-screen deaths) is presented as a distinctly heroic act.
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By that point, it was too late – Rambo had a Saturday morning cartoon, action figures, and comic books. He was packaged and marketed as a patriot that children should aspire to be, instead of a bleak critique of the government’s failings. While 2008’s wonderful, sobering Rambo would challenge that narrative, his reputation was sealed in the American pop culture zeitgeist. The rough edges were sanded away, and Rambo was an action movie hero.
From that lens, the character’s inclusion in something like Mortal Kombat makes complete sense. Since its inception, the series has always riffed on popular Hollywood tropes. Its most iconic characters are liberally inspired by different action stars, and characters like RoboCop (speaking of mishandled characters,) Jason Voorhees, and Schwarzenegger’s T-800 have all appeared – among several others. The whole affair is a campy, cheesy celebration of violent cinematic excess, and a damn good one at that.
But I question the inclusion of a character like Rambo. Sure, he’s iconic, but he’s an icon for pretty nefarious reasons at this point. His role in pop culture eventually became one of a propagandist, and his campaigns of wanton destruction were chalked up as good and necessary. Only the 2008 film, which Morrell himself said was “the first time that the tone of my novel First Blood has been used in any of the movies,” actually took the character to task for the blood on his hands. Even last year’s Last Blood at least attempted to look at the character critically – even if that whole mess ultimately amounted to a bunch of bullshit racist propaganda.
Being Rambo isn’t a cool or good thing. Rambo isn’t an invincible badass who gets to do battle with robot ninjas, literal demons, and the fucking Terminator. To me, Rambo is a haunting reminder of the Vietnam War – one that was unfairly repackaged as a tool to get young children excited about killing people who don’t look like them. That’s how he deserves to be remembered, no matter how much nostalgic ’80s babies and Sylvester Stallone’s ego might say otherwise.
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Bella Blondeau is a lovable miscreant with a heart of gold… or so she says.
She likes long walks in dingy arcades, loves horror good and bad, and has a passion for anime girls of any and all varieties. Her favorite game is Nier: Automata, because she loves both robots and being sad.
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