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Mortal Kombat 11’s Rambo is, weirdly, the definitive Rambo

Sylvester Stallone’s veteran hero spent the last 38 years losing all meaning

Mortal Kombat 11: Ultimate, a roll-up of the original game and expansions primed for a new wave of consoles, touts a handful of additional fighters. Two of these new characters are returning from the contorted, many-armed history of the series: Rain from Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 and Mileena from Mortal Kombat II. The third is traumatized Vietnam veteran John Rambo. In the announcement trailer, he emerges from the jungle and, in Sylvester Stallone’s 74-year-old mumble-grumble, intones a catchphrase: “I’m your worst nightmare.”

The line, first uttered in Rambo III, has bothered me a lot as an endlessly recycled retort before someone punches someone else in the face.But it’s also a bit poignant: Nightmares about trauma are a hallmark intrusive symptom of PTSD. Rambo from the original 1982 film, First Blood, might have known how bad nightmares can be, but I’m not sure that Rambo of Rambo III could know much of anything. What the Rambo of Rambo III can do, though, is be as invulnerable and single-minded as any other bit of propaganda.

Rambo is not the only misused character of ‘80s popular cinema. One of them, RoboCop, is already on the Mortal Kombat 11 roster, enthusiastically shooting his opponents in the genitals before they explode. One expects this kind of blatant disregard for character and narrative from Mortal Kombat: Robocop and ED-209 dismembering Johnny Cage with a hail of bullets is an extension of the nose-thumbing gross-out humor of the ‘90s that tries to have its irony both ways. Usually a franchise character of Rambo’s ilk makes a radical departure when there is a change in creative force, medium, or audience (for all three, see: the Starship Troopers show Roughnecks, the various RoboCop TV series, and, yes, the Rambo cartoon.)

But Stallone is Rambo, and he co-wrote all of the movies. This isn’t just flattening a character for commercial purposes. There’s a clear through-line of Rambo’s diminution from a complex byproduct of American imperialism to a hollowed-out vigilante with more in common with Jason Voorhees than any real soldier. He’s just like any piece of American violence, digested and sterilized until it only exists as a justification for current violence.

Rambo holds. machine gun in First Blood
First Blood
Image: Lionsgate

As a polemic, First Blood is what it says on the tin: In the film, a decorated Vietnam veteran is retraumatized by a sadistic sheriff, fights back, and then flees into the woods, leaving traps in his wake. The law gives chase, and the conflict escalates until there is nothing but Pyrrhic victory for both sides. Rambo oscillates between fear and emotional repression until he breaks down in over the guilt he has borne for years. The film ends with him sobbing in the arms of his former commanding officer. His CO barely knows how to comfort him, and nothing feels resolved. Rambo has not psychologically recovered from his time at war, and he’s probably going to go to jail for retaliating against law enforcement. This is not to say that First Blood is a realistic film — a National Guard uses a bazooka to trap Rambo in a mine — but it is sodden with pathos. First Blood isn’t trying to be clever either; it’s one of the many films that dissects the Vietnam/Nixon era without having much new to say about it. But Rambo’s anger and pain don’t need to be clever or new to be genuine.

Rambo: First Blood Part II undoes all of this. Rambo is no longer vulnerable: he is the perfect weapon with absolute stoicism and an absolutely shredded Rocky IV physique. As a screenwriter, Stallone himself seems to be quite a moralist, fighting to make Rambo turn himself in at the end of the first film rather than getting killed or killing himself. In Part II, that same empathy for prisoners of war and MIA soldiers inexplicably pulls Rambo out of prison and puts him back into Vietnam after the war has ended to murder innumerable Vietnamese and save POWs as a one-man extrajudicial army. His mission is presented as if the war could still be won years after the Paris Peace Accords by honoring the pain of prisoners of war. Rambo completes his violence with aplomb with his CO — the same one cradling him at the end of the first one — congratulating him on another Medal of Honor-worthy performance. In what Stallone has referred to as his “obvious neutrality,” Rambo says that he wants nothing for this act other than “for our country to love us as much as we love it.” The viewer is left to wonder what it would take for him to realize that the love will never come. It’s not even clear that this Rambo could accept love.

The other sequels are of the same mold. In Rambo III, “First Blood” gets dropped from the title, as does the pretense that these movies are about anything but to winning real-life military and cultural conflicts in imaginary realms. The third film was the most expensive movie of its time and a perfect piece of propaganda: it gives the Mujahideen moral superiority where the US government gave billions of dollars and Stinger missiles. (Though, contrary to the meme, the movie was not actually dedicated to them.)

Twenty years later, in 2008’s Rambo, the soldier is no longer an agent of the US government, but nevertheless gets involved in regime change again. As usual, he takes the job reluctantly. (Rambo is a war machine, but it seems you have to start him several times like a lawn mower.) This entry in the series is concerned with the misplaced, squishy empathy of missionaries trying to reach Karen rebels in Myanmar. Their inability to be violent is what gets nearly all of them killed by Southeast Asian film stereotypes, holdovers from ‘70s Vietnam movies that still dominate nearly every American portrayal of the region. The ending has the same “rebel cavalry” scene as Rambo III, but they are an afterthought compared to Rambo’s mind-boggling body count and killing of the villainous general. It’s hard to say that this film has any political message. I really don’t think anyone involved cares about the state of the military dictatorship of Myanmar then or the Rohingya genocide. Sure, the film still says a lot about what it thinks of Southeast Asia and pacifism, but it’s all either normative stereotypical hogwash or a reflection of Rambo himself. The movies give up the façade and admit that they’re all about an avatar of brutality able to define the boundaries between good and evil as what dares to threaten him.

Rambo: Last Blood
Image: Yana Blajeva/Lionsgate

The recent Rambo: Last Blood (let’s hope it is) takes this even further. Though it began as something Stallone developed with the author of the original First Blood book, and described as his version of No Country for Old Men, the finished product is clearly not that movie. Instead, Rambo’s “one last mission” is an endlessly gory after-school special about MS13 and what right-wing America thinks it should do to them. Rambo tortures members of a generic Mexican cartel to find his granddaughter, who has been kidnapped, drugged, and repeatedly brutalized. He finds her, but she dies of a heroin overdose. He decapitates the man responsible and then boobytraps his Arizona ranch to take out the assassination team that comes after him.

These traps, and a giant series of tunnels, are all highly reminiscent of Viet Cong tactics. The difference is that, instead of forcing the enemy to take care of maimed soldiers, Rambo comes behind them after they’ve fallen into the trap and shoots them in the head with a shotgun. This murder parade ends with Rambo literally ripping a man’s heart out in exchange for, well, doing the same to him figuratively. Unlike the man who had a physiological trauma response to being forcibly shaved in First Blood now uses his traumatic experiences as a way to inflict incredible amounts of pain, and the movie expects us to find this empowering.

The demands of culture and politics stripped the Rambo of First Blood for parts, and they do the same thing to real-life soldiers elevated to the level of symbolism. Audie Murphy, a decorated soldier and actor, was the basis for the Rambo character in the First Blood book, partially because his struggles with PTSD were well-known during his lifetime. However influential he was in his time, it feels as if his efforts were swept under the rug after he died at 46 in a plane crash. Pat Tillman’s views on the War on Terror as an imperialist fantasy and indeed the fact that he was killed by friendly fire were actively suppressed in the national conversation of his death. During his presidential run, John Kerry’s strong anti-Vietnam stance as a decorated veteran ran so counter to the cultural tide that the “Swift Boat Veterans” ran a blatantly false but concerted campaign to discredit his service, and it worked. From the top and from the bottom, it seems that the enormity of war and its aftermath are too much for Americans to handle. The easier thing to do is to ignore it until it explodes, and then ignore it again.

The Rambo that appears in MK11 is every Rambo at once. He looks like and sets traps like Rambo from First Blood, shoots a machine gun like he does in the early sequels, rips a guy’s throat out like in 2008’s Rambo, and sounds like the old man murderer of Last Blood. It’s not that MK11 misunderstands the character; this is what he is now. He’s incoherent and inert, wrung out, a culturally irrelevant entity. Rambo no longer stands for anything other than store-bought, patriotic machismo made with ingredients of dubious ethical provenance. He is shorthand, and nothing more. If I were in a more lyrical, lazy mood, I might say he reflects “the times” in a sort of decadent-empire, late-capitalism sort of way, but I’m not sure he reflects anything. As rendered in MK11, his eyes sure don’t.