My first reaction to seeing the Rambo: Last Blood trailer was “squeeeee” – that’s not the ‘new’ or ‘recast’ or ‘remade’ Rambo, that’s the 72-year old Sylvester Stallone back for another two-hour blood bath.
And why not? We live in a time when we can de-age Michael Douglas to look like he did in the 1980s (that whole sequence in Ant-Man was just weird, to say nothing of bringing Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher back from the dead in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story).
As a society, we’re nearing the end of the post, post-modern; there are only a few genuinely great acting titans left and time has yet to decide who the next mononymous headliners will be.
I’ll shed a tear when Connery and Caine go and raise a glass when Clint retires. Until then, let Arnie come back as often as he likes and cheer as Stallone kills or punches whatever he wants.
It’s less to do with nostalgia and more to do with a very enjoyable, but lesser spotted genre in cinema. If Marvel is the sugar rush, then the ‘monomyth’ is the three-course meal.
In his 1949 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Professor Joseph Campbell surmised the end part of the narrative: “The returning hero, to complete his adventure, must survive the impact of the world.
“Many failures attest to the difficulties of this life-affirmative threshold. The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real, after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfilment, the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life.
“Why re-enter such a world? Why attempt to make plausible, or even interesting, to men and women consumed with passion, the experience of transcendental bliss?”
Campbell might have been addressing classic mythology, but his central idea – the ‘reluctant, one more fight’ question has become a staple of modern cinema. Everyone cheers when they see it in a film because it’s nearly always rooted in a decades-long affection for a person or character. It requires consistency and dedication and cannot be rushed.
How else can one explain the emotional resonance, the last punch, from films as divergent as The Dark Knight Rises, Mr Holmes, Skyfall and Logan? They all belong to the same crowd-pleasing, back in the saddle formula – it’s why Unforgiven was the best send-off possible for the Western genre and why Spock’s death in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan hits a nerve every time. All were a slow cooker of emotion, and the payoff – if done right – is defiant, beautiful and memorable.
Logan with Hugh Jackman surprised the cast as much as the audience with how heartfelt the character’s death was. He’d been on screen for nearly 20 years in the X-Men franchise, and it’s the same reason why there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Robert Downey Jnr’s Iron Man went out with a snap after ten years on screen.
For my money, this quiet genre emerged – quite aptly so – with Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa back in 2006. Stallone decided to write, direct and star in a sixth instalment to give his creation the send-off the character and audiences deserved. To do that, he tapped into a well of emotion that reflected the actor’s life and his career – one more fight.
The end product owed more to the classic monomyth comic The Dark Knight Returns – itself the ‘final’ Batman comic after 50 years – than mere sports drama.
Conversely, consider cinema’s latest flops with the concept. Star Wars: The Last Jedi never gave Luke Skywalker the send-off he deserved because the characterisation was off-kilter. Ben Affleck’s vision of an ageing Dark Knight in Batman vs Superman and the Man of Steel’s death were lacklustre because audiences had no time to build any genuine affection.
What Stallone got right was to tap into a spring of pathos that naturally flows from beloved characters that have endured for decades. It’s also in chime with what his boxing magnum opus was always about – being the underdog, but this time in one final round. That’s the power of cinema, comics, music, television and life – and why, oh so quietly, everyone hopes Star Trek: Picard treads carefully on a substantial legacy.
Considering how cinema, and mainly superhero movies, are now severely fatigued by origin stories, Stallone should rightly be credited as normalising the idea of an ageing hero making a comeback without it sounding like a grubby money-making exercise. Formulaic isn’t enough; audiences need to care.
Films like these have no shame in dragging their protagonists through the mud before giving them a grand send-off. For my money, that’s worth a cinema ticket far more than another origin story.
Everyone knows the beginning, we’ve had enough of the middle – but what about the end?
Fans love it when older actors come back for one more film. Eastwood in The Mule (at the tender age of 88) and Schwarzenegger in another Terminator film this year (with Linda Hamilton back too, no less) is far more common now than a mandatory ‘stop it, go tend the garden’ retirement plan.
So if Rocky Balboa and Logan are anything to go by, films that gamble on the end, more than the beginning, might be something audiences can expect more of in the years ahead.
And let’s be honest, Rambo’s going to kick the bucket later this year. Why? Because that’s what all great heroes do; that’s what they have to do, and that’s how pop culture greats should end.