Cartoon Spinoffs – Rambo

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[previous entries in this series — DroidsEwoksChuck Norris Karate Kommandos]

Writing this latest piece about terrible cartoon spin-offs unwittingly dredged up a litany of embarrassing memories. Around the age of seven, I became fixated on Rambo; the lead character in a series of movies I’d yet to even see. Perhaps the young me, raised by a single mother, had hooked onto a child’s idea of a strong male role model, with his biceps, rocket launcher, curly mullet packed into a headband, and that veiny 80’s musculature where action heroes looked like actual boners.

Despite not watching the films, I knew the character from his place in popular culture, as the reference point for bombastic Reagan-era violence. One such appearance was an episode of Diff’rent Strokes, where Arnold went to a friend’s military-themed birthday party, which had a Rambo impersonator instead of a clown. This caused me to want a Rambo to come to my birthday party, in Sussex, talking it up so much, I became convinced Rambo was coming — perhaps even the real one — and going so far to write invitations stating such, which my mum disposed of before I could hand them out.

01

Around that time, I vividly recall a favourite daydream, which involved Stallone dying in some kind of accident, and my classmates coming over to break the news. They felt very bad for me, the noted Stallone superfan, watching as I went off alone to mourn the loss of my idol by gazing forlornly at the sunset, and undoubtedly looking very brooding and hunky as I did. The nadir of my shame came with the television premiere of First Blood Part II. The reason I hadn’t seen the films was simply because I wasn’t allowed. We had one TV and no video recorder, and I had no older siblings to sneakily introduce me to forbidden sights. Regardless, the day before the Saturday night showing, when the teacher asked how we’d be spending our weekend, I stuck up my hand and loudly bragged that I’d be watching Rambo II.

Perhaps, like the birthday Rambo, I thought I could say it into being true. My statement got a shocked reaction I did not expect, and she asked me to repeat myself, before making a big scene of it. “What kind of parents would allow that?!” she cried, throwing up her hands in such disgust, it was almost a parody of her Frenchness, and stomping out of the room. These days, 7-year-olds are probably giggling through morning assembly as they pass around ISIS beheadings on their phones, but the eighties were a different time. Her apoplexy only emboldened me, as I boasted to my classmates that I couldn’t wait to see it, and would definitely be allowed. My teacher (who in previous incidents had called me ‘demented’, and told the class to shut up about Wally off Last of the Summer Wine dying, because she didn’t care) then appeared in the hallway outside, along with another teacher. She pointed me out through the door, both their mouths agape, as though readying to call Childline and have me taken away. Come Monday morning, I sank into my seat as all the kids who’d tuned in to First Blood Part II casually described its gory scenes, while I, of course, hadn’t been allowed to watch.

02

Later that same year, after much begging and pleading, I was okayed to sit up for the less-shooty, more-punchy Rocky II, however the soft young me was so upset by the prosthetic eye make-up in the opening scene, I tearfully made my mum switch it off. There is a point to this meander down memory lane, regarding the audience demographic of the Rambo character. First Blood is a legitimately great action drama, with some serious things to say about the futility of war, and was planned to end with the PTSD-riddled Rambo killing himself, as in the original novel. However, like everything from that era, it immediately devolved into a super-dumb series, with a pair of wacky money-grab, high kill-count sequels. But irrespective of how silly it all got, one thing the Rambo franchise decidedly wasn’t, was something for kids.

02b

Clearly, such an iconic character smelled like easy pickings, if it could be introduced to a younger audience in a form they could actually watch, and launched as a toy range, but as evidenced by Rambo: The Force of Freedom, a family-friendly Rambo is really no Rambo at all. Force of Freedom was another Ruby-Spears production, airing for 65 daily episodes from September to December of 1986, between the cinematic releases of First Blood Part II and 1988’s Rambo III. Virtually identical to Ruby-Spears’ Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos (and airing at the same time), the Rambo cartoon sees our boy leading a team of specialists against an evil maniac. In keeping with the series’ tone, the baddies are a militaristic group of mercs under the umbrella of S.A.V.A.G.E. (Specialist-Administrators of Vengeance, Anarchy and Global Extortion), led by General Warhawk, and taking in a vast number of colourful bad twats. There’s another guy with a metal claw-hand, ninjas, bikers, androids, and all manner of dastardly foreign stereotypes, with names like Mad Dog, Black Dragon, Captain Scar, and most imaginatively of all, Jerkface.

03

Rambo’s gang similarly contains vast, toyline-bolstering numbers, but generally features Turbo, a racing driver voiced by Uncle Phil, and Kat (a needless acronym of Katherine Anne Taylor), a master of disguise who, as a girl, gets roughly one line an episode. In a piece of incestuous toon trivia, she’s played by the same actress as Too Much in Karate Kommandos. Each episode opens on an arm so grotesquely swollen with muscle, it’s not immediately clear what you’re looking at. Is it a tumour? A large intestine? Some horrible old bollocks in the bath? No. This is Rambo, in a ‘getting ready’ sequence we see before each episode’s final battle, tying his boots, sheathing a knife, and finally applying the headband, though the shaky movement and slow pan makes it look like he’s having a death-grip wank.

Seconds into episode one, First Strike, I’m immediately taken with the bizarre art style. In close-up, everyone’s inflated with huge, round muscles, but in wide-shots, bodies are elongated and pinched, with barely-animated movement reminiscent of a Victorian zoetrope. Characters often become distorted, with the sense the artists have gotten cramp, or maybe just bored, and rushed to the end of the scenes, as bone structures warp, with inhuman cheekbones and Rambo’s eyes shifting to the sides of his head. The very opening shot of episode one focusses on a dog that looks half-human, like something washed up from Dr. Moreau’s island.

04

First Strike is part of Force of Freedom‘s five-episode pilot, centring on SAVAGE trying to invade the country of Tierra Libre; one of those brilliant fake South American nations, like Val Verde from Commando and Die Hard 2. Warhawk’s cronies bust into a village with a tank, capturing residents at gunpoint, as Col Trautman, the only other returning film-character, barks “get me Rambo!” down a phone. Cut to a peaceful stream, where Rambo lays asleep in a boat with a book on his face, until Trautman yells at him from a helicopter, “your country needs you!” and pulls him up on a rope. This notion of warrior-poet Rambo as America’s one man army is the entire show, though disappointingly, his voice actor plays it as a generic action dude. C’mon, everyone does a Stallone; put some slur in it.

They’re met by the president of Tierra Libre, who looks just like Willie Thorne, and set about fighting off the invaders. However, this isn’t the John Rambo you know; a traumatised, cornered animal; but a rather chipper chap with a terrible line in wisecracks for the under-10s. After being captured, he mocks Warhawk by telling him he doesn’t have any friends, calling him “big mouth,” and escaping into the jungle. Harking back to the film, it’s the old ‘the land is his weapon!’ deal, as he leaps onto baddies from trees, snares one in a noose trap (“I don’t have time to hang around with you!”) and emerges from a pile of mud with a slurpy noise to pull a goon to the floor, before running off. That thing of just pulling someone over is Rambo’s main move, in another action show — based on a notoriously violent character — that can’t show anyone getting hurt. Each of the multitude fight scenes sees the swish of harmlessly-ducked punches, and characters being picked up and thrown. There are guns everywhere, but nobody gets shot, with the frequently unarmed, outnumbered Rambo disarming his enemies and safely tossing their weapons away.

05

After his escape, Warhawk destroys the jungle with tanks, shooting down the trees like that bit in Predator for a full 40 seconds of orange explosions, which Rambo immediately jumps out of unscathed, hopping on the back of a tank, before jacking a motorbike to jump 200 feet over an exploded bridge. Rambo destroys Warhawk’s tanks with a tank buster, and gets thrown a celebratory dinner by El Presidente Thorne, with the one-man-army leaving precious little for his buddies to do, particularly Kat. In fact, when she’s first introduced to he and Turbo, the lads do a huge double-take, open mouthed like “a woman?!

05b

Tenth episode, Deadly Keep, begins with the kidnapping of a Nobel Prize-winning physicist (and KFC Colonel lookalike), whose cold-fusion skills SAVAGE want to use for a doomsday weapon. Again, Rambo’s just chilling, shirtlessly hand-feeding a wild deer, when Trautman shows up to bellow at him out of a warcopter, and soon finds himself in high-speed car chases and falling off mountains. Warhawk’s co-conspirator this week, the Count, is a straight-up Dracula. Red cape, Bela Lugosi voice, lives in a castle; the lot. Eventually, we find out he’s Vlad the Impaler’s great grandson, although the real Vlad died in 1477, so he maybe he’s a real vampire? Although, in a metaphor for the de-fanged action of the show, he’s got normal teeth.

Rambo tracks the Count to his funeral parlour, from where the scientist will be smuggled out of the country in a coffin, before chasing him onto a moving train by jumping out of a helicopter. There’s a rooftop fight on the train with the Count’s henchman, a big slow lad called Bruno, who’s inferred to be a Frankenstein, which is totally my jam. The quasi use of classic horror villains reminds me of that choose your own adventure book where Indiana Jones went poking around in Dracula’s grave. Incidentally, what I said about the weird animation? State of this station master.

06

Eventually, they follow the Count to his Moldavian castle, disguised as racist caricature of gypsies; “Papers? We’re gypsies! Citizens of the world!” before Rambo rides up to the castle in a hot air balloon Turbo cobbled together from a wagon. Then there’s booby traps, a dungeon sword fight, with an actual pit and pendulum (which Rambo straddles like a horse before using as a massive axe), and they escape by filling a cannon with the Count’s cutlery and blowing up the castle. All this, from the same John Rambo you saw riding into Brian Dennehy’s town in First Blood.

07

Moving along some, I skipped to episode 55, Blind Luck, which contains one of my all-time favourite tropes. But first, we must suffer through an endless battle scene, as Warhawk hijacks aircraft carrier, USS Johnson. It’s a strangely futuristic sky-fight between hovering discs and jetpacks, and all the colour of its dumb characters, like Rambo’s ‘Red Injun’ buddy, literally called Chief, and SAVAGE’s deformed mad scientist, Dr. Hyde, who resembles a testicle in a jam jar. This scene really emphasises a show that’s both completely obsessed with guns, and yet unable to shoot anybody. In the Force of Freedom universe, everything has a gun attached, with every vehicle or backpack strapped with an attached weapon, like Turbo’s helmet with missiles over the ears. If there’s no gun, inevitably, a bunch will pop up like little stiffies, with doors and flaps, and at one point, a guy’s chest, opening up to reveal a litany of gun barrels, flashing with impotent muzzle fire, hitting nothing.

07b

After being boinked on the head (like what happened to Fonzie), an unconscious Rambo’s fished out of the sea, and awakes in hospital with a bandaged bonce, to say those magic words, “I’m blind!” He’s coached through his disability by Stacy, a fellow-sightless blonde, and their walk about the grounds of the blind school with matching white sticks is probably the closest the big weirdo’s ever had to a date. But rather than humanising our superhuman warrior, he’s about as weakened by it as Daredevil, fending off Warhawk’s goons with such ease, I suspected he might be faking. “Sure you can get changed in my room, Stacy, I’m blind, remember? I definitely won’t be able to see your arse.” Sadly, Rambo’s condition is cured via the impact of an exploding grenade, leaving him free to take back the captured aircraft carrier single-handed. He dispatches literally dozens of baddies with classically Rambo non-violence, from the ol’ trip ‘n throw, to hiding inside a locker and spraying a fire extinguisher in someone’s face. The grateful navy offer anything he wants in return; say, medals or a promotion? We cut to the blind school, and Rambo dropping out of a chopper to give Stacy a bunch of flowers (paid for by the navy?), which she sniffs out from inside his bag like a dog. “I’m an expert at smelling the roses,” she laughs; “too bad everybody isn’t,” replies Rambo. Eh?

08

So far, Force of Freedom is quite the collection of my faves, from classic Universal monsters to sudden and improbable blindness, but final episode, Horror in the Highlands, tops them all, taking us to the shores of Loch Ness. With portrayals like those in Russ Abbot’s Madhouse or Bottle Boys, I feel like the Scottish get a terrible rap when brought to screen, and the run continues with a depiction that’s the full screeching bagpipes and “och aye the noo!” Rambo’s mate, TD ‘Touchdown’ Jones, rocks up to visit his uncle George McGregor’s Scottish castle, which overlooks the Loch from a cliff, just in time to see an enormous green Nessie breathing fire over a boat. Now, I love the monster, and have even written a novel about it (exclusively serialised here), but nobody’s excited, immediately scoffing “I dinnae believe, laddie!

They’re right, as it’s Warhawk’s remote controlled submarine, with which he’ll (somehow?) take over the world! Rambo’s whisked away to Scotland while quietly feeding ducks, with time for a quick PSA about not drowning as he fishes a boy out of the water. With authentically-Scottish lines like “I’ll tear off me kilt if that’s our Nessie!” mad props to White Dragon the Ninja, who succeeds in being an even more racially offensive stereotype — “there is no Rock Ness monstah! I don’t be-reeve in monstahs!” As Warhawk realises Rambo’s on the case, he sends his goons to kidnap McGregor’s Scottish terrier, Bobby; another pitifully deformed creature which suggests nobody who worked on the show had ever seen a real dog. When Rambo goes to look for it, McGregor warns him to stay off the moors like they’re the Australian outback — “there are bugs and animals and all sorts of dangers!” Mostly there are goons on motorbikes, who fall in a swamp as Rambo rescues wee Bobby.

09a

Warhawk calls his men “a bunch of hair-brained dunderheads!” and “lily-livered bunglers!” before Rambo blows up the Nessie-sub with depth charges. A troupe of bagpipers serenade the gang in thanks as Bobby licks Rambo’s face. “At least we found out once and for all that there is no Loch Ness monster,” he says, as Bobby runs barking to the cliff edge to see — of fucking course — a long, green neck swimming away, leaving Rambo and co aghast.

09b

Seeing Nessie is just one of the many incidents from the colourful life of John Rambo, along with rescuing the stolen Liberty Bell from an evil magician, battling a hypnotised killer whale, and stopping a frozen WWII Nazi who’s an animal/human hybrid. For all the cash-grab stupidity of basing a show on films its intended audience shouldn’t have been able to see, Force of Freedom‘s greatest gift is the knowledge that the same hardass who turned blokes to mush with a big gun in the 2008 film is self-same man who rescued a kidnapped Santa Claus from terrorists. Thank God he didn’t kill himself at the end of First Blood, a film which, along with its sequels, I have definitely seen. And I didn’t cry once.

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~ by Stuart on June 17, 2019.

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