Shoot Rambo, Smoke that sucka!


By Shawn Robare

More or less, the tone that I try and keep here at Branded is one of an earnest optimism.  Personally I find a bit tedious to read articles filled with ranting and too much mockery, and when it comes down to it, it’s just more fun to talk about stuff that I love.  Every once in a while though, there’s something that I want to write about that stretches the limit of credible good natured excitement.  It might be something that I enjoy, but when it comes down to it I’m probably enjoying it for unfortunate reasons.  Like watching a particularly bad Ed Wood movie (yes, there is a range in his filmography and, no, Plan 9 From Outer Space is far from his worst film), or tuning in to the first couple of episodes of American Idol to see the current year’s crop of horrible singers, sometimes one can’t help but revel in stuff that is just gloriously bad.

For today’s Cartoon Commentary I’m going to take a look at an episode of Rambo and the Force of Freedom which originally aired in 1986.  Produced by Ruby Spears, and based on the action film franchise starring Sylvester Stallone, the Rambo cartoon is one hell of a strange nut to crack and was the keystone in one of the oddest merchandising machines of the 80s.  Throughout the 60s and 70s with the adoption of the Motion Picture Association of America ratings system, lines were being drawn around what was considered proper entertainment for children.  For the most part, most films and TV shows didn’t have a ton of crossover appeal when it came to their intended audiences, but there were some that landed in that magical spot smack dab in the middle of the age appropriate Venn diagram.  On top of this, with the amazing blockbuster success of films like Jaws and Star Wars, whole new avenues of merchandising potential were opening up.

So with the release of films like Alien, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Conan, all of which were aimed at an adult audience, the studios were seeing an interest from a much younger demographic and it was making the marketing of and merchandising of these flicks very complicated.  Bottom line, there was money to be made on R-rated films outside of ticket sales, and no one was quite sure how to tap into this pipeline.  With Alien we saw the release of a toy based on the iconic xenomorph (from Kenner in 1979) as well as a series of bubble gum cards and stickers from Topps also in 1979.  In 1982 we saw the release of an Atari 2600 video game based on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre where players strangely took on the role of Leatherface slaughtering npc’s while trying to hurdle fences and cow skulls.  More important to today’s topic is the proposed merchandising of the Conan film back in 1981-82.  Mattel toys were interested in acquiring and developing a line of toys based on the Schwarzenegger fantasy film, and this would eventually morph into the Masters of the Universe toy-line and Filmation cartoon.  Though not direct Conan merchandising, the He-Man and the MOTU franchise was indelibly influenced by the film and barbarian phenomenon of the late 70s and 80s.

So it shouldn’t be that shocking that with the success of the Rambo films, toys, lunchboxes, stickers and a cartoon were soon to follow…

The Rambo films are the quintessential over-the-top American action flicks of the 80s, the second of which is also the textbook definition of a cash-grab sequel.  Rambo: First Blood, Part II, though wildly successful, was an utter parody of the first film, ratcheting up the violence, gore and mayhem a thousand fold and turning movie’s protagonist into a live action cartoon character.  Hell, the title alone shows how commercial this film was intended to be both recalling the title of the first film while also adding the character branding, a colon and a comma.  So while the live action counterpart of the character was busy killing hundreds of characters on screen, it fell upon cartoon studio Ruby Spears Entertainment, and in particular head-writer Michael Chain’s shoulders to try and figure out a way to make an animated series palatable for kids and parents…

   

I can’t help but find this cartoon hilarious and horrible on so many levels.  Drawing on influences such as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and G.I. Joe A Real American Hero, Rambo and the Force of Freedom tries way too hard to appeal to kids and parents while also trying to stay true to its roots to absurd effect.  Though he totes around an improbably arsenal of combat knives, rocket launchers and machine guns, the Rambo character in the cartoon is more or less played as a pacifist (much in the same way He-Man was characterized in the MOTU cartoon) always looking for a non-violent solution when confronting villains.

Each episode opens with an animated suiting up montage swiped wholesale from the second film.  This is followed by some general plot narration in the style of the A-Team (performed by the legendary Don LaFontaine, here’s the theme song and narration), stating:

“Rambo!   Anywhere and everywhere the S.A.V.A.G.E. forces of General Warhawk threaten the peace-loving people of the world, there’s only one man to call.  Get me Rambo!  From the canyons of skyscrapers, to the canyons of remote mountain peaks, liberty’s champion is unstoppable.  Rambo!  Helped by the mechanical genius know as Turbo and the master of disguises named Kat, the honor bound protectors of the innocent.  Rambo, the Force of Freedom.”

  

All I can say is that Rambo like’s protecting canyons.  “Hey Rambo, a family is being held captive in a nearby suburban home!  Will you help?”  “I don’t know, would you consider the spaces between the houses to be canyon-ous?   If so, I’ll do it!”

Seriously though…no wait, this is the point, it’s hard to take this show serious on any level.  The episode I’m going to talk about today is called Terror Beneath the Sea, and it was written by Steve Hayes.  Typically I look at the first broadcast episodes when I tackle a cartoon, but I only have Vol. 4 of the DVD releases, and this is the one that really jumped out at me (of the eleven available on the disc.)  The basic plot of this episode revolves around a remote Eskimo village that’s being attacked by an insane killer whale named Corac.  Much like the horror movie Orca, the whale pops up at random, breaking through thick sheets of ice in the village and then skating along the surface gobbling up igloos and causing unparalleled havoc…

   

A couple military officers happen to be flying by and quickly land to see what the ruckus is all about.  The whale ends up dragging their plane underwater trapping them in the village.  Apparently when killer whales nonsensically attack an Eskimo village and strand two officers, there’s only one man you can call.  Rambo!  Incidentally, he just happened to be busy saving one of the dumbest children ever born from getting eaten by a grizzly bear at that moment…

   

My guess is that instead of adding a Rambo-hosted segment at the end of each episode teaching kids some general dos and don’ts ala G.I. Joe’s Knowing is Half the Battle segments, the producers thought it would be more effective to include them in the actual episodes.  But rather than trying to tie them into the plot of each episode, they’d just feature an unrelated scene of Rambo spreading him wisdom before having him receive the call that the world needs him.  In this particular episode, we get a chance to see a kid in a forest park watching a bear eat out of a trash can.  Even though there are like six million signs warning not to feed the bears, the kid gets out of the car he was sitting in and tries to feed the bear a hot dog.  Good thing Rambo was there to deter the bear and to point us to the very obvious signs.

Anyway, that segment wasn’t all that bad, but I found it hilarious that seconds after saving the kid, Rambo’s Force of Freedom team pulls up in one hell of a crazy vehicle.  Decked out with both a mounted machine gun and some sort of cannon, this set of wheels is what the team was using to tool around the forest cataloging the animals for the park rangers!  Were they expecting a secret terrorist cell during their scouting mission?  Jesus, talk about over-preparing for the job…

Learning of the killer whale attack and the stranded officers, Rambo and his crew make their way up to the village.  Of course they encounter the crazy killer Corac in a scene swiped right out of Jaws…

In this scene we get some of my favorite lines from Turbo, the master mechanic.  As their boat is bumped by the whale he shouts, “Holey pajamas, what was that!”  Wow, that’s an awesome exclamation that I’m going to have to try and work into my repertoire.  After Corac starts munching on the boat there’s also a great line where Turbo yells, “Shoot Rambo, Smoke that sucka!”  I find it fascinating that the writer was more or less penning dialogue for the characters that is very reminiscent of what you’d hear in an R-rated flick.  Again, it’s another example of the off dichotomy of adapting this sort of material.  Expanding on this weirdness a little is the fact that the production designers on the cartoon decided to include all realistic weaponry instead of taking the G.I. Joe route and creating more futuristic laser-based guns.  So instead of featuring a laser rifle that could be “set to stun”, Rambo instead chooses not to fire on the whale after he spots a weird box on its dorsal fin.  A bit later, after jumping out of the boat onto some floating pieces of ice, Rambo does use his machine gun to help secure his escape from the killer whale by shooting a ledge of ice creating an obstacle between them.  What really surprised me was the realistic firing sound effects, and even some spent bullet cartridges flying off of the weapon.  Weird.

   

Similarly, after they find a secret base where they realize the officers they’ve been looking for have been kidnapped and stored, the team is confronted with a locked door.  Instead of having the mechanical expert pick the lock, Rambo just pulls out his rocket launcher (which he affectionately named Hanna) and from point blank range fires on the door!  Though the writers were trying to be clever in how they showed Rambo using his weapons in a non-violent manner, they only really succeeded in illustrating how insane and unintentionally violent his problem solving skills are.  Again, the unintentional hilarity of a scene like that is just astounding to me.  What’s even sillier is that moments after trying their darnedest to portray Rambo as non-violent, they write a scene where in order to get some information they need he dangles a villain scientist over a pool that houses the killer whale.  Threatened with the fate of being eaten, the scientist tells them what they want to know, and I couldn’t stop laughing at the length to which the writers were willing to basically show Rambo torturing someone to get information.  Granted, I see that it’s tame, especially compared to what Jack Bauer might do to someone on 24, but for a kid’s show in the 80s this was extreme…

   

Also, there are some crazy scenes with the whale furiously writhing around in pain that are both sad, and sadly hilarious…

Anyway, Rambo ends up realizing that the scientist was using a pain-inducing box to train the whale to attack the nearby villages, so he scuba-suits-up (with yet another montage), and makes friends with the whale by removing the box.  After some fun bonding scenes, he and the team take the whale out to General Warhawk’s second hidden underwater base so that they can try and end his wintery evil scheme…

   

   

There was some surprising talent on this show.  In addition to some great voice talent including Alan Oppenheimer (Skeletor), Neil Ross (Shipwreck on G.I. Joe), Peter Cullen (Optimus Prime), Frank Welker (Megatron), and Michael Bell (Duke from G.I. Joe), Gil Kane and Jack Kirby also worked as consultants, I’m sure designing the look of the series and characters…

   

All in all, this series is beyond ridiculous, and lacks all the style and panache of series like G.I. Joe and He-Man.  The characters are ridiculous and the plots are gut-splittingly funny, and honestly I can only recommend the show as an example of 80s excess gone horribly (and hilariously) wrong.  Yet, even so, I still watch it as a piece of my past…

If you’re curious, all 65 episodes were released by Anchor Bay back in 2005 over a series of 6 single disc DVDs (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).

  • Bane

    Great except one thing. The Kenner Alien doll wasn’t released in 77…

  • http://www.saturdayworld.com/ Jason Wilson

    After reading this, my affection towards bad cinema and love of all things cartoons makes me want to make this my next cartoon set to pick up. I finally finished Defenders of the Earth, and that was painful in and of itself.

  • http://cavalcadeofawesome.net/ Paxton Holley

    This cartoon was terrible. It’s even funnier they made the cartoon because of the hyper-violent nature of the last three Rambo movies. I just read the original First Blood novel a few months ago. It was fantastic and wildly violent. So different than the Stallone first blood movie. I have the novelizations of Rambo II and Rambo III ready to read also because they were, surprisingly, also written by the author of the original First Blood.