''Rambo'' finds an audience -- We analyze why Sylvester Stallone's Vietnam veteran still connects with fans

On the sweaty, battle-scarred face of it, a fourth installment of Sylvester Stallone’s antique action franchise Rambo sounded like a setup waiting for a punchline. The notion of the 61-year-old actor returning as machete-wielding killing machine John Rambo after a 20-year absence seemed like an iffy proposition. But while reviews of Stallone’s blood-soaked, extremely R-rated orgy of bullets, explosions, flying limbs, and severed heads were generally not kind, the film earned an impressive $18.2 million last weekend, giving Rambo the last, um, grunt.

Though Rambo landed in a close second to the 300 parody Meet the Spartans (which, coincidentally, included a brief Rambo spoof), it still managed to generate extremely strong word of mouth. And to the surprise of pretty much no one, the audience for Rambo — which features the Vietnam vet wreaking righteous havoc in the jungles of Burma — skewed significantly toward males who remember the three films from the franchise’s mid-’80s heyday. Still, Tom Ortenberg, president of theatrical films at Lionsgate, which is distributing Rambo with the Weinstein Co., says its appeal is broader than many think: ”It played equally well to older and younger audiences. We’re on track to gross $50 million-plus domestically, which is a number everyone involved can feel very proud of.”

Rambo arrives at a time when war-related movies — whether addressing the Iraq conflict head-on, such as In the Valley of Elah and Lions for Lambs, or only at a glance, like The Kingdom — have struggled to connect with audiences. Could it be that what mainstream moviegoers want to see right now are not hand-wringing dramas about our foreign-policy failures, but a testosterone-packed piece of cinematic wish fulfillment in which an army of one swoops in and lays waste to the baddies? Well, yeah. ”There’s no gray factor in [Burma] — these guys are evil and they’re persecuting people,” says executive producer Harvey Weinstein. ”Sly has always had his hand on the zeitgeist. He’s like a weatherman when it comes to making movies.”

And like it or not, the forecast calls for more Rambo. Discussions are under way for at least one more installment — one, Weinstein believes, that should be set closer to home: ”There’s something to be said for a Rambo that takes place on U.S. soil, like First Blood did.” You can’t say you weren’t warned.

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