If fate had taken a different turn, then Rambo: Last Blood wouldn’t have been the choice for the fifth Rambo movie.

Has there ever been a bigger shift in style and tone than that between First Blood and its sequels?

The first film to feature the character of John Rambo, First Blood, is effectively a social drama, clearly indebted to the post-Vietnam films of the 70s, with its moments of action acting as functional pieces of a story about Rambo – played by Sylvester Stallone – unleashing his skills against a society that has rejected him.

From Rambo: First Blood, Part II on, the franchise became one of the foundational texts in the modern action genre, with John Rambo rebuilt as a reluctant one-man army dropped in to solve various real-world conflicts with machine guns, explosive arrows and a big knife.

Following the success of 2008’s Rambo, the franchise’s guardians briefly considered another shift, one that would have been as big a leap as Part II had been from First Blood. It would have also represented the first film since the original to be based on a book.

“Muscular with a ragged mane of black hair that fell slightly to his shoulders, Hunter seemed to have stepped out of another, more primitive age. His eyes were dark beneath a low, hard brow burned brown by years of living in the wild. His cheeks were sharp above a mouth deeply cast in a bronze frown. His broad shoulders, deep chest, and heavy arms were evidence of great strength… (Hunter, p. 12)”

The novel in this case was James Byron Huggins’s novel Hunter. Originally published in 1999, Hunter is a Michael Crichton-style techno thriller about a legendary tracker enlisted to hunt down a genetically-enhanced monster loose in the Alaskan wilderness.

Announced in late 2009, under the title Rambo: The Savage Hunt, this Rambo-fied adaptation would have swapped out the novel’s central character, tracker Nathaniel Hunter, for Stallone’s Rambo.

First, a brief rundown of the plot:

In the opening sequence, we are introduced to Hunter searching for a child lost in a snowstorm. As darkness falls, Hunter uses his heightened skills to follow the child’s tracks. In the nick of time, he recovers the child before he succumbs to the unforgiving cold.

Following this action, Hunter is recruited for a new and unusual assignment: An unknown creature has destroyed three military installations in Alaska. On a recommendation from noted crypto-zoologist Dr Tipler, Hunter is tasked with tracking the mysterious creature before it reaches a populated area.

Like Rambo, Hunter forgoes equipment and supplies for a small belt rig that holds various supplies, a Bowie knife, hatchet and bullets. “He had learned long ago, mostly by necessity, to be supremely self-reliant under any circumstance.”

As well as Hunter and Ghost, the government has assembled an international team of special forces soldiers to track and kill the creature: Professor Tipler, an crypo-zoological expert and old friend of Hunter’s; Taylor, a scarred soldier who is the most antagonistic member of the team; Bobbi Jo, the sole woman and the team’s sniper. Of course, she ends up falling for our hero, and – in a manner very similar to Part II’s Co Bao (Julia Nickson) – becomes Hunter’s hype man. At one point, she even says: ““You really are some kind of Tarzan, aren’t you?”

The team is led by Takakura, a Japanese soldier who – of course – carries a katana alongside his contemporary armements. Among the other members of the team are Buck Joyce, the comic relief of the group who the author describes as a “Stone Age cowboy”; Arthur Wilkenson, a former member of the SAS who speaks five languages and specializes in “tactical analysis”, something that never comes into play; finally, there is Riley, a man whose sole distinguishing characteristic is his Irish accent.

Fairly early in the hunt, we learn that the creature they are looking for is not a bear, but something very different – the result of modern science resurrecting something that has been extinct for 10,000 years.

Once the team is deep into the mountains, and far from backup, they find themselves in a running battle with their foe. What they realise is that their armaments are completely inadequate. Not only does the creature boast great strength and speed, it has a hide as tough as a rhino, and an advanced healing factor that makes it invulnerable to almost any injury.

The creature needs to feed in order to maintain its strength and heal its wounds (for such a gleefully pulpy book, it is surprising that the monster does not eat any of its human victims).

As the team discovers that the monster is immune to most of their weapons, Hunter’s expertise plays a big part in saving (most of) their lives.

Even though Hunter and his comrades escape, the creature is still on their tail – and the people responsible for its rampage are not interested in any of them surviving…

Reading Hunter, it is striking how easily Rambo could have fit into it.

While there are differences (Hunter is a wealthy man with homes all over the world who chooses to spend his days travelling and tracking animals and people), these differences never come to the fore. Like Rambo, Hunter is a recluse who prefers nature to man’s world. Hunter’s closest confidant is a large wolf named Ghost, with whom he shares an almost-telepathic connection.

Like Rambo, his orders come from a government stooge in a suit – and like Part II, this government agent turns out to be the real villain of the piece.

Like in that movie, Hunter finds that all the technology his team have is an encumbrance, and has to rely on his wits and bowie knife to solve problems. It is in this aspect of the novel that Hunter’s appeal as a potential Rambo installment comes into focus. Inspired by what he knows of hunting tigers, Hunter uses pieces of a tent to create a barrier to foil one of the monster’s attacks; In another neat bit of improv, Hunter ignites the powder from one of his bullets to repair a tiny aluminium wire that gets their radio working again (echoing Rambo’s self-surgery in Rambo III).

Hunter is pure pulp. The characters are all archetypes, the action is near-constant, and the violence is gore-tastic. The writing occasionally tips toward MacGruber-level parody: “His skills were supreme now, and he used them supremely.”

Hunter is structured as more of an ensemble piece, with frequent cutaways to Washington DC, where a US Marshall, Chaney is investigating the events in Alaska. With an old colleague Brick, he stumbles upon a conspiracy that leads back to the creature’s origins.

Since Chaney is often covering the same ground as Hunter’s own investigations, this plotline feels a bit extraneous. One could see this aspect of the story being dropped to maintain the focus on Rambo’s hunt for the monster.

The book takes a while to really get its plotlines moving, and begins to feel like a videogame, as our heroes move from one locale to the next. At times, Hunter is so good at being a tracker and a survivalist that it is hard to get a sense that he is ever in any danger.

In a recent Twitter Q&A, writer/director Christopher McQuarrie emphasised the importance of keeping exposition to a minimum, and being precise about where and when to deploy it. I do not want to ding the book, but the reveal of the creature’s origins happens way too early, and comes off a bit awkward. We are introduced to the creature from its own POV, in which it reveals its origins in so much detail that it completely undermines the suspense of Hunter piecing the mystery together – instead the reader (this one at least) was waiting for him to catch up on current events.

In a cinematic version, the focus would probably have stayed with Rambo/Hunter, as he and we slowly discover just how dire the situation really is.

As a book, Hunter is passable. But as a template for Rambo 5? This thing is a buffet.

Viewed through the lens of the Rambo franchise, Hunter feels almost ready-made for Sly’s one-man army to take up arms in.

There are parts of the book that fit with ideas of the films – there are some slimy government suits who are sending Hunter in for their own nefarious reasons. And like the treacherous Murdock (Charles Napier) in Rambo II, these characters become secondary antagonists for Hunter once he gets his team out of danger. There is even an extended action sequence in an underground cavern a la Rambo III.

And the initial set up of the book feels like a callback to First Blood, with John Rambo/Hunter tracking the creature through the wilds of Alaska with only his wits and a bowie knife.

The biggest potential tie-in with the Rambo franchise is the focus on the notion of the beast lying within man. The parallels with Rambo, a man built (or broken) by the military into a killing machine. Having a movie where Rambo has to confront a foe not unlike himself could have given the franchise its most thematically fascinating installment since the original.

And as far as the novel’s action credentials go, this movie would have been up with Rambo 08’s level of carnage (minus the queasy real-world context). Aside from the team’s gory encounters with the creature, there is a siege of a military facility, which includes a set piece in an underground lab, as well as the monster’s duel with Takakura and his sword, backlit by a massive explosion from the base’s gas tanks.

The finale is the high point of the book – deducing that the creature will return to the home of its ancient race, Hunter and the remnants of his team descend into a pitch-black cavern to do battle with the monster amid the ancient bones of its fallen brethren. Filled with great imagery, it is the most cinematic sequence in a very action-focused book.

Would this movie have been any good? Impossible to say

As an installment in the Rambo franchise, it might have been too much of a departure – if Hunter had been adapted around the time of its initial publication, the genre shift might have made sense – at least as an escalation from the excess of Rambo III.

The obvious downside would be the comparisons with Schwarzenegger’s Predator. Having a Rambo movie based around a team in the wild fighting an unstoppable creature might have been seen as a knock-off, or a series struggling to come up with new ideas.

Shortly after its initial announcement, this proposed Rambo V was scrapped, with Stallone setting Hunter up as its own project under his company Balboa Productions. Stallone is apparently still interested in the property, but the chances of Hunter serving as a vehicle for Rambo are sadly nil.

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