7 Best action hero send-offs
We take a look at the final battles of our favourite action movie heroes and ponder the true meaning behind them
Sylvester Stallone’s famous Vietnam veteran, John Rambo, returns this month in Rambo: Last Blood. As the name implies, this may be the final mission for a character that began in 1982’s First Blood, and the trailer very much plays on the idea that this may be a case of one last ride for Ronald Reagan’s favourite action hero.
It is the latest in a line of sequels that promise “One Last Ride” for a beloved character, but what does that mean? What is the significance of knowing that this is the final battle of a hero we have followed for decades? Looking at a few examples from the past, it becomes clear that “One Last Ride” can mean a variety of things.
17 years after his first appearance in 2000’s X-Men, Hugh Jackman gave fans the Wolverine they wanted to see, and he wanted to play. The films is stripped of the PG niceties of other blockbusters, but it’s also stripped of something more surprising: hope. Wolverine is not living in a cabin in the mountains or languishing in the X-Men mansion. He’s an old, broken, alcoholic limo driver caring for Professor X (Patrick Stewart) who is in the throes of dementia. Mutants are slowly dying out, and it’s alluded to that the other X-Men are all dead.
It’s not pretty, but James Mangold’s wonderful Western Noir is about finding light in the darkness, even as we approach the end. There’s no saving Logan, but there is redemption in the form of a little girl (Daphne Keen) with similar powers, who shows the tortured hero what happiness truly feels like.
Star Trek Generations
James T Kirk (William Shatner) is found in a log cabin and thrown to The Nexus, a parallel dimension that creates an illusion that lets you relive past moments you may regret. He is pulled out of it by Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) in order to defeat a villain from destroying a planet.
While Logan taught us that not every character rides off into the sunset, this 1994 Star Trek adventure explored the idea that you can’t change the past. Kirk could indeed relive his life in a happy illusion, but goes with Picard to a confrontation that will ultimately lead to his death. Why? Because he’s Captain Kirk, a man drawn to adventure no matter the personal cost. For him, one last ride means dying out exactly as he lived.
The Godfather Part 3
The final part of the mafia saga focuses on a man also unable to change the past, and unable to escape it. “Just when I thought I was out...they pull me back in” is the infamous lament of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), who had finally legitimised the “family business” only to be hounded by criminals looking for a share in his fortune.
While maligned by cinema lovers and considered by Francis Ford Coppola himself to be more an epilogue than a sequel, The Godfather Part 3 is a journey of redemption that does not have a happy ending. Michael Corleone spends the film discovering that there is nothing that can make up for the decisions of his past, and so his last ride is saving the ones he loves from his legacy. Chiefly, his daughter (Sophia Coppola), to whom he tenderly whispers “I would burn in hell to keep you safe”.
Even in a seemingly endless conveyor belt that is The Marvel Cinematic Universe, some things must end. This year’s conclusion always had a sense of foreboding to it, with most fans realising that in order to undo to heinous acts that Thanos committed in Infinity War, a large price will have to be paid. That came in the departure of two characters—Captain America (Chris Evans), who chose to go back in time and live the life he missed out on with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell); and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), who died saving the world.
What makes this “last ride” for the leaders of The Avengers so powerful is it gives us a chance to reflect, in a franchise that seemingly never stops for breath, always thinking about the next entry. It gives us a chance to remember the journey the characters have taken, and whether it is a happy ending like Cap, or bittersweet like Tony, there is a sense of a destiny being fulfilled.
Star Wars The Force Awakens
There is a difficulty with cinematic returns, in that while the character may look and sound the same, the audience hasn’t accounted for the fact that they are different—no longer the awe-struck child looking up at a screen and, in this case, riding in the cockpit of The Millennium Falcon.
In 2015, JJ Abrams solved this problem with one line: “Chewie, we’re home”. Han Solo’s exclamation filled the hearts of fans who watched Star Wars’ return, even if Harrison Ford was 32 years older. The Force Awakens is a film that wraps the viewer up in nostalgia, throwing us and the new characters in the cockpit for one last adventure with Han before his shocking death at the hands of his son. It was a divisive choice, but one that underlines another issue with nostalgia—nobody is ready to say goodbye.
One last ride may be stretching things here, given that we’ve only met the character once before, but nonetheless it was a nostalgic thrill to meet Jeff Bridges’ Kevin Flynn, trapped inside of computer programme The Grid for 28 years since Tron (1982).
His journey is a means of redemption, righting the wrongs of his past (personified in his “digital replica”, the diabolical Clu). Ultimately, this end means sacrificing himself, and the possibility of connecting with his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund). In order to fix the past, he must give up his future.
Sometimes, the final journey of a character can be very personal, and none more so than the finale of Rocky’s in-ring journey. Written and directed by Stallone, sought to end Rocky’s in-ring journey the right way after the disappointment of Rocky V. With his beloved Adrian dead, Balboa is alone with his memories, telling fight stories to customers at his restaurant. A TV fantasy boxing bout coaxes an elderly Rocky back into the ring, where he must confront the regrets of his past, including a fractious relationship with his son (Milo Ventimiglia).
Emotionally charged and unashamedly sentimental, it’s the finest of Stallone late-career performances and suggests that an end can also be a beginning. Balboa has always had some overlap with Stallone, and in this sense the performance was the then 60-year-old actor telling the world he wasn’t quite done yet. Hollywood seemed convinced, coaxing the character back in a coaching capacity in the Creed films.
Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter