Skip to main content

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II
(1985)

(SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future, could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might.


The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched Rambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m dubious First Blood Part II could reach quite such a level of success solely through ironic appreciation. Cinema, particularly US cinema, just doesn’t work that way. Stallone lacks any understanding of quite how ridiculous what he’s doing is, or how inappropriate (Cobra follows the same tone-deaf route, with the same director). It isn’t until the end of the decade, when Sly teams with Kurt Russell and tries a variation on his persona, that he scores any intentional laughs. Rambo plays so instantly like parody, there’s no real need for Hot Shots Part Deux, or Gizmo going Rambo in Gremlins 2.


But, for all that it kind of drags in the dirt the at least superficially seriously-intentioned original, Stallone’s sentiments are deadly earnest. He’s fond of citing how it resonates with veterans (“I want what they want. For our country to love us as much as we love it”), who apparently pick it over a Platoon because it actually offers catharsis, yet the picture is one long homoerotic promotional reel for Sly’s freshly gym-packed physique, and that line only comes in right at the end as if the star has suddenly remembered this is supposed to be a sequel about a PTSD sufferer.


Rambo finds Stallone incarnated as the ‘80s action star we know, reborn as mullet-headed mewling monster with massive muscles. Scene after scene is based around his impossible physique, stripped to the chest firing extraordinarily phallic props (or penetrating others’ flesh with an over-sized knife), or being tortured in a variety of barbarous ways (at one point he’s even suspended, Christ-like, adorned with no more than a posing pouch).


Being as under-confident and surface as the era was, John requires a girl to confirm his masculinity (that’s the difference three years does for this series), and his revenge seems to be more about the death of this (Vietnamese) girl, than due to the deleterious effects of his first visit to Nam. So there’s a curious divisiveness at the core of the First Blood Part II that could only come from Stallone’s lumbering vision; the first, ostensibly, had a point, but now Sly is honouring veterans by way of a preened, pumped, permed performance, one barely recognisable from First Blood. His ‘80s body is now all there is, shining and flexing its way through the picture.


George P Cosmatos barely needs offer anything in response, which is lucky because he has no clue how. We know this is Nam because of the Buddha statues lying about the place when Sly parachutes in (eliciting an at-variance one-liner – “Got hung up” – because quips are now Rambo’s forte, and of course romance evidently is too). DP Jack Cardiff shoots the jungles more lovingly than the film deserves, particularly as Cosmatos’ framing is entirely flat (Weird Al Yankovich’s UHF approximates this with amusing accuracy).


This only adds to the sense of absurdity, Stallone’s eccentric torso wading through entirely empty frames firing at something, somewhere off screen. He really is a pure fighting machine (“and if winning means he has to die, he’ll die”). His reflexes are so honed, he can grab a snake in the blink of an eye, and he’s more attuned with the jungle than the Vietnamese themselves, hiding in mud, in trees; the flora is his friend. He can leap from a river onto a helicopter, and obliterate particularly unsavoury specimens with his explosive-headed arrows. He can also fly said helicopter like it’s second nature. It really is baffling that America lost the first time, with John Rambo presumably having displayed exactly the same skill set back then.


The thing is, I’d get it if the film was fun to watch, but it’s a relentless snore. Cosmatos has no sense of pace or structure, so the movie, when the shooting starts, has no internal tension. There’s a glimmer of interest when Steven Berkoff (gotta love the Berkoff) shows up as a dastardly Russkie (“You may scream. There is no shame”), but it doesn’t last long. Charles Napier’s stinker of an operational overseer should at least be fun, but no one thought to give him any oozingly evil dialogue.


Trautman: You’re the one who’s making a mistake.
Murdock: Oh year, what mistake?
Trautman: Rambo.

Richard Crenna’s a one-man cheese vendor, though, picks up exactly where he left off in First Blood, delivering such classics as “And, erm, one more thing. What you choose to call hell, he calls home!” and “It was a lie, wasn’t it? Just like the whole damn war!” In response to “Sir, do we get to win this time?” he tells Rambo, “This time it’s up to you”. Stallone delivers nuggets of gold too, including “To survive a war, you gotta become war” and “Sir, I’m alive. It’s still alive” in response to “The old Vietnam’s dead”. And, of course, “My friends died here, part of me died here”.


There were a fair few rescue mission movies during the early ‘80s, boasting everyone from Chuck Norris to Gene Hackman, actors who would make any old shit, basically. Rambo comes armed with a surprisingly reasoned-out basis for its mission, that the US reneged on war reparations and the Vietnamese kept the POWs. That’s about as far as any attempt at verisimilitude gets, though.


This was, of course, written by James Cameron. At least, the first draft. Which has allowed Jimbo to conveniently wash his hands of what’s on screen, claiming Stallone did the politics and he merely conveyed the action. Although, given Cameron’s staple approach, it’s easy to believe Sly’s observation that “his original draft… took nearly 30-40 pages to have any action initiated”. Cameron being Cameron too, family was important, so Rambo had a sidekick (mooted to have been played by Travolta) and there was a proper, fleshed-out part for a POW Rambo rescues. And no love interest. The arrow was also Stallone’s.


But come on, who actually came up with the idea, Jim? You can’t exonerate yourself from the deep underlying dodginess of the whole exercise (“The script I wrote was pretty violent, but not in such an amoral way” Okay…). And saying they excised the haunted central character he wrote (which he then reused in Aliens, another cartoonish movie, just a considerably better one), but having a script that serves up hoards of Xenomorphs Russians to slaughter... Most notably – although, on a very different plane of quality – Rambo is to First Blood what Aliens is to Alien, it’s just that Cameron didn’t get to include the same overextended intro and loner now finding he’s no longer so alone; this time it is war, and this time Stallone gets to win Nam, just like Sigourney gets to wipe out the aliens at the source.


Terrible as it is, it’s difficult to be offended by Rambo: First Blood Part II, chiefly because it’s so relentlessly muscle-brained. Calling it morally repugnant seems to being giving it too much credit in terms of content and intent. Its only point of interest compared to a Norris picture (and, budget aside, this could easily be a Cannon film, it’s so unadorned and basic) is its cultural impact, which is, despite what I said at the start, slightly mystifying; it made as much internationally as in the States, when you’d have expected it to be of largely a home-grown appeal, even given Stallone’s exportability. Then again, this is the spawn of a decade that also boasted five Police Academy sequels. Rambo’s biggest crime is simply that isn’t entertaining in even a wretched way. If it was well made rubbish, that would be one thing, but First Blood Part II is pure tedium.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

That be what we call scringe stone, sir.

Doctor Who The Ribos Operation (1978)
Season 16 is my favourite season, so I’m inevitably of the view that it gets a bad rap (or a just plain neglected one), is underrated and generally unappreciated. Of its six stories, though, The Ribos Operation is probably the one, on balance, that receives the most accolades (on some days, it’s The Pirate Planet; many moons ago, back when DWAS was actually a thing of some relevance, The Stones of Blood won their season poll; there are also those who, rightly, extol the virtues of The Androids of Tara). I’m fully behind that, although truthfully, I don’t think there’s an awful lot between the first four stories. Why, I even have great affection for the finale. It’s only “KROLL! KROLL! KROLL! KROLL!” that comes up a bit short, which no doubt makes me a no good dryfoot, but there you are. If that Robert Holmes script is on the threadbare side, through little fault of his own, The Ribos Operation is contrastingly one of his very best, a hugely satisfyi…

Angry man is unsecure.

Hulk (2003)
(SPOILERS) I’m not a Hulk apologist. I unreservedly consider it one of the superior superhero adaptations, admittedly more for the visual acumen Ang Lee brings to the material than James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman’s screenplay. But even then, if the movie gets bogged down in unnecessarily overwrought father-son origins and dynamic, overlaid on a perfectly good and straightforward core story (one might suggest it was change for the sake of change), once those alterations are in place, much of the follow through, and the paralleling of wayward parents and upright children, or vice versa, translates effectively to the screen, even if the realisation of the big green fella is somewhat variable.

I do… very competitive ice dancing.

Justice League (2017)
(SPOILERS) Superheroes, and superhero movies, trade in hyperbole, so it shouldn’t be surprising that DC’s two releases this year have been responded to in like, only each at opposite ends of the spectrum. Wonder Woman was insanely over-praised in the rush to fete a female superhero finally leading a movie, crushing all nuanced criticism in its wake. Justice League, meanwhile, has been lambasted on the basis that it’s more of the same as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, only worse – to the extent there have been calls for a Zach Snyder Director’s Cut, which is quite an extent, as extents go – as it’s guilty of being an unholy clash of styles, grimdark Zach scowling in one corner and quip-happy Joss pirouetting in the other. And yes, the movie is consequently a mess, but it’s a relatively painless mess, with the sense to get in and get out again before the viewer has enough time to assess the full extent of the damage.

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made (2017)
(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Sometimes when you take people away, they don't come back.

The Ward (2010)
(SPOILERS) I’d felt no particular compunction to rush out and see The Ward (or rent it), partly down to the underwhelming reviews, but mostly because John Carpenter’s last few films had been so disappointing, and I doubted a decade away from the big screen would rejuvenate someone who’d rather play computer games than call the shots. Perhaps inevitably then, now I have finally given it a look, it’s a case of low expectations being at least surpassed. The Ward isn’t very good, but it isn’t outright bad either.

While it seems obvious in retrospect, I failed to guess the twist before it was revealed, probably because I was still expecting a supernatural element to be realised, it being a Carpenter movie. But then, this doesn’t feel very much like a Carpenter movie. It doesn’t have a Carpenter score (Mark Killian) or screenplay (Michael and Shawn Rasmussen) and it doesn’t have Gary B Kibbe as lenser (Yaron Orbach). I suspect the latter explains why it’s a much more professi…

You diabolical mastermind, you.

The Avengers Season 4 Ranked – Worst to Best
Season Four is generally held up as the pinnacle of The Avengers, and it certainly maintains the greatest level of consistency in the run. Nevertheless, as I noted a few reviews back, one viewer’s classic is another’s ho-hum with this show, perhaps because it doesn’t elicit the same kind of exhaustive fandom to establish any level of consensus as some series. There follows my Worst to Best ranking of the season, told mostly in pictures. The index for full episode reviews can be found here.