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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.


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