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

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…

He made me look the wrong way and I cut off my hand. He could make you look the wrong way and you could lose your whole head.

Moonstruck (1987)
(SPOILERS) Moonstruck has the dubious honour of making it to the ninth spot in Premiere magazine’s 2006 list of the 20 Most Overrated Movies of all Time. There are certainly some valid entries (number one is, however, absurd), but I’m not sure that, despite its box office success and Oscar recognition, the picture has a sufficient profile to be labelled with that adjective. It’s a likeable, lightweight romantic comedy that can boast idiosyncratic casting in a key role, but it simply doesn’t endure quotably or as a classic couple matchup the way the titans of the genre (Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally) do. Even its magical motif is rather feeble.

Move away from the jams.

Aladdin (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was never overly enamoured by the early ‘90s renaissance of Disney animation, so the raves over Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin left me fairly unphased. On the plus side, that means I came to this live action version fairly fresh (prince); not quite a whole new world but sufficiently unversed in the legend to appreciate it as its own thing. And for the most part, Aladdin can be considered a moderate success. There may not be a whole lot of competition for that crown (I’d give the prize to Pete’s Dragon, except that it was always part-live action), but this one sits fairly comfortably in the lead.

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

Bleach smells like bleach.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)
(SPOILERS) I’d like to be able to say it was beyond me how Clint’s misery-porn fest hoodwinked critics and the Academy alike, leading to his second Best Picture and Director double Oscar win. Such feting would naturally lead you to assume Million Dollar Baby was in the same league as Unforgiven, when it really has more in common with The Mule, only the latter is likeably lightweight and nonchalant in its aspirations. This picture has buckled beneath the burden of self-appointed weighty themes and profound musings, which only serve to highlight how crass and manipulative it is.

I’d kill you too, Keanu. I’d kill you just for fun, even if I didn’t have to.

Always Be My Maybe (2019)
(SPOILERS) The pun-tastic title of this Netflix romcom is a fair indication of its affably undemanding attributes. An unapologetic riff on When Harry Met Sally, wherein childhood friends rather than college attendees finally agree the best thing to be is together, it’s resolutely determined to cover no new ground, all the way through to its positive compromise finale. That’s never a barrier to a good romcom, though – at their best, their charm is down to ploughing familiar furrows. Always Be My Maybe’s problem is that, decent comedy performers though the two leads may be – and co-writers with Michael Golamco – you don’t really care whether they get together or not. Which isn’t like When Harry Met Sally at all.

You're reading a comic book? What are you, retarded?

Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut (2009)
(SPOILERS) It’s a decade since the holy grail of comic books finally fought through decades of development hell to land on the big screen, via Zach Snyder’s faithful but not faithful enough for the devoted adaptation. Many then held the director’s skills with a much more open mind than they do now – following the ravages he has inflicted on the DCEU – coming as he was off the back of the well-received 300. Many subsequently held that his Watchmen, while visually impressive, had entirely missed the point (not least in some of its stylistic and aesthetic choices). I wouldn’t go that far – indeed, for a director whose bombastic approach is often only a few notches down from Michael Bay (who was, alarmingly, also considered to direct at one point), there are sequences in Watchmen that show tremendous sensitivity – but it’s certainly the case that, even or especially in its Ultimate Cut form and for all the furore the change to the end of the story provoked,…

You're always sorry, Charles, and there's always a speech, but nobody cares anymore.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
(SPOILERS) To credit its Rotten Tomatoes score (22%), you’d think X-Men: Dark Phoenix was a travesty that besmirched the name of all good and decent (read: MCU proper) superhero movies, or even last week’s underwhelming creature feature (Godzilla: King of Monsters has somehow reached 40%, despite being a lesser beast in every respect). Is the movie’s fate a self-fulfilling prophecy, what with delayed release dates and extensively reported reshoots? Were critics castigating a fait accompli turkey without giving it a chance? That would be presupposing they’re all sheep, though, and in fairness, other supposed write-offs havecome back from such a brink in the past (World War Z). Whatever the feelings of the majority, Dark Phoenix is actually a mostly okay (twelfth) instalment in the X-franchise – it’s exactly what you’d expect from an X-Men movie at this point, one without any real mojo left and a variable cast struggling to pull its weight. The third act is a bi…

They went out of business, because they were too good.

School for Scoundrels (1960)
(SPOILERS) Possibly the pinnacle of Terry-Thomas’ bounder persona, and certainly the one where it’s put to best caddish use, as he gives eternally feckless mug Ian Carmichael a thorough lesson in one-upmanship, only for the latter to turn the tables when he finds himself a tutor. School for Scoundrels is beautifully written (by an uncredited Peter Ustinov and Frank Tarloff), filled with clever set pieces, a fine supporting cast and a really very pretty object of the competing chaps’ affection (Janette Scott), but it’s Terry-Thomas who is the glue that binds this together. And, while I couldn’t say for sure, this might have the highest “Hard cheese” count of any of his films.

Based on Stephen Potter’s 1947’s humorous self-help bestseller (and subsequent series of -manship books) The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship (or The Art of Winning Games without Actually Cheating), which suggested ungentlemanly methods for besting an opponent in any given field, gam…

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.