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

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

I hate natural causes!

Body Bags (1993) (SPOILERS) I’m not surprised Showtime didn’t pick this up for an anthology series. Perhaps, if John Carpenter had made Coming Home in a Body Bag (the popular Nam movie series referenced in the same year’s True Romance ), we’d have something to talk about. Tho’ probably not, if Carpenter had retained his by this point firmly glued to his side DP Gary Kibbe, ensuring the proceedings are as flat, lifeless and unatmospheric as possible. Carpenter directed two of the segments here, Tobe Hooper the other one. It may sound absurd, given the quality of Hooper’s career, but by this point, even he was calling the shots better than Carpenter.

Call me crazy, but I don’t see America coming out in droves to see you puke.

The Hard Way (1991) (SPOILERS) It would probably be fair to suggest that Michael J Fox’s comic talents never quite earned the respect they deserved. Sure, he was the lead in two incredibly popular TV shows, but aside from one phenomenally successful movie franchise, he never quite made himself a home on the big screen. Part of that might have been down to attempts in the late ’80s to carve himself out a niche in more serious roles – Light of Day , Bright Lights, Big City , Casualties of War – roles none of his fanbase had any interest in seeing him essaying. Which makes the part of Nick Lang, in which Fox is at his comic best, rather perfect. After all, as his character, movie star Nick Lang, opines, after smashing in his TV with his People’s Choice Award – the kind of award reserved for those who fail to garner serious critical adoration – “ I’m the only one who wants me to grow up! ”

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.