Thursday, February 13, 2014

Heavy Action: Rambo: First Blood Part II

"Do we get to win this time?" BARF.

That single line of dialogue represents everything that's wrong with Rambo: First Blood Part II, the sequel to the very good and VERY different 1982 action drama First Blood. That the two films are part of the same series -- and about the same main character, no less -- is difficult to grasp. It would be like if Francis Ford Coppola followed up The Godfather by making Gangster Squad.

The modern action movie was truly born in 1985, thanks to the one-two punch of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando and (even more) Sylvester Stallone changing the face of American pop culture with Rambo: First Blood Part II. While Charles Bronson had acted as a lone vigilante in the first two Death Wish movies, Commando and Rambo upgraded the action movie hero from a single angry citizen to a One Man Army. While there would be variations on this theme in years to come (Die Hard makes the OMA more reluctant and confines him to a single locale), this became the template for the action hero.
Rambo's influence extended beyond just action movies. The Rambo of First Blood Part II became a cultural icon. President Reagan name dropped the character in national speeches. It became synonymous with anyone who thought he or she was tough: "Oh, he thinks he's Rambo." The character was referenced and parodied in every facet of culture, becoming, for a time, as recognizable a pop character as Chaplin's Little Tramp or Indiana Jones. There was even a kids' animated series that ran for 65 episodes in 1986, despite the fact that it was based on a violent R-rated action movie supposedly targeted at adults. Rambo wasn't just a movie character in the '80s. He was a movie character that came to DEFINE the '80s.

Stallone reprises his role as John Rambo, tortured Vietnam veteran now serving time in rock-breaking jail for his actions in First Blood. He's visited by Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna), who offers Rambo a release and full pardon if he'll return to Vietnam and search for POWs. The man running the mission is Marshal Murdock (Charles Napier), a worthless pencil pusher who tells Rambo his only job is to take photographs of POW locations; he is not, under any circumstances, to engage the enemy. Rambo agrees to the mission ("Do we get to win this time?") and promptly ignores Murdock's orders, taking on an entire Vietnamese army by himself. Rambo's gotta Rambo.

The original screenplay for Rambo was by James Cameron, but Stallone did a major overhaul of the script and got rid of some of the major elements of the Cameron version including a partner character, a part for whom producers allegedly wanted John Travolta. The decision to have Rambo go it alone was the correct one; it's what's right for the character and helped invent the template from which most future action heroes would be drawn. That's perhaps the only thing I can say Stallone's rewrite does well, because in every other way he managed to do the impossible: make a James Cameron script seem subtle and sophisticated by comparison. I truly, truly appreciate the fact that Stallone writes so much of his own material, but Rocky aside (for which he received a Best Original Screenplay nomination) he has never written a good script. Driven? The Expendables? Fucking Cobra? No, no and no. His screenplay for Rambo suffers from the same problems as many of his other scripts: a lack of characterization, weak story beats and leaden dialogue that exists mostly to make Stallone himself come off like the baddest motherfucker in history.
Case in point: when preparing to return to Vietnam, he's asked by his superiors what weapons he will be bringing. He says none. They can't believe it. He responds with "I've always believed the mind is the best weapon." It's the kind of bullshit dialogue that's supposed to a) make Rambo sound philosophical, which he is not, and b) make Rambo sound super smart. Umm, THAT IS NOT RAMBO. He doesn't use his mind as a weapon. That's Hannibal Lecter. Rambo is a blunt object; he's the thing you point at the thing you want to kill. One of the best parts of the 2008 sequel (a movie I like more than this one) is that Stallone had come to terms with that aspect of the character. He's an instrument of death and destruction who, despite trying to quiet that side of himself, can't get away from doing what he does best. For Stallone to suggest that Rambo uses his MIND as his best weapon is fucking dishonest at best, a ludicrous misunderstanding of the character at worst.

When Rambo isn't offering fake-deep platitudes himself, the script just has other characters talk him up in the most laughable way possible. It's a well-worn action movie trope to have the main character's badass resume talked about by other people in the movie, avoiding the trouble of actually having to create and show a character on screen. Rambo has some of the most egregious examples of this, not because it does it more than other action movies but because Stallone's dialogue is so heavy-fisted that the moments play like parody: "Let me just say that Rambo is the best combat vet I've ever seen. A pure fighting machine with only a desire - to win a war that someone else lost. And if winning means he has to die - he'll die. No fear, no regrets. And one more thing, what you choose to call hell, he calls home."

But where Rambo is really stupid and offensive is in its revisionist politics. Because what the movie is really about is getting a do-over for the Vietnam war -- only this time, as Rambo says at the start of the film, we get to "win." The original First Blood was a really interesting and complicated examination of war's aftermath, the cost of both the casualties and the survivors and the treatment of veterans upon returning to the U.S. Rambo says FUCK ALL THAT and sends its tortured protagonist back to Vietnam ( the original ending of First Blood, John Rambo committed suicide; in the first scene of the sequel, he immediately agrees to assist the U.S. government and return to war within seconds of being asked [BY THE WAY, there is an interesting idea for a movie there, presenting Rambo as one of those guys who gets out of prison and immediately commits a crime to go back in because it's the only life they know; Rambo: First Blood Part II isn't interested in any of that psychology]) to take out everyone the American army missed the first time around and bring back all the soldiers who didn't make it out. It's militaristic wish fulfillment of the highest order. First Blood has its roots in the ambiguity of '70s cinema, when filmmakers were really attempting to process what the country had been through during the war; Rambo throws any ambiguity and processing out the fucking window and just says "Fuck you, we win." It's no wonder he became the poster boy for the '80s.
The character of Co (Julia Nickson), the local woman who assists Rambo in exchange for a ticket out of the country, is yet another example of the film's cynicism. She's on hand for two reasons: first, to present a single sympathetic Vietnamese character and, second, to provide Rambo with a love interest. IT'S RAMBO. He doesn't need a love interest. It's a distraction from his mission, and skirts pretty close to the whole "partner" angle that Stallone wrote out of Cameron's draft. But I guess when (SPOILER) Co gets killed, we're supposed to support Rambo's cause even more because THIS TIME IT'S PERSONAL. But hasn't it always been personal? Isn't Rambo's entire life defined by his experience in Vietnam? He only agrees to the mission in the first place because it's personal.

And yet the calculated decision to include a (doomed) romance and give something "for the ladies" paid off big time, as Rambo: First Blood Part II pulled in $150 million domestically and another $150 million worldwide -- in 1985 dollars, no less. That is huge. HUUUUUUUGE. I have to hand it to Stallone. He clearly tapped into something American audiences were looking for, and while I would argue he is only interested in pandering to them, it cannot be denied that they responded in a big big way. He physically transformed himself to such a degree that even though he had already starred in a few action movies, his performance in Rambo: First Blood Part II feels like a total reinvention. This was the dawn not just of Stallone the Superman, but of ALL action heroes as the Superman. Those of us who grew up in the '80s really only ever knew this incarnation of Stallone; for everyone who saw him transition from stuff like Paradise Alley and F.I.S.T., it had to be particularly jarring.

As an action movie fan, I can enjoy the insane amounts of carnage and destruction on display (though, again, it's nothing compared to what Stallone would do in the fourth movie), even if I have a hard time divorcing that enjoyment from the bullshit and jingoism and utter stupidity of the screenplay. By the time we get to the end and Stallone is speechifying practically right into the camera: "I want what they want, and every guy who came over here and spilt his guts gave everything he had wants! For our country to love much as it," Rambo has become an embarrassment. Nothing about the preceding 90 minutes has been about love of country. Don't get me wrong -- I'm glad the made-up POWs got made-up rescued, but Rambo is really only about rewriting history and getting revenge. I could be on board with that if the movie was more honest about its intentions; heavy-handed as it may be, there is an anger and a distrust of those in charge (personified here by Charles Napier, playing a total stooge -- there is nothing in Rambo that isn't drawn in gigantic, broad crayon...outside the lines) that feels more like a holdover from First Blood than anything organic to the story being told this time around. But I like the anger. I just wish it wasn't being framed as patriotism.
There is a scene late in the movie in which Rambo is taking out soldiers, trucks and entire bridges with explosive arrows. It's one of the things the movie is famous for. Watching it again, I was struck by the way it was shot; it's very quiet, and Stallone is very methodical in the way he fires, reloads, fires, reloads. In a slightly different context, this is the exact way that a filmmaker would depict a sniper taking out civilians. There is something sociopathic about it; I think it's the silence. Obviously, Rambo isn't killing civilians -- these are soldiers -- but it's one of the only interesting moments in the film because it demonstrates just how fine a line there is between what Rambo does as an American hero and what a serial killer does. For the record, I don't think this is deliberate. I think the scene -- like every scene in the movie -- exists to show us what a badass killing machine Stallone is, and just how many bad guys he can take out all by himself. But it makes me wish the movie was just a bit more self-aware, or that it was a bit more interested in exploring this damaged character and his relationship to violence. You know, more like First Blood.

Director George P. Cosmatos does a decent job staging the action, mostly letting things play out in masters. One could accuse the film's photography of feeling flat, but I've always found it spare and unpretentious -- a bit like a Clint Eastwood film in the way it's shot. The widescreen compositions and jungle scenery make Rambo stand out from the '80s action pack, probably because they make feel expensive and A-list. That's both a blessing and a curse, because here's where I'm a hypocrite: if Rambo has been some super low-budget exploitation movie or an Italian import or something, I might find its goofy political messaging charming in its blunt sincerity. I don't find a lot of sincerity in Rambo. It's not that I don't believe Stallone really means this stuff -- I'm sure he does -- but the way it's all handled just comes across like pandering.

So why is it that I love Commando, released the same year, but not Rambo? It's every bit as stupid as Rambo and not any better constructed. Part of it has to do with simply liking Schwarzenegger better as an action star than Stallone. But the real reason, I suspect, is one of tone. Commando knows enough to be goofy, while Rambo takes itself deadly seriously.
I don't want to be too hard on the movie. I don't want to be the guy who doesn't like Rambo. As a true-blue action movie fan, I know the genre owes a debt to this particular hunk of idiocy. But too often it feels like Rambo is labeled a classic because of its impact and not because of the film's quality. Even without its icky historical revisionism, the movie is just too self-serious and bone-headed for me to really love. There are a lot of people who embrace those qualities as being part of Rambo's charm. I'm not one of them.

The good news is that after one more bad sequel (I haven't seen Rambo III in forever, so maybe I'm remembering it wrong. Is it good?), Stallone revisited the character 20 years later and did almost all the things I wanted him to do in 1985. That time, I got to win.

Got an action movie you'd like to see discussed in a future Heavy Action column? Let us know in the comments below!

2 days until F This Movie Fest!


  1. You are completely right. I got the box set a couple years ago, and the bookends are great but the filler is just that.

    I found it interesting that, with both Rocky and Rambo, Sly revisited his two most well known characters in a way that got back to the core of what those characters were, and represented, in fantastic fashion. I think both Rambo and Rocky Balboa are the best entries in each series after the originals (even if I have fun with the more cartoonish middle sequels in my own way) because each of them get back to character. This is interesting to argue with Rambo, given the insanity of the final third, but I think even that is very specific to who the character is.

    I guess I said all that because I regret saying that for the most part, Rambo II is a piece of SHIT. There are some okay action beats and sequences but overall, having not watched it in over a decade, it fell not flat but through the floor.

    Rambo III, however, was something I was prepared for, already knowing it sucked -- and it does, so be warned -- so I was able to take pleaaure in the smaller things (a cat and mouse set piece in the desert caves comes to mind).

    I was surprised how upset I was at how badly Rambo II let me down, I guess. Very rarely do I watch a beloved flick from my childhood that I have to write off almost the ENTIRE THING as me just being young and not knowing a damn thing.

    You told the truth, sir. Unpleasant as it is to admit, Rambo II just isn't very good.

  2. Daaaayum!

    Since I like Stallone more than Schwarzenegger, I think I'm a lot kinder to this than you are. Stallone does take himself seriously, but I feel like he's in on the joke. I feel like Rambo is a cartoon. I've always taken the message to be that Rambo was against the things the government had made him do, not that it was jingoistic. Kind of an anti-military, anti-war (while killing hundreds) statement. Maybe I've projected all of that onto this film. But still, I do think it's VERY goofy. I thought the Missing In Action series was this movie without the fun of it. Maybe I just like a bad movie. Wouldn't be the first time.

    1. Still thinking about this. Still spinning at the points you raise that make a lot of sense.

      My read on the entire Rambo series is that he's a man that the US Government trained to be a killing machine, then turned their back on. In First Blood, he's the wounded soldier backed into a corner that has been trained to survive and kill. In part II, he's given an opportunity to use those skills to rescue other people that the US government turned their back on. He's doing it because they can't/won't. He's a monster. A machine who can only kill, so he's going to use those skills to save those like him. In part III, he's saving his superior officer out of a sense of duty and loyalty. In part IV, he just wants to be left alone but can't escape from what they've made him. I have always felt like the whole series was a dude who was trained to be an animal dealing with the loss of his true self because those who trained him turned their back on him. His speech at the end of part II is him saying "I want the government I killed for to value me." But they never will. This, to me, is essentially ANTI-Jingoism. It's saying the government does not value its soldiers. He spends the last three movies cleaning up other people's messes. I don't feel like this is patriotism. I feel like it is the same anger at a corrupt system of government that we saw in the first film, though not nearly as well done. Am I way, way off base in this read of these films?

    2. Speaking personally, I don't think you are off base. At all.

      I think the reason the first two sequels (specifically) strike me the wrong way goes back to something you said in your first comment, Heath -- Rambo became a cartoon. And in the first, he didn't feel that way. Larger than life in some repects, certainly, but he felt more "real." In the second, I didn't feel that anymore.

      But your viewpoint is most certainly valid and a good way to see it. I enjoy watching II and III; it's just hard for me not to laugh at them.

    3. Ah, cool. Yeah, the cartoon aspect is lamentable when compared to the first movie (which I didn't see until way later, when I'd been all desensitized to violence by the second movie), and it's weird how crazy violent so much of our entertainment was in the '80s. But I never saw Rambo as a patriot. I mean, I know Reagan loved Rambo, but that doesn't mean Rambo loved Reagan, does it? I want to see a Rambo 5 with an alternate timeline (Watchmen style) where Rambo assassinates Nixon then Reagan. He can be all like, "Nixon...I'm comin' to get you..." and Nixon can piss his pants, which would be HILARIOUS. And he can kill Reagan with an arrow shot from a bow atop the Washington Monument. And, this is where it gets really interesting, Forest Gump is on the lawn below watching the whole thing. A feather blows by Rambo's face, then CREDITS.

      Rambo 5. You're welcome, Stallone.

    4. mid-credit sequence: Rambo standing at the feet of the Lincoln Memorial saluting the statue. He says "Its been all downhill since you, but don't worry sir, I'll keep the bastards honest", pulls out a fuck off massive machine gun, turns, points it at the camera and pulls the trigger, stars and strips wipe to black, off camera a bald eagle screech is heard, rest of credits roll to Hair Metal version of America The Beautiful.

    5. You definitely not wrong to a) like the movie and b) read it differently than I do. I like the movie you are describing, and I think there are elements of that in Rambo. Most of it feels like lip service, though, because while I think some of that sentiment is said (in the clumsiest, most obvious way possible, this being Rambo and all), but all of the movie's subtext is the exact opposite of that. Rambo is positioned as a patriot when he says stuff like "I want my country to love me as much as I love it!" Sounds like you focus on the first half of that statement, while I'm stuck on the second.

      It just plays (to me) like jingoism because it's all about American awesomeness. Even if we lose/tie in an endless, senseless war, we will come back to FINISH THE JOB because we are AWESOME and we will KILL YOU so don't fuck with AMERICA.

      Again, it's not the politics of the film that bother me as much as the stupidity with which it's all presented. I really like First Blood and Rambo, so I'm not opposed to the series or the character. I just think this movie is unforgivably dumb.

    6. Discussion and exchange of ideas and opinions is awesome. So, word. I get what you're saying. Meanwhile, I want a bumper sticker that says Even if we lose/tie in an endless, senseless war, we will come back to FINISH THE JOB because we are AWESOME and we will KILL YOU so don't fuck with AMERICA. And then next to that line can be the word "expendable" inside a red circle with the diagonal line through it, like the Ghostbusters symbol. I'd buy that for a dollar. Wait, wrong franchise.

    7. Also, Brad, I SO want to see our version of Rambo 5. Stephen Colbert could be in it.

    8. If you make that bumper sticker, fellas -- just let me know where to send the money.

    9. HHH, Act one sees Rambo blow up a tent city hippy commune called "Liberal Media HQ".

    10. We need a Kickstarter campaign to get this script filmed.

      For 25 dollars, I will send you a handwritten thank you note.
      For 100 dollars, I'll call you and do a Stallone impersonation (poorly).
      For 500, you get a special thank you in the movie credits.
      For 1000, you get a walk on role as a liberal (bad guy).
      For 5000, said liberal will be mercilessly slaughtered on screen.
      For 10,000, you get all of the above plus an MP3 of me singing the song from the end of Rambo: First Blood Part II.
      Platinum Sponsor - For 50,000, You get all of the above plus a private "tea party" for you and 25 of your friends sponsored by the NRA and Fox News. (only 1 available)

  3. Ive never seen any of the Rambo movies. I know, im a cunt. But do you think thats going to stop me chiming in? Ha. Pah-lease

    The change in tone you describe between First Blood and Rambo FB2 sounds similar(ish) to the change in tone between Alien and Aliens, which also had the involvement of James Cameron. The change with Aliens of course being the militaristic action heavy presence, over the more subtle horror feel of Alien, which is the same presence felt in Rambo when compared to the more subtle introspection of First Blood.
    Maybe James Cameron is the one who doesnt get it, while Stallone is just a dumb follower...or maybe they are both super geniuses and in the context of the 80s its exactly what was right to do/needed to be done (based on audience reaction at least). Thoughts?

  4. When I was 13 my mom (who was/is pretty conservative about violence and stuff) and I went to see this at a jam-packed theater in El Salvador a few weeks into its run. The fact the movie had received the equivalent of a PG-13 rating instead of an 'R' (obviously the censoring board down there saw the movie as a glorified cartoon) probably misled her into thinking it would be OK. Considering back then El Salvador was in a civil war in which the Reagan Administration was backing the government military against the "communist" guerrillas (too political to get into here) the entire theater, myself included, couldn't have given a collective shit about what Rambo symbolized or stood for. When Rambo opened his eyes to reveal his mud camouflage almost 1,000 people gasped at once, myself included (I remember that sound as if it was yesterday). Almost every time Rambo shot an exploding arrow (especially when he blows-up the soldier shooting at him near the waterfall) the entire theater cheered wildly. It was the same reaction with which the buddy comedies of Terence Hill and Bud Spencer (hugely popular overseas besides their homeland of Italy) were received: when the spectacle exceeds the audience's collective expectations we cheered, and "Rambo" topped the reaction meter several times over.

    Something reading this article made me remember. Up until the 2000's there were no such things as reviews or critical media press for movies where I come from. Back in the 70's and 80's in E.S. the only indication we had of how popular a movie was were the size of the ads on the newspapers (which everybody read, more than watch the censored TV news). If it was a full page ad leading up to release date and on subsequent days/weeks we knew the movie was making bank; it wasn't until the ads on the paper started shrinking (or the movie became part of a double-bill on "lesser" theaters) and new ads for bigger movies started to appear that we knew what the next big thing was. "Rambo II" had full-page ads for at least three weeks, which means it was huge. Also, for some reason, the "Rambo II" newspaper ads publicized the U.S. box office numbers as bullet points of why this movie should be seen. It's almost like it didn't matter whether the movie was any good or not (and time has shown that it was a competently-made and OK action movie but hardly a masterpiece), the hype and need to see this 'event movie' were overwhelming. Heck, my freaking conservative mom took me to see it! I mean, come on! :-)

    1. This is full of interesting information, J.M., and I'm glad you shared it.