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.
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.
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 (seriously...in 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.
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 us...as much as we...love 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 strokes...in 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.
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.
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!