Action Heroes – Stallone: Rambo: First Blood Part II

The year is 1985 and Stallone’s Rocky IV has thrilled and spilled everyone (my young self included) with its heady mix of muscles, music, montages and feel good (if naive) Cold War idealism.

Later the same year came Rambo: First Blood Part II (I’m gonna just call it Rambo from now on), and it was a doozie! Stallone was on a roll. It was, of course, a sequel but in many ways it didn’t relate to its predecessor at all (more on that later).

I was completely hooked from the first cinema viewing. What’s not to like? Well, seeing as how the movie won ‘worst picture’ at the Razzies that year, I guess some people felt there was quite a lot. More on that later too.

Rambo goes back to ‘Nam and saves a bunch of American P.O.W.s from Soviet-supported Viet Cong camps. Along the way he gets betrayed by the bureaucrats who are supposedly there to help him. He finds himself a one man show again, wreaking havoc all the way.

Check out the cast:

Richard Crenna – Yes, the turkey-necked, borderline farcical Trautman is back. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked Crenna, and the Trautman character, but there’s something about his performances (even before he parodied himself in Hot Shots: Part Deux) that is ever so slightly pongy. Indeed, the cheese is toasty-warm when Crenna’s about, but you gotta love the man.

Charles Napier – Ever the jobbing actor, Napier is on top form as untrustworthy bureaucrat Murdock. I always remember him from the old Russ Meyer titty movies he did (Cherry, Harry & Raquel! and Supervixens). Ahem! Moving swiftly on…

Stephen Berkoff – As the wonderfully eeeevil Soviet commander Podovsky. Berkoff may have pulled this one out of his little book of cartoon villains and phoned it in while writing a play or something, but you still can’t fault him. If there was an award for actor most likely to be declared clinically insane, Berkoff would surely walk it.

Finally, a little shout out to Martin Kove as Ericson, I like the man. Whether it’s as Kreese from Karate Kid, or Nero The Hero from Death Race 2000 (also with Stallone), he’s great. I love the way that Rambo dispatches him with nothing more than a swift knee to the happy sacks.

So let’s talk about the change in concept, as this one thing is probably the single most significant deviation from First Blood.

It seems that somebody somewhere decided that, although the psychologically complex and burned out Rambo, John J. seen at the close-out of First Blood was a worthy, and intellectually meritorious creation. Cinematically, he was half-baked, and what the masses really wanted to see was Rambo fully tooled up, muscled out, dialled in and kicking Viet Cong ass in numbers undreamed of. Unburdened by internal pain, and motivated by the go-juice of his own personal idea of SNAFU. Aggression, righteous indignation, contempt for bureaucracy, lethality and blood lust on overdrive, dealing out pain in large and bloody gestures. Now we’re cooking with gas people!

So that’s what happened. James Cameron wrote a treatment and Stallone ‘Rambo’ed’ it. Drawing on a new set of ultra right wing, gung-ho sensibilities for his newly radicalised depiction of the character. Gone is the ‘Escape and Survive’ mantra that began Rambo’s first outing, and in its place are 58 individual on-screen kills and paper villains.

It’s a potent cocktail. Stallone, all beefed out and ripped to shreds, hair long, and skin tanned, cut a very different dash as John J this time out. He spends almost the entire movie with his shirt off, rippling and flexed. The poor boy must have been in agony being sliced that tight for the whole shooting schedule. I read somewhere that he survived on 200 calories a day while filming. Sounds like the sort of thing a complete nutbar like Stallone would do in order to rip down to 2.6% bodyfat or whatever it was. Maximum respect for the madness of running round the jungle for weeks powered by nothing but coffee!

Strangely, Rambo‘s political message (mixed as it is), ran a little contrary to the prevailing mood in Hollywood (in the era of Platoon et al), which seems to say something about Stallone’s views on America’s involvement in Vietnam. I’m not sure the movie’s stance on the conflict was actually as controversial as was thought at the time, and watching it now I find the politics easy to set aside, even though every Vietnamese is presented as being evil or indifferent, and every Soviet even more evil than that. Leave historical and contextual knowledge out of it and enjoy the thrill ride. It’s definitely the best way to go.

Now, I always thought that as I got older and (hopefully) wiser, and specifically more ‘educated’ (whatever that really means) in the art of film appreciation; I would begin to see what the critics hated so much about Rambo, and perhaps begin to swing a little to their way of thinking, but every time I watch it, and I mean every time, I come away thinking “F**k them, this movie is f**king great!”, and so it is. That’s not to say I am some kind of middle aged, right wing luddite who has no appreciation for fine cinema; far from it. It’s just that I think you have to wear several different types of trousers, if you know what I mean?

The movie could have done with just a nut more of the First Blood Rambo, particularly in the dialogue scenes. I do like the final Rambo/Trautman exchange (the whole “I want my country to love us, as much as we love it” speech), and I like most of the cool lines like “I’m coming to get you!” etc. but the end scene with Trautman has an aroma du cheese and a “sound bite” feel to it. I wouldn’t go as far as to say Stallone appears insincere, or that the dialogue is bad, but I want just a bit more angry commentary from him. I guess after all the knifing (the survival knife is back, bigger and badder than before), shooting, explosive tipped arrows, RPG rocket launching, and M60 wielding madness, it could have been the icing on the cake to get a little more juicy dialogue in there too.

Oh well, you can’t have everything I guess, and Rambo delivers a mightily wallop elsewhere to make up for it.

The movie works its ass off, and delivers a supreme action package that is no less enjoyable today as it was in 1985. Rambo’s cultural impact was forged (for good or bad) by this movie, and its effect would be far reaching, and significant.

Ben Pegley

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