Hollywood loves a good franchise. The movie-going public does too. Horror, action, comedy, sci-fi, western, no genre is safe. And any film, no matter how seemingly stand-alone, conclusive, or inappropriate to sequel, could generate an expansive franchise. They are legion. We are surrounded. But a champion has risen from the rabble to defend us. Me. I have donned my sweats and taken up cinema’s gauntlet. Don’t try this at home. I am a professional.
The Franchise: Rambo — following the turbulent and corpse-strewn misadventures of an emotionally damaged and highly skilled Green Beret and Vietnam War veteran named John Rambo. Based on the novel First Blood by David Morrell, the franchise has spanned four feature films, a television cartoon, numerous video games and comic books, from 1982-2008.
The Installment: Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
The Story: We begin with Col. Trautman seeking Rambo out at a prison work camp (where he’s been incarcerated for the events of the previous film). Trautman has a job for Rambo: working for Murdock (Charles Napier), a bureaucrat heading up a mission to search for remaining POWs in Vietnam. Rambo accepts. A hiccup during Rambo’s parachute drop leaves him with only his knife and bow and arrow as weapons, but he makes do, you know, cause he’s Rambo and that’s Rambo’s ‘thang.’ Helping Rambo on his mission is a sexy local agent, Co-Bao (Julia Nickson), who Rambo sorta falls for. At first the mission is going great. Rambo finds some POWs, rescues one and brings him to the extraction point, only to watch the helicopter get recalled. See, as it turns out, the whole mission was bullshit. Murdock knew there were POWs but Rambo was never supposed to find them. His report was going to be given to Congress in order to cease the POW probes. Well, Rambo doesn’t cotton to this. He also doesn’t cottn to Co-Bao getting all sortsa murdered. Vengeance is unleashed, Rambo-style.
Oh, hello there, Reagan Era. Didn’t notice you come in.
Like a lot of Stallone’s 80’s fare, Rambo II resonates on a wave length of visceral idiocy. I don’t know how anyone over the age of nine could accept the film with a straight face, but like Cobra or Over the Top, the film succeeds as unwittingly absurdist cinema. It is just so big and dumb and misguided that it is hard not to enjoy it at least a little — enjoy it as a comedy, that is. And Stallone gets all the “credit” for that, I believe.
What always separated Arnold and Sly back during their heyday (aside from Arnold making better movies) was that for all his borderline sociopathic ego Arnold seemed in on the joke that was Arnold. He knew he was ridiculous, and more importantly, he knew his movies were ridiculous. And he didn’t care. He embraced it. Sly on the other hand seemed burdened by his ego. This isn’t that mysterious, really. Arnold was a Guinness Book of World Records superbeing, whose body took so naturally to body building that he actually devised his own workout regimen after determining that the prevailing body building wisdom didn’t work fast enough for him. He won the Mr. Olympia contest seven times in his 20’s. And though no one should ever dismiss the shrewdness Arnold displayed in his rise to box office power, his freakish size and Mr. Olympia fame also made him a logical target for Hollywood — Arnold was the kind of guy a filmmaker might see on the street and think, “Someone needs to put that guy in a fucking movie!” Arnold’s tale is that of an overdog, like many of his characters, he was simply an unstoppable force. His success was written in the stars.
Stallon of course was the opposite. This is a guy who was forced to do softcore porn to pay the bills, and who finally seized the reins of his failing career by writing a script for himself to star in. And more relevant here, from a psychological position he was a little guy who wished he looked like Arnold, who wished his body took to mass-building like Arnold’s did (I don’t mean he literally was looking to Arnold, but guys like Arnold). Right around the time that Arnold had decided to start shedding some of his monster mass, Sly decided he needed to become even more shredded. He had a bit of a complex. And it seems that right after First Blood Sly’s foibles and insecurities awesomely caught up with him. All big action stars probably take themselves too seriously in certain ways, but Sly had a bad case of wanting his cake and eating it too. He wanted the big box office, but he also still craved the critical attention Rocky got him. His Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay gave him the false impression that he was a true writer, so of course he tinkered with each and every script he was given. And his film’s became a comical workout in clueless self-indulgence and transparent hero-building hackwork. Point being, his movies became unintentionally funny. Cobra best typifies this, but Rambo II is the most interesting because the character of John Rambo already existed in the pre-folie de grandeur phase of Stallone’s career. So Rambo II is uniquely stupid.
If you want mindless carnage and rah-rah excitement, the film completely delivers in this area. I mean, come on, using exploding arrows is a brilliantly silly concept. I love the whirring noise they make as Rambo notches them on his bow, and that pregnant pause as we wait for the arrow to sail through the air and hit its target. What is extra hilarious about them is that they completely undo what you would assume was the entire point of saddling Rambo with a bow and arrow instead of a gun in the first place — that the weapon limits his destructive power. When in fact the arrows somewhat increase Rambo’s firepower! It is kind of like saying, “And then Rambo gets stuck in the jungle, with only a knife to defend himself. Oh, and the knife has a heat-seeking propulsion system, so Rambo can throw it at dudes hundreds of feet away, stab them in the neck, and then the knife will fly back to Rambo. Also it shoots ninja stars. But… he is armed only with a knife!”
It is hard to go wrong with Charles Napier. I think his unique attributes are wasted here as a cowardly bureaucrat character (see Supervixens or The Blues Brothers for proper usage), but this is the biggest role in the biggest movie of Napier’s career. So I gotta give some love for that. My id also demands that I give some love to the deceptively un-Asian-named Julia Nickson. Normally I would point out the fact that her performance/accent is at times amusingly poor, but given that the entire film is amusingly poor, she fits marvelously in place. She also threatens to reduce your television to smouldering ash with her mega-hotness. So she’s got that going for her too. And I think she is a great role model for the women of the world — yes, ladies, you can wear make-up and have salon styled hair during your guerrilla warfare adventures. There is no excuse for not looking pretty. Oh man, Nickson’s death scene is hilarious too. I love that she literally dies seconds after Rambo tells her he’ll take her away from Vietnam. That is some “good” writing, right there.
But I digress…
What Doesn’t Work:
If First Blood was the bridge between 70’s and 80’s action movies, then Rambo II is the dynamite used to blow that bridge up. Rambo killed one person in First Blood. One person. In Rambo II he kills 51. Death Wish‘s body count increased in the 80’s too, but Bronson already murdered a pretty hefty amount of creeps in the first film; it was an escalation, kicking things up a notch. Rambo II isn’t an escalation of First Blood, it is a complete separation. A betrayal even.
It is nearly impossible to stop sequels to a successful movie as long as a sequel is possible (or even if it isn’t, as Escape From the Planet of the Apes taught us). But, putting aside that cold reality, First Blood shouldn’t have had a sequel. A prequel maybe, but unlike Death Wish, which teased us with the implication of awesome events to come, First Blood ended with John Rambo completing a painful journey. The whole point of the movie was – aside from thrills – to comment on the shitty state of being a vet, trained to killed and forced to do and witness things that are so unimaginably heinous that the chemical make-up of your brain literally changes, and what do you do with yourself now that it is all over? The spooky ghost story subtext was that we (because Trautman ultimately works for us) created this monster, and then in our detached lack of empathy we cruelly turned our back on the monster, blaming it for things is merely symbolized, and now it is lashing out. John Rambo was a tragic monster, like Frankenstein’s creature or King Kong. How does someone like John Rambo become a regular person? The changes made to David Morrell’s novel were to give Rambo the closest thing possible to a happy ending without selling out the premise. Rambo’s happy ending was getting talked down from killing Teasle and killing himself. If you walked out of First Blood thinking, “Man, I want to see more of Rambo wasting fools” then you really missed what was actually going on in the film. So the inherent concept of Rambo II betrays that ending.
That said, sequels happen.
A mission arises and apparently some government computer crunched some statistics and John Rambo’s name popped up (this is what we’re told in the film), so Rambo needs to get back into his warrior mode. Okay, whatever, I’ll go along with that. What I can’t go along with is how Rambo II changes Rambo himself to suit the jacked-up nature of the film. James Cameron wrote the original draft of Rambo II, which is wildly different from what Sly ended up getting on screen and a much better film. But even Cameron’s script doesn’t feel right. It just seems wrong to be rooting for Rambo while he kills dozens upon dozens of people, when really we should be crying for him — this is the kind of shit that made him all fucked up in the first place! Embracing Rambo II necessitates abandoning First Blood, which is bad news for a sequel. It’s like this film just wants the previous film as backstory, not an actual lead-in. Rambo here is a different type of man. In First Blood Rambo was a wounded person. He had the collected calmness of a man who knows he can win any fight he’s likely to get in, but he also has a bit of bitter attitude. Now for some reason Sly really wants Rambo to be all Zen and sage-like. He is so calm, so soft-voiced, that it seems like Sly is on medication of some kind. He is just a couple eyelid levels away from being asleep. This Rambo would have simply let Teasle kick him out of town; he would’ve shrugged, said some inane platitude, then moved on. This Rambo is boring, and he doesn’t feel like a real person anymore — now he’s just a fabricated movie character. The film doesn’t even expand upon the character whatsoever, which is actually kind of weird. We learn he’s half Native American and half German. That’s about it. Our hero went from being compelling to something of a cipher. The only thing that makes the film watchable is the nonstop violence.
Your hero is only as good as your villain. That’s the old Hollywood logic. Teasle was great, both on page and with Brian Dennehy’s performance. Rambo II doesn’t have much of a villain. Murdock serves as the over-reaching antagonist, but he isn’t really the villain. Steven Berkoff plays the Soviet Lt. Col. Podovsky, who serves as the immediate antagonist while Rambo is in Vietnam, but he isn’t really the villain either. He didn’t capture these POWs back in the 70’s. He just happens to be the commander during this time period that Rambo’s mission occurs. Then there is Captain Vinh (George Cheung); also not really the villain. Rambo II is almost like a video game, with a series of sub-bosses, but lacking a main boss.
The root of this villain problem is that the film doesn’t have anything to say. First Blood was a clever way to express the terrible, unnecessary futility of the Vietnam War without making a war movie. Rambo II sort of undermines that by now portraying the Vietnamese as villainous — which I think actually validates all the horrible shit Rambo went through during the war. The tragedy of being a POW or having been injured or killed in Vietnam is that the war ended up being viewed (by the general public) as a big fat waste of everyone’s time. Getting injured in WWII obviously sucked, but it left you with a living badge of honor — people respected you even more for your scars. Rambo cried at the end of the first film because his mental/physical scars were acquired for no reason. First Blood was post-Nixon. But Rambo II is a Reagan handjob. This leaves the movie awkwardly caught between two attitudes. How can Rambo say, “It was a lie. Just like the whole damn war,” in the same movie where he’s killing tons of Vietnamese goons? I realize the Vietnam Conflict was complicated and that the Vietcong weren’t “good” or “evil,” but in a movie as simplistic as Rambo II it just seems strange to try and play the ‘War Is Bad’ card while so gleefully indulging in America’s desire to see an American waste sinister foreigners. Rambo went out of his way, often unbelievably so, to only injure his pursuers in First Blood, now he’s smokin’ fools left and right. But it’s okay, because they aren’t American. This makes the whole Murdock/shady government subplot feel disingenuous. You can’t make a movie about how George W. Bush sucks and the Iraq War was all bullshit, then send your hero into Baghdad where he proceeds to kill dozens of Iraqis. And if you think about it, in the metaphor of First Blood, Teasle is America, stuck in the wilderness fighting an enemy he horribly underestimates and simply can’t defeat. Rambo is the Vietnamese. Just sayin’.
While Rambo II makes for a hilarious viewing, it is nonetheless aggravating (when thinking about the original film) how completely removed from reality the film’s action is. That nosedive into the pine tree scene from First Blood seems boringly plausible compared with the shit going on here. If the Vietnamese were truly as incompetent at shooting as they are in Rambo II, we would’ve won the war within months. There is actually a moment when Rambo faces off against Captain Vinh and he lets Vinh fire wantonly at him, as though he were giving him the first punch in a fist fight — Rambo’s confidence here isn’t his own ability to dodge bullets, but Vinh’s incompetency at hitting him. It really isn’t that far removed from Weird Al’s Rambo parody in UHF. Reality does not effect this John Rambo. It is like we’re watching a selfish little kid play with his friends. “I just shot you!” “Nuh uh, you missed.” “Okay, I just shot you again.” “Nope, I caught the bullet and threw it back at you, now you’re dead.”
The song “Peace In Our Life,” written and performed by Frank Stallone. Nuff said.
Rambody Count: 51.
Best Kill: When Rambo kills Captain Vinh with an exploding arrow — exploding him.
Most Badass Moment: I like when Rambo snatches a snake that is dangling near him with one hand, then lets it go.
Most Ridiculous Moment: There is a lot of ridiculous Rambo bullet dodging in the film, but the most egregious case occurs when Rambo dives under water in a river while a helicopter hovers directly above him, firing hundreds of machine gun rounds into the water. Then the helicopter stops shooting for a moment, and immediately Rambo pops out of the water (not riddled with bullets), grabs the machine gunner, and tosses him out of the helicopter.
Best Line About How Badass Rambo Is:
After Trautman finds out Rambo’s entire mission was a set-up, and argues with Murdock.
Murdock: And if I were you, I’d never make the mistake of bringing this subject up again.
Trautman: Oh, you’re the one who’s making the mistake.
Murdock: Yeah? What mistake?
Best Sensitive Rambo Line: “I want, what they want [referring to POWs], and every other guy who came over here and spilled his guts and gave everything he had wants! For our country to love us as much as we love it!”
Best Badass Rambo Line: Threatening Murdock over a radio frequency. “Murdock… I’m coming to get you.”
Should There Have Been a Sequel: Yeah, whatever. Why not. The damage has already been done. Might as well have fun with it now.
Up Next: Rambo and the Forces of Freedom.