A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

 
     

RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II jjj

20th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1985, R, 90 mins.

 

John Rambo: Sylvester Stallone / Trautman: Richard Crenna / Murdock: Charles Napier / Erickson: Martin Cove

Directed by George P. Cosmotos / Written by James Cameron and Sylvester Stallone / Story by Kevin Jarre / Based on the characters created by David Morrell

“Boy, I saw RAMBO last night.  I know what to do the next time this happens.” 

Former US President Ronald Reagan -

 following the release of 39 American hostages by Lebanese terrorists in 1985 

 

Let’s take a time portal back to 1985.  The Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame officially opened.  Ronald Reagan, 73- years-old, takes his oath for a second term in office as the 40th US President.  Mikhail Gorbachev becomes the last president of Russia.  Actor Rock Hudson dies of AIDS at 59, the first major celebrity to fall victim to the deadly disease.  The wreckage of the RMS Titanic is located and explored.  A disastrous cyclone killed over 10,000 in Bangladesh. 

 

And, yes, cinematic Vietnam veteran and war hero, John Rambo, went back to Vietnam and cathartically slaughtered a hell of a lot of Russians and nearly the entire army of the North Vietnam. 

Make no doubts about it: 1985 was the year of Sylvester Stallone, who emerged, perhaps with the exception of Harrison Ford, as the biggest box office draw of the early to mid 1980’s.  He scored big reactions with ROCKY III in 1983 and then in 1985 he made the inevitable sequel, ROCKY IV, which was the third highest grossing film of the year.  Then came RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II which, behind BACK TO THE FUTURE, was the most popular film of 1985, startling considering that this was during a time when it was extremely difficult for R-rated films to make gigantic returns at the theatres.  Yet, fans flocked to see the latest exploits of their favourite ex-Green Beret, and "Rambomania" swept North America. 

Revisiting RAMBO II is a frank reminder of the types of action films that are clearly not made anymore.  You know, the ones that, at their foundations, try to proclaim a larger philosophical message when, deep down, they are just blood-drenched exploitations into a sort of childish pulp fiction mentality where the heroes are righteous and can kill, justifiably, any and all targets, all for the sake of their own respective personal causes.  In RAMBO II’s case, the film gave US audiences an offer they sure could not refuse on any level: an opportunity to win back the Vietnam War with the help of one lone anti-hero that was screwed back home by a country that, ironically, hates and fears him. 

Hey, who said revenge was easy for action heroes? 

In retrospect, RAMBO II works, more now than ever before, as a reflection into the fierce American level of patriotism that the public experienced during the height of Cold War-Reagan political era.  According to the National Coalition of Television Violence, RAMBO averaged 161 brutal acts per hour.  Yes, the film is very violent and barbaric, but almost in less nihilistic and brutal ways than contemporary films.  Okay, RAMBO, its prequel and the latter less successful RAMBO III, are bloodbaths, to be sure, but deep down they reveal other hidden truths.  John Rambo is a physical manifestation of all of our adult and childhood dreams, a GI JOE come to life, but more or less as a vile, detached, and melancholic killing machine.  In short, not your your average American hero.   

RAMBO II and the other films in the series kind of did a frank and explicit job of encapsulating the type of testosterone-fuelled aggressiveness that permeated Reagan-era America.  This is all the more ironic, considering that the character of John Rambo was given birth in a modest little novel by a Canadian writer.  David Morrell first introduced Rambo in the early 70’s novel FIRST BLOOD. The novel detailed a figure that was kind of the strange embodiment of the counterculture of the time, a lone figure, a drifter and a deeply troubled, monosyllabic man prone to acts of supreme violence.  Morrell’s long-haired and hot tempered protagonist reeks with his own resentment to bogus authority figures who claim to be running the country and has a genuine disdain for small town America, who he thinks sort of forgets and ignores the sacrifices he’s made for his country.   

That book was made into the very competent action thriller, FIRST BLOOD, in 1982, and detailed Rambo’s run in with a small town sheriff (played by Brian Dennehy, in one of the most thankless action roles of that year) who arrested him for less-than-realistic charges.  Once in custody, and hassled and tormented by Dennehy’s officers, Rambo snaps, escapes the law, and flees into the forests where he sort of reinvents himself back to his cold and calculating combat war machine that completely brutalizes the police officers that follow him.  FIRST BLOOD was a tight, well directed, and tense film, with a memorable ending that included a Stallone monologue that, for once, does not inspire groans.  In it, Rambo embodies a central theme that would permeate the entire franchise: to him, Vietnam was a just war that was winnable, but it was one that was ultimately lost because of the vile and evil hippies and spineless politicians that would not allow war machines like Rambo to go in and take care of business until it was done.  Here lies the inner conflict of Rambo:  he’s a proud American who both loves and hates his country, one that he would gladly die for it, but not without a lot of suppressed anger and resentment. 

The first RAMBO film ended with the capture of Rambo and the 1985 sequel essentially takes place directly after his arrest, sentencing, and imprisonment.   We see him working on a prison rock pile (prisoners always seem to be doing this just in the movies) when his old commanding officer, Col. Trautman (the great Richard Crena) shows up to offer Rambo a deal of a lifetime.  It seems that the US government is willing to give John a complete pardon and grant him freedom if he decides to go back to Vietnam and locate some POW’s who might actually still be there.  Rambo, of course, sort of begrudgingly agrees, and in the film’s most famous line asks his father figure and mentor, “This time, do we get to win?”  Of course, if one supports the idiotic and ridiculous notion that one indestructible superman can do what an entire country was not able to years ago.  Yup.  Sure.  Uh-huh. 

Anyway, Rambo is introduced to the other men that will be fronting this mission, like his higher up, a government big wig played by the wonderful Charles Napier.  Basically, the mission is for Rambo to go into Vietnam with “the most advance weaponry the nation has to offer” and locate any possible POWs…and I do emphasize “locate.”  Well, Rambo agrees, goes back to Vietnam, and does manage to locate some POWs.  Of course, the resent-filled and angry war hero can’t think of nothing better to do than save these men and bring them back home.  Well, that’s not what happens, as he is essentially abandoned by Napier and left for dead.  Apparently, in a public relations move that would make Michael Moore’s head spin, Napier and company really does not want to know that there are POWs still back in Vietnam as to not insight any anger or mixed emotions with the American public.  Essentially, they send in Rambo in hopes that he will find nothing and would ultimately be used as a public relations gimmick.  If a war hero from the Vietnam War comes home and states that “all is well”, the US government just can’t buy positive PR like that.  Alas, Rambo does find POWs, is left stranded, and is captured by the North Vietnamese and a series of Russian savages so one-dimensional and wooden that only a Right-Wing piece of hostile propaganda that this film is could possible allow to exist. 

RAMBO II does not, in any serious way, hold itself up to be an action film with a message to be taken seriously.  Instead, see it as it was always intended to be – a 90-minute orgy of wall-to-wall violence and death where the audience's appetite for destruction and chaos is catered to and their overwhelming prejudices are addressed and dealt with.  RAMBO is the kind of film that should have the subtitle “LOVERS of VIOLENT AND MALEVOLENT MAYHEM, UNITE!” all through its proceedings.   I think that it’s really crucial to look at the film in political and social context.  To modern audiences, the film’s Cold War antagonists (the Vietnamese and Russians) are over-the-top in terms of their portrayals as  single-minded stereotypes to the point of being intellectually offensive.  Yet, in 1985, during the years of strength and resolve against Communism by the Reagan administration, RAMBO II tapped into the American psyche in a sense of having their subconscious dreams fulfilled – send in a one-man army to kill as many of those Commie SOB's as possible. In this sense, RAMBO II did not fail on any level. 

Okay, I am not trying to pass off the film as a piece of deplorable and despicable xenophobia mixed with an equally unhealthy dose of silly and incorrect historical revisionism…actually…the film is all of that.  However, much like the ROCKY films, there is absolutely no denying the film’s abilities to push our buttons.  The more the film progresses and the more dead Rambo lays in his wake, the more we oddly demand for him to leave more dead, and in the most unique manner possible.  Rambo may just be one of the more versatile action heroes at disposing of enemies, whether its hiding in mud from the head down, machine-gunning vast numbers of soldiers to their deaths or, in the film’s most memorable “death”, he shots an explosive tipped arrow at one member of the North Vietnamese army as a big, celebratory flipping of the bird to the enemy he hates the most.  Oh, that victim of Rambo’s wrath killed a pretty native girl that served as his guide but whom he fell in love with after only a matter of cinematic convenience.  Her death essentially served as a validation of his rampage. 

RAMBO, for all its cartoonish melodrama and violence, is still a lot of escapist fun, and as long as you do not dip too terribly deep into its politics, you leave it with a bit of a sly smile on your face.  The film was directed with a fanciful and slick eye by George P. Cosmotos, who would later direct the equally stylish TOMBSTONE about Wyatt Earp.  The visuals are always kinetic, fast, and have a sort of comic-book/adventure feel that gives the film its necessary sense of silly scope.  There is also the terrific Napier, who plays a villain who was born to be a Rambo villain: He’s pencil pusher from the US government that screws Rambo a second time, and when an exasperated Rambo tells him that “he’s coming”, you just can’t buy that type of exciting foreshadowing.  The film, at least for its last act, still remains one of the more forceful and expertly paced sequences of turmoil and bedlam of the last 20 years.  The film also supplies yet another painful monologue for its hero at the film’s conclusion, but this time it feels more force-fed than it actually should have been. 

RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II is a film of great historical reflection, and I am not thoroughly sure that it could exist in our current and decisive PC environment.  John Rambo remains, even today, to be an exceedingly divisive action-hero.  His exploits thrill and excite some audience, while others find his methods contemptible and his morals backwards and archaic, a shoddy and dirty symbol and a disenfranchised American society.  Revisiting it, 20 years later, it’s clear that Stallone created one of the more memorable screen figures of 1980’s cinema.  Not too many stars can lay claim to embodying, so fully, an action star that is so popular and identifiable with his audience. Harrison Ford did it with the INDIANA JONES pictures, and Stallone definitely did that with his RAMBO films.  RAMBO is the ultimate male fantasy figure: a lone anti-hero hated by the establishment (an underdog not too unlike Rocky Balboa) that is given a chance to get even and pay his emotional dues.  Rambo tapped into audience feelings and nerves back in 1985, and it may all be a wildly concocted fantasy, but as long as it’s done with wit and style, it's still an entertaining and silly ride.  RAMBO II may be overwrought and mindless, but there’s not a dull moment in it.

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