Stallone Month: Rambo: First Blood Part II

What a gloriously stupid movie. First Blood, the 1982 film about a disturbed Vietnam vet taking on a county sheriff with a bloated sense of self-importance, was a surprisingly impressive film. It was gritty and low-rent, despite having a big star in the lead. It was an action film that had real world reasons for the action. It was ridiculous and believable at the same time. But today’s film is just a blood and guts cartoon.

After the events of the first film, viewers see that John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) has been sent to a prison rock quarry for his crimes. He’s set to bust boulders apart with a sledgehammer for the next five years, until his old commander, Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), shows up at the fence with a proposition. If Rambo agrees to take part in a secret mission to infiltrate Vietnam, he’ll be a free man.

It seems that a prison camp has been located in the jungle that could have American POWs still held captive within. Rambo’s mission is to confirm the prisoners are there, paving the way for a later rescue mission. That’s what Rambo was told, anyway. But we viewers know, as does Rambo, and anyone else who has ever seen a 1980s action film, that that’s not how things are going to go down. Rambo is a one-man army. He’s lethal to comedic levels of absurdity. You don’t send a killing machine like John Rambo on a scouting mission. In First Blood, Rambo did all he could to avoid actually killing anybody, which is why he only had another five years left in his prison sentence. But the rules of engagement have changed for the sequel. The Vietnamese soldiers he takes on in this flick might as well be mannequins. Rambo is free to slay them with abandon, never fearing that they will ever be portrayed as human.

In the American political consciousness, The Vietnam War lingered on into the ’80s. That makes sense. It was our first loss in war, and it stung quite a bit that we fought the stupid thing in the first place. We lost over 50,000 service members in that war and not a single one of them had to be there. It was a war of choice, and it was a stupid choice. It was a war traumatic enough to the United States that there has been something of a cottage industry in war revisionism. In the new narrative, we didn’t lose the Vietnam War. Rather, we stopped fighting before the mission was complete, and then abandoned our South Vietnamese allies to the communists from the north. There’s not a grain of truth to this. We got beat, fair and square, by an enemy who took losses in the millions, compared to our tens of thousands. We had no defined mission other than ‘win the war.’

But I suppose self-examination, followed by an unhealthy dose of denial, was the only thing that could happen following the war. That’s how we get this line from Rambo, after he accepts the mission from Colonel Trautman: “Do we get to win this time?”

Yes, John. You get to win. You get to go back to Vietnam and kill those gooks with all the pent up frustrations of an entire nation as your ammo. You get to go and get the last word for us, because this is America, and we don’t lose wars.

So that’s the politics of Rambo: First Blood Part II. That’s what the filmmakers used to prime audiences for the action. And how is that action? It’s pretty damned good. As I wrote above, it is very cartoonish. Rambo is a super soldier who always fires from the hip, yet can’t miss. Things blow up and Asian extras go flying. Rambo even uses a bow and arrow with explosive arrowheads. It’s spectacular. And just when a viewer thinks things cannot possibly get any better, the Russians show up. That’s right. It wasn’t enough for Rambo to refight the Vietnam War. This movie was made in Reagan’s America, and by 1985, when this movie was released, Reagan was flying high and the Soviet Union was once again our most avowed enemy. It was only fitting that Rambo should get to waste some Russians.

Director George P. Cosmatos, no stranger to Shitty Movie Sundays, filmed the action to Milius-like levels of violence. The action works so well, in fact, that it overshadows the rest of the plot, and that’s a good thing. The screenplay was written by Sly himself and James Cameron, and it would have been a real slog if too much time was spent on words. Cosmatos, and probably Sly, knew where to keep the focus, so that no matter what one’s politics are, if one is a fan of action, this film will do.

Of final note is Richard Crenna. I gave the poor guy hell for his hammy acting in First Blood. He redeemed himself in this flick by toning it down. Crenna needs no affirmation from me, especially since he’s dead, but seeing how effectively he reprised his role in this film has finally made me understand why Trautman is his signature role. What makes this more impressive to me is that in First Blood, Trautman was useful in providing background on Rambo and other exposition. The character of Rambo would have been too much of a mystery without Trautman. But as the sequel is more cartoonish, so were the demands on the character of Trautman. He’s not there for exposition anymore. He seems to be employed as Rambo’s hype man. Crenna’s lines in this flick are silly, yet he read them like a professional.

There was gravitas to First Blood, and it was all thrown away for this film. In effect, this film destroyed a budding First Blood franchise, and initiated the Rambo franchise. Even still, Rambo: First Blood Part II is a better film than Alien: Resurrection.