Should I Watch..? 'Rambo: First Blood - Part II'
What's the big deal?
Rambo: First Blood - Part II (confusingly also known as Rambo II or First Blood II) is an action war film released in 1985 and is the sequel to the 1982 film First Blood. The film featured Sylvester Stallone reprising the role of John Rambo, a traumatised war Vietnam veteran who is sprung from prison by his superior officer in order to confirm whether POWs are being held in the country. The film is a marked contrast from the first film as it features far more violence than before at the expense of exploring Rambo's mental state. Despite negative reviews, the film was a major success at the box office with global earnings in excess of $300 million. It also laid the template for successive films featuring the character as well as a number of parodies and imitations.
What's it about?
A year into his sentence after the events of the first film, John Rambo is contacted by his old commanding officer Colonel Trautman with a surprise mission. With the Vietnam war over, reports have emerged of prisoners-of-war being held in Vietnam and the US Government wish to conduct a small incursion to confirm these reports. Rambo agrees on condition that he is pardoned for his crimes and is later introduced to government representative Murdock who orders Rambo to photograph any POWs - under no circumstances must he engage the enemy or conduct a rescue.
Dropped into the jungles of Vietnam, Rambo meets up with local contact Co-Bao and quickly discovers a number of POWs being held at a military encampment. Against his orders, Rambo rescues one of them left tied to a post but finds himself double-crossed as the helicopter leaves him and Co-Bao behind enemy lines. Realising that he's been set up, Rambo begins to make his way back to camp as well as taking out the Vietnamese camp - which is being propped up by heavily-armed Soviet reinforcements...
John J. Rambo
Col. Samuel Trautman
Lt. Col. Podovsky
George P. Cosmatos
Sylvester Stallone & James Cameron *
Release Date (UK)
30th August, 1985
Action, Thriller, War
Academy Award Nominations
Best Sound Effects Editing
Worst Picture, Worst Actor (Stallone), Worst Screenplay, Worst Original Song ("Peace In Our Life")
Razzie Award Nominations
Worst Supporting Actress (Nickson), Worst New Star (Nickson), Worst Director
What's to like?
I can only presume that Stallone, after seeing the success Arnold Schwarzenegger was having, decided to push the envelope in this sequel to First Blood. While that film may have been tense and gripping as well as explosive, it lacked the visceral impact a proper action movie possesses mainly due to the lack of actual armed conflict. Rambo, after all, is an empty shell of a character so it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to throw him back into his own personal war. With the Cold War still praying on audience's minds, Stallone was giving them a hero who was dealing with those pesky Soviets any which way he can.
Sure enough, the film is a veritable orgy of destruction after an initially slow build-up. From jungle warfare to tanks and helicopters, Rambo: First Blood - Part II certainly doesn't skimp when it comes to blowing stuff up. Stallone looks every inch the Neanderthal killing machine while Berkhoff's well-rehearsed bad-guy routine gets another outing. It's a film with no pretension to it - it knows that it doesn't have to do anything other than provide plenty of guts and glory for its male audience to cheer over. The film's recipe is remarkably stripped down and basic - guns, grenades and grunts flying across the place as the set around them explodes. There isn't room for anything else.
- James Cameron has claimed that he only wrote the action parts of the film and Stallone added the political elements, some of which were considered controversial. Cameron's script had Rambo starting in the film in a psychiatric ward.
- The film's body count is surprisingly low, given the amount of violence in the picture. There are 85 confirmed kills on screen with Rambo accounting for 74 of those. The first kill doesn't happen until the 34-minute mark.
- The film is dedicated to Cliff Wenger Jr, a stuntman who worked on the picture until he was accidentally killed by one of the film's explosions.
What's not to like?
Today, the film feels about as creaky as one of those bamboo towers Rambo frequently destroys. The Cold War politics that are crudely shoe-horned into place during Rambo's closing speech is as corny as a veggie burger and much less satisfying, not to mention scant justification for the excessive amount of force used in the film. Stallone's performance is bordering on the comical at times but his is a tour de force compared to that of Nickson's performance - the predictable romance between her and Rambo is nonsense while her dialogue and delivery makes her sound like a badly-programmed robot. I had fun trying to decide whether Nickson, Stallone or their rickety boat was the most wooden.
While I enjoy mindless action as much as the next person, I simply couldn't get on board with this brutal exercise in what is basically a one-man murder machine. The reason? Well, I didn't like the direction they dragged the character in. In the first film, Stallone played a desperate man struggling to adjust to everyday life and the mental trauma he endured during combat. But in this movie, he seems almost nonchalant about being thrown back into combat as if each dead extra exorcised one of his many demons. This Rambo was just too different from the first film, which I enjoyed very much. This just felt silly by comparison and had much less to say about the plight of veterans than the first film ever did. What is the message in this film - if you're down in the dumps then simply murder as many people as you can, providing they are enemies of the United States? Not exactly uplifting, if you ask me.
Should I watch this?
Rambo: First Blood - Part II is a difficult film to recommend unless you know any self-styled militia or need something brainless for a nostalgic lad's night in. The film is simply too much - too dumb, too noisy, too violent and too different from the much better first film. If you only want action from a film then this will do the trick but there are countless other imitators who give you a gripping story, tension, decent performances or even humour if you want it. This, by contrast, feels as lifeless as one of Rambo's victims.
Great For: action lovers, Stallone's bank balance, Donald Trump
Not So Great For: pacifists, fans of the first film, Vietnamese audiences, Vladimir Putin
What else should I watch?
If that didn't satisfy your bloodlust then you'll probably want to check out Rambo III which sees Rambo go to Afghanistan to help the native Mujahideen freedom fighters (the ones that would later turn on the Americans in real life) in their effort against the Russians as well as rescuing Col. Trautman who finds himself captured. There was one last hurrah for the character in the equally no-nonsense Rambo which also pathetically attempted to justify hugely excessive violence by pitching Rambo against the military junta in Burma. Both are films that seem to enjoy blowing extras up into patches of red mist but neither really ticked all of my boxes.
Thankfully, action has moved on since Stallone's one-man crusade against Soviet Russia. Bruce Willis showed us how brilliant action movies could be with the iconic Die Hard a few years after this, combining a charismatic lead with memorable baddies as well as heart-pounding action and stunt-work. And if you wanted a more forward-thinking, digitally enhanced experience then you won't find better than the first episode of The Matrix franchise.
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© 2016 Benjamin Cox