Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) review



Sylvester Stallone (Rambo), Richard Crenna (Colonel Trautman), Charles Napier (Murdock), Steven Berkoff (Lieutenant Colonel Podovsky), Julie Nickson (Co), William Ghent (Captain Vinh), Martin Kove (Ericson)

Directed by George P. Cosmatos

"I want what they want... and every other guy who came over here and spilt his guts and gave everything he had. Once... for our country to love us, as much we love it... that's what I want!"

The Short Version: The sequel to FIRST BLOOD is the epitome of War Porn. Action director Cosmatos's vision of 90+ minutes of money shots reads mission accomplished. There's scores of explosions, bullet-riddled corpses, and Sylvester Stallone's sweaty, muddied-up muscles making love to the camera at five minute intervals. The plot sends Rambo back to 'Nam to find remaining POWs; but it's really just an excuse for Stallone to run around half-naked and blow up anything that moves. RAMBO 2 is macho bravado at its finest. Any resemblance to Ted Kotcheff's psychological war thriller is purely coincidental. 

Imprisoned for five years, Rambo is offered a job to return to the hell that is Vietnam to find any remaining POWs still trapped there. Ordered to only take pictures while a Delta Force team will perform the actual extraction, Rambo is dropped into the jungle, and later learns he's been double-crossed by the very men that sent him there. Vowing to return and settle matters with his employers, Rambo must escape not only from the clutches of the Viet Cong, but also Russian field operatives.

The first sequel to FIRST BLOOD (1982) abandons the psychological motif of that movie, and settles for a scenario that calls for everything in sight to be blown straight to hell. Bullets and explosions are more frequent than dialog; and Stallone shows off his oiled, muddied up muscles for Jack Cardiff's lingering camera much like Robert Tai did with Alexander Lou Rei's toned physique in a string of awful "ninjer" movies.

Sylvester Stallone was a pitiable presence in Ted Kotcheff's movie, and the sort of man an audience could rally behind. That version of John Rambo was grounded in reality. For this sequel, the audience still rallies behind him, but he's far from realistic. Rambo is turned into the Japanese equivalent of Godzilla. Rambo is so over the top, he's no longer pragmatic; he's a comic book character; a force of nature. It was reflective of the times. Everything was big and boisterous in the 1980s, and so were the cinematic heroes.

Just like the weather, you can't control Rambo. When the storm comes, it's a whirlwind of catastrophic proportions. The finale when Rambo wages a one-man war on the Vietcong encampment is an operatic, majestically edited sequence of dictatorial destruction -- a hailstorm of rockets and machine gun fire evaporating the Communist oppression. The lush greenery of the jungle mixed with the bright yellows of explosions are a cornucopia of carnage captured by Jack Cardiff's caressing camera. This bullet ballet is climaxed with a dynamic dogfight/chase between two helicopters. 

Mind you, Rambo's rage isn't confined to the evil empires the world over. He unleashes on the unscrupulous, corrupt government officials who only care about the bottom line as opposed to the men who've signed their lives away in defense of their country. 

For its time, Rambo was the near invincible purveyor of truth, justice, and the American way; a template that wasn't exclusive to US made productions. Other countries followed suit, or had been doing it before we did. Rambo, particularly with this first sequel is arguably the most influential representation of the flesh and blood superman stereotype. This perception of the invincible champion was likely the driving force behind the films wild popularity.   

Like the array of explosions from so many bombs and rockets, RAMBO 2 was a massive hit all around the world. Critics hated it, but audiences loved it. The popularity of the picture certainly left an impression on European viewers. FIRST BLOOD lit the fuse, and FIRST BLOOD PART II was the explosion. A small onslaught of Rambo rip-offs assaulted theater screens overseas, but these were relegated to stealth missions on video store shelves in this country. Some of these were homegrown productions, but Italians and other foreign producers were never ones to let a hot property cool down. With titles like THUNDER WARRIOR (1983), FINAL MISSION (1984), an Indonesian clone titled PEMBALASAN RAMBU (1986), STRIKE COMMANDO (1987), DEADLY PREY (1987), THUNDER WARRIOR 2 (1987), and THUNDER WARRIOR 3 (1988), there was no shortage of machismo on a budget. There were more Philippine lensed entries too numerous to mention, but you can read more about those films HERE.

On the surface, RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II is strictly an entertaining movie made during a time when the country was enjoying unparalleled economic and military strength. Meanwhile, the Cold War and Nuclear Arms Race kept tensions high between the USA and the USSR while Ronald Reagan kept the country safe.

The political pandering in James Cameron's and Stallone's script (more the latter's work than the former) is sporadic, yet there's plenty of patriotic chest-thumping misinterpreted as propaganda. The character of Rambo, as exaggerated as he is, is the cinematic embodiment of American military might, the stars and stripes, and the foundations of freedom that many fought and died for. Again, this was a reflection of the time. It seems oddly out of place today because we've succumbed to a doom and gloom society. And on top of this, it's just a damn movie.

Furthermore, the jingoism is not on display from frame to shining frame. The script depicts an unflattering view of the government while positing those who served in combat as the purest form of honor, integrity, and working class exceptionalism. In essence, they are alone in this world; surrounded by a government that saw them as expendable, political chess pieces; and a public that saw them as the scum of the Earth.  

The one time the film truly shows its red, white, and blue colors is in the very last sequence. Sly invokes his closing speech from FIRST BLOOD with a capsule commentary that's less about the plight of one man than a flag-waving mantra devoted to love of country (quoted at top).

RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II is director George Cosmatos's magnum opus. It's his biggest hit, as well as being one of the biggest box office bonanzas of the 1980s. His other films include ESCAPE TO ATHENA (1979), OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN (1983), LEVIATHAN (1989), and TOMBSTONE (1993). He passed away from lung cancer in 2005.

Prior to RAMBO 2's release, Cannon Group unleashed one of Chuck Norris's most highly regarded works, MISSING IN ACTION (1984). It's worth mentioning that despite it coming out first (the first two MIA's were shot back-to-back), and bearing no resemblance to FIRST BLOOD (other than the 'Nam subject matter), many view it as a clone of RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (1985). Whether you like this movie or not, there's no denying its worldwide popularity; touching a variety of nerves in a great many people -- patrons and movie producers alike.

If you've never experienced the 80s action hero movie, and you're curious, the sequel to FIRST BLOOD is possibly the signature example. It remains a bewilderingly divisive movie when it shouldn't be. Packed with explosions, gunfire, lots of blood and sweat, and starring Sylvester Stallone's muscles, it's the sort of movie that will give your home theater system one helluva workout.

This review is representative of the Lionsgate Blu-ray.
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