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Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Julia Nickson, Charles Napier, Steven Berkoff, Martin Kove

Written By: Sylvester Stallone, James Cameron, Kevin Jarre (story) Directed By: George P. Cosmatos

The Short Version

This is the essential American action movie of 1985.

Though just as political as its predecessor, Rambo is far more accessible to all.

With that said, if you don’t remember 1985 personally, it won’t mean the same to you as it will to someone who does.

Lots of stuff goes “boom.”

Golden Age action fans needs to own this; everyone else should watch it at least once.

The Long Version

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“Do we get to win this time?”

“This time, it’s up to you.”

Looking back, it’s safe to say that there are two movies that quintessentially define America in as it was 1985.  In the realm of comedy and pop culture, the movie of note is Back to the Future.  In the realm of action and political culture, the essential film is Rambo: First Blood Part II.  And while both are still hailed as classics over a quarter of a century later and are enjoyed by people of all generations, the fact is that if you weren’t present and conscious of the world around you in 1985, neither film will strike the same chords for you that are struck for those who do remember.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (hereafter referred to as just Rambo, which is what everyone called it until Sly decided to confuse us all in 2008) very neatly bookends/contrasts the original First Blood both in terms of plot mechanics and overt philosophy.  It also reflects the change in American attitudes toward Vietnam and jingoism in general after one full term of the Reagan Administration.

In the world of First Blood that was late 1970s and turn-of-the-80s America, the Vietnam War was popularly looked upon as a national embarrassment: a war that should never have been fought in the first place, made even worse for the fact that the United States did not win.  These sentiments, collectively referred to as “Vietnam Guilt,” were often taken out on American soldiers as they came home, and being a veteran of that conflict was popularly looked upon as a disgraceful thing.  The cold shoulder was the best a vet could often hope for; the story of First Blood was close to the worst, writ large.

Thanks in part to popular conversations started by works such as First Blood, plus the rising tide of jingoism and out-loud Americanism that came with the election of Ronald Reagan and his strong anti-Communist rhetoric (most notably his declaration that the Soviet Union was an “Evil Empire” in 1983), those attitudes had taken a major shift by 1985.  Vietnam Guilt was still there, and the vets of that war still didn’t get the same respect that vets of other conflicts got (after all, the US still lost), but the spitting had by and large stopped, and it was not only okay to be a soldier again, but it was okay to say out loud that American soldiers should be allowed to go out and kick some ass.

Thus, it was time to let John Rambo out of prison (he’d been sentenced to 7 years of splitting rocks for his actions in the first film, which some might call a light sentence, given that he leveled a town), and symbolically erase the Vietnam Guilt by giving the American movie going public an hour and a half of catharsis.  How?  The lines up top say it all: by allowing John Rambo to fight the Vietnam War all over again, starring himself as One Man America, and having him not only win, but also having him rescue American soldiers who’d been left behind to rot as POWs while absolutely vaporizing some Vietnamese (here still tellingly enough referred to as North Vietnamese) and Soviet Commie Bastards along the way.

The official suffix of Rambo may be First Blood Part II, but really, it’s Vietnam War Part II.

President Reagan had himself a private screening of the film at the White House.  He wholeheartedly approved.  And though Rambo got called “controversial” by the media, Americans at large approved, as well, with audiences hailing Rambo as an instant classic.  Indeed, the response to Rambo was so positive that it spun its way into the “fun for the whole family” category, with a “Rambo” Saturday morning cartoon series hitting the airwaves the following year (it would go on to have a respectable run of 65 episodes), and the obligatory action figures hitting the toy stores along with it.

Attitude adjusted 180 degrees, America?  Yeah, you could say that.

Though there are two names on the screenplay for Rambo, all of the political and social commentary that makes it so enduring as a relevant film and so definitive of 1985 America is courtesy of Sylvester Stallone and no one else.  He had the final pass on the script, and by the account of the other guy, who distanced himself from the film by saying that he only wrote the first draft, Stallone’s changes were sweeping and his mark indelible.  The other guy only owned up to the action sequences; the politics, he said, all belonged to Sly.  That other guy, of course, was James Cameron, who typed up his “first draft” while waiting out production delays on some project called The Terminator.

And now that we’ve discussed the politics of Rambo, what about the action movie that Cameron admitted to?

Unlike First Blood, which is all but senseless if one tries to view it as an action film divorced from its politics, Rambo also works as a standalone action flick that people watch just because they like to see stuff go “boom.”  Yes, it’s deeper and more satisfying with the context intact, but even without it, there’s a reason that many action fans still think of Rambo as the definitive “badass in the jungle” action flick, or just the definitive action flick, period.  Even today, almost nothing else comes close.

Where First Blood feels almost tame by modern standards, Rambo is THX shy of blowing away any audience set in front of it, and even with old school Dolby sound, it still rocks like a hurricane.  Well before the big weapons come out, director George P. Cosmatos creates a powerful tension that makes the audience feel like asses are being kicked even when people are just talking or moving alone through the jungle.  The story’s pace is quick and all-but-relentless, allowing viewers just enough time to breathe between the big moments but never enough time to get bored or fall away from the high octane atmosphere of the movie.  And when the weapons do come out…

Even the bow and arrow set goes “boom.”

The body count in Rambo stands at roughly 67 (made all the more significant in 1985 by the fact that almost all of the dead are “Commie Bastards”), with all but 10 being downed by Rambo, which makes his personal body count during the course of this film at least three higher than what the story claims was his confirmed kill count for the entire Vietnam War.  From bullets to rocket propelled grenades to the most awesome arrowheads ever devised by man, Rambo blows up and blows holes in people in more than enough ways to satisfy any gruesome action fan’s craving.  And hey, for those who prefer things to be silent but deadly (hush), there are also classic arrowheads, the Bowie from Hell, throwing knives, and even a good old fashioned toss out of a flying helicopter.  In all cases, the visuals on the kills are expertly filmed, with the “man vs. exploding arrowhead” shot coming across as particularly satisfying.  So if you want the “boom,” Rambo definitely brings the “boom.”

And even if torture scenes aren’t your thing, the box spring electrocution sequence is one of the film’s most memorable, and stands as the definitive iteration of its type.  The setup is simple, but between the gritty production design, the strong direction, and outstanding performances by Sylvester Stallone and Steven Berkoff, the results are damned powerful, and unlikely to be forgotten by any viewer anytime soon.

To many critics at the time, there was nothing more to Rambo but its politics and its explosions, with particular disdain being leveled at the minimalistic approach taken to dialogue.  I don’t agree with that take.  While Rambo is certainly no study in flowery exposition, it is no example of troglodyte knuckle-dragging, either.  Instead, Rambo is economical with its dialogue, with a script that calls for its characters to say exactly as much as needs to be said to make a point, define a character, or set a scene, and no more.  Rambo the film is like Rambo the character; it prefers to speak with its actions, and when it does come time to say something through words, you can bet that it’s something worth saying.  This is particularly true of Rambo’s conversations with Co, which are too often dismissed because of Co’s broken English, but which when listened to are quite insightful, lending real weight to both characters in the process.  (Julia Nickson’s performance as Co is also too often underrated; she does an outstanding job, thank you very much.)  “You not expendable” is no throwaway line; if you listen to everything that’s said throughout the film, you’ll catch that, too.

Is this to say that the script and the story are perfect?  No.  But they are exactly what they need to be, and the results when put in front of a camera transcend what began on the printed page.  And while I am not among those who would call Rambo the greatest action film ever made – I don’t even consider it to be Sylvester Stallone’s best movie, or one of his top three, for that matter – I can understand those who do feel that way, and respect where they’re coming from.  Whether or not Rambo is the best of the best, it’s still more than good enough, and that, along with its relevance as a cultural icon, is why it continues to stand the test of time.

Bottom line, if you want to sum up all of 1985 in two movies, Rambo: First Blood Part II is where you go for the action and the politics.  Beyond that, it’s also a damn fine action movie, and even more than a quarter century later, it stands as one of the true greats of its genre, and a landmark American film.  Rambo is a movie worth watching, and worth owning.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, July, 2012

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