RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II: Do We Get to Win This Time?

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) – Directed by George P. Cosmatos – Starring Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Charles Napier, Steven Berkoff, Julia Nickson, and Martin Kove.

When people tend to think of Rambo, it’s FIRST BLOOD, PART II that most often gets conjured up in the mind. It’s certainly the image that came to my mind – Rambo pulling the red cloth into a headband … the knife … the big machine gun on his arm, firing pornographically … all those arrows … explosions …

Gone from FIRST BLOOD is the psychological character study and in its place is a much more conventional action film that’s really kinda stupid.

And highly influential.

FIRST BLOOD PART II does not start out stupid, however. For the first half of the movie, it’s really not too bad. John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is breaking up rocks in a prison when Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) visits, offering a mission in exchange for a pardon. Rambo is, at first, reluctant to leave the prison. Trautman can’t really believe he’d rather stay in prison than get let out, but Rambo explains that “in here, at least I know where I stand.”

It’s a smart, psychologically driven answer, and it’s one of the few in the entire film.

Where Rambo gained sympathy in the first film in his constant rejection from normal society, the sequel barely attempts to get you to sympathize with him. Instead, it makes the audience complicit in all the violence and, more importantly, all of the damage done to the men who served in Vietnam. Colonel Trautman is still trying to help Rambo, but his help might end up doing more damage to his favored soldier. Trautman offers Rambo an assignment to go after POWs over in Nam, and you have to wonder at why he’s doing it. Trautman is never anything but in Rambo’s corner, yet he thinks it’s better for the obviously troubled young man to be sent back into the jungle rather than live the consistent, peaceful life in a prison labor camp.

It’s a bit like trying to help a coke addict by breaking them out of rehab and giving them a tray of coke, isn’t it?

PART II is more about violence, evidenced by the long list of war accomplishments that U.S. politician Marshall Murdock (Charles Napier) lists upon meeting him when he arrives in ‘Nam. Trautman is revealed as little more than the delivery man to get Rambo into Nam for him to go take pictures of what is supposed to be a POW camp. There’s a bit of subplot here between the military and the politicians, but the film draws Murdock far too simply for it to have any real traction. Napier is very good in PART II, but he’s playing a type, not a well-rounded person.

It’s admirable that Rambo is horrified at the idea of just being asked to take pictures instead of free any prisoners, but it’s also a forced bit of tension. What Murdock knows is that it’s supposed to be an empty camp. He doesn’t tell Rambo or Trautman this, because he’s a seedy politician jerking their chain. Murdock tries to bond with Rambo by telling him of his own service record, but Rambo recognizes that the politician is lying.

“You’re the only one I trust,” he tells Trautman, thus signalling to the audience that this is going to be a very simple morality play. There’s never any question whose side anyone is on, which just serves as the cinematic excuse to let Rambo go shoot as many people as he can in as many ways as he can.

On his way to the POW camp, he meets up with his guide, Co-Bao (Julia Nickson, who both went on to play Commander Sinclair’s girlfriend on Babylon 5 and marry David Soul), and then gets captured when Murdock orders the evac chopper to pull away and leave Rambo behind. I get that this is supposed to be the symbolic representation of a nation leaving their soldiers behind, but it’s rather clumsily executed. After getting captured by some Vietnames, the Russians show up for God knows what reason.

Well, I mean, obviously it’s to bring Rambo out of Vietnam and all its bad associations and into the contemporary Cold War, but again, it’s clumsily executed and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The Russians torture him and then try to kill him, but of course that doesn’t work because RAMBO III isn’t a ghost story.

After Rambo has defeated anybody and everybody, Trautman asks him what he wants. What he wants is something Trautman can’t snap his fingers and make happen: Rambo wants his country to love the soldiers as much as the soldiers love the nation.

From the moment that chopper leaves Rambo on the hill, FIRST BLOOD PART II starts to nosedive. It’s not that the action isn’t impressive, because there’s plenty of good shots of people getting shot and blown up and all that. It’s just kind of mindless to watch. Rambo might feel more at home in the jungle, but it’s brutal to watch. A coke addict might be happier snorting powder, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for them. That’s what’s depressing about this film – the government has replaced ignoring Rambo for using him.

Despite the downer of the second half, this is still a film well worth watching. The violence is plentiful and not horribly executed, but if you like film, how can you never watch a movie this influential? It’s like FIRST BLOOD PART II and Die Hard because the Iliad and the Odyssey of 1980s action movies, as almost everything that came after them was a derivative of one of them.

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