Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Summer School: 'Rambo: First Blood Part II' (1985)

Once again, I'm looking back at previous installments of some of this summer's big returning franchises.

The second movie in the Rambo series (and the first to bear the character's name in the title) is the one that really cemented Rambo's place in the pop-culture consciousness. Pretty much any parody or rip-off of Rambo references this movie, which is every bit the excessive, reactionary ode to ultraviolence that First Blood was not. Much of Rambo: First Blood Part II plays like it was made by people who completely misunderstood the point of First Blood, although star Sylvester Stallone once again co-wrote the screenplay (this time with James Cameron). Maybe it was the lack of David Morrell's source novel to guide them, or maybe Stallone just wanted to bolster his career as a star of action blockbusters. Either way, Part II ends up as the epitome of '80s action cheese, pretty much ruining the character of John Rambo in the process.

The movie opens with Rambo breaking rocks as part of a prison labor gang like he's in a 1930s melodrama, and it seems like he's been living a quiet existence for the past three years. Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna) shows up to change all that, offering Rambo the chance to return to Vietnam for a covert U.S. mission investigating POW camps to see if any American soldiers are still being held prisoner. Everything that we learned about Rambo in the first movie indicates that he wouldn't return to Vietnam for anything, but he doesn't hesitate to agree to Trautman's mission, and he's immediately let out of prison, apparently no longer obligated to serve his sentence for destroying half a small town and assaulting dozens of law enforcement officers.

None of that matters, because Part II is an entirely different kind of movie, quickly putting Rambo in a position to essentially re-fight the Vietnam War. While his resentment of "not being allowed to win" was just a small part of his overall trauma in the first movie, here it's his reason for existing, and he enters the country with what seems like a vendetta against the Vietnamese. Stallone, Cameron and director George P. Cosmatos turn Rambo into the eager, trigger-happy killer that everyone in the first movie misconstrued him as, and he murders dozens of people starting almost immediately after he enters the country. Discovering that there are in fact American POWs still being held at a prison camp in Vietnam, Rambo guns down every Vietnamese soldier in sight, and then when he's abandoned by the craven bureaucrat (Charles Napier, suitably craven) running the mission, he guns down dozens more, along with some Russian soldiers for good measure.

Part II isn't just over the top in its characterization of Rambo; it's full of absurdly bombastic action sequences that obliterate the grounded sense of reality of the first movie. Rambo doesn't just shoot a bunch of people and save the POWs; he seems to be literally invulnerable to bullets fired directly at him, and he's able to trigger explosions seemingly on command. At one point he shoots an explosive-tipped arrow at a single Vietnamese soldier armed with a handgun, and the guy blows up like he's a shed full of dynamite. I saw Weird Al Yankovic's Rambo parody in UHF way before seeing this movie, and what struck me most about watching Part II is that Yankovic barely exaggerates its ridiculousness.

The movie half-heartedly suggests that the spineless American officials represented by Napier's pencil-pusher are the real enemy, but that's hard to buy when Rambo spends all his time killing the Vietnamese (except his offensively cartoonish love interest, who dies in his arms) and the Russians. His killing spree culminates in the murder of the typically massive '80s computer (with lots of flashing lights) that supposedly determines the viability of rescuing POWs. In First Blood, Rambo was unhinged and irrational, a victim of bullying and neglect. Here, he himself is the bully, the filmmakers turning his justified frustration into crowd-pleasing bloodlust.

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