Directed by: George P. Cosmatos || Produced by: Buzz Feitshans
Screenplay by: James Cameron, Sylvester Stallone || Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Charles Napier, Steven Berkoff, Julia Nickson
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith || Cinematography: Jack Cardiff || Edited by: Mark Goldblatt, Mark Helfrich || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 96 minutes
In honor of the upcoming — and presumably final — sequel in the Rambo (1982, 1985, 1988, 2008) franchise, Last Blood (2019), today’s subject of review is the series’ first sequel, most financially successful feature, and most influential installment of the franchise, Rambo: First Blood, Part II (also known as Rambo 2, and henceforth, R2). R2 is similar to other high-profile sequels like Aliens (1986), The Road Warrior (1981), and The Dark Knight (2008), all of which sported bigger budgets, wider marketing efforts, and more ambitious narratives relative to their prequels, and retroactively redefined the overall tone, flavor, and popular culture image of their respective franchises. In some respects, those first sequels replacing their predecessors as the flagship installments of their franchises was predictable given the favorable yet somewhat low-profile releases of those predecessors. Alien (1979) was a chump-budget slasher-in-space that broke into the mainstream by furthering the “used-future” aesthetic of Star Wars (1977) and because of its great trailers; Mad Max (1979) was the brainchild of doctor-turned-rookie-director, George Miller, who took advantage of Australia’s lifting censorship standards to create an Ozploitation revenge flick that, while successful, never became a household name in the United States; Batman Begins (2005) was a surprise critical hit but modest box office success, grossing about $375 million on a $150 million budget despite many audiences assuming it was a sequel to the reviled Batman and Robin (1997). All of these films’ sequels took advantage of their predecessors’ sleeper hit statuses to take their storylines in a new direction.
R2‘s contrast in tone and genre with its forerunner, Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood (1982), is even greater than the stylistic differences between those three aforementioned sequels and their respective prequels. The 1982-film was a cinematic take on the grim, brooding novel of the same name by English professor David Morrell, who based his fictional story in part on the second-hand experiences of his students, many of whom served in the Vietnam War; George P. Cosmatos’ sequel, by contrast, was an over-the-top action film defined by its now characteristic 1980s Hollywood machismo. The sequel feels like glorified fan-fiction in many ways, a fantastical, inexplicable fever-dream of an alternative ending to the original’s grounded realism. Needless to say, R2 soon relegated its much better prequel to cinephile trivia, cementing the burgeoning intellectual property as an action franchise rather than a tragic social commentary on Vietnam-era post-traumatic stress disorder. R2 was followed by another mindless action sequel in Rambo III (1988), after which the series was put on the backburner until the resurgence of Rambo (2008), twenty years later.
Despite my honesty as an action fan and love for cinematic violence in general, I consider R2 one of my least favorite action blockbusters. I seesaw between disliking this or Commando (also 1985) more, given how I can’t decide whether the former’s hamfisted, revisionist commentary is worse than the latter’s cornball dialogue and boring action. If films like Predator, Robocop (both 1987), and Die Hard (1988) represent the best of 1980s Hollywood action cinema, then films like R2, Commando, and Cobra (1986, also by George P. Cosmatos) represent the worst.
Overlooking R2‘s haphazard excuse for existing in the first place — Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo is inexplicably released from his prison sentence for multiple violent offenses, including manslaughter, to search for Vietnamese prisoner-of-war [POW] camps that may or may not exist — this first sequel retains the narrative brevity and tight pacing of its parent franchise’s best films (First Blood, Rambo), but nothing else. R2‘s pop culture image may be that of cartoonish, shoot-em-up action and unapologetic machismo, but its over-the-top action is limited to a couple brief set-pieces and abbreviated montage sequences. To that end, R2 doesn’t embrace the brooding darkness of First Blood or Rambo (2008), but it doesn’t feel lighthearted or fun, either. The film is, instead, a tonal hodgepodge of Reagan-era revisionist jingoism, 1980s blockbuster excess, and cynical political commentary. The core of the plot involves Stallone’s incoherent mission to save American POWs in southeast Asia, but is further muddled by cartoonish villains like Steven Berkoff’s mustache-twirling Soviet officer, as well as a walking caricature of the American military-industrial complex, Charles Napier’s Major Roger T. Murdock. To complete the trifecta of crude action-movie stereotypes, Julia Nickson stars as a pointless female lead who adds nothing of significance to the story, Rambo’s character arc, or the action scenes.
This mess of a film is trying, I think, to portray a sort of testosterone-fueled “rage against the political establishment” of its era. It advocates extreme violence from a one-man army as a cathartic means to solve the quagmire of the Vietnam War. Unlike Rambo (2008), however, R2‘s preaching comes across as tone-deaf and simplistic, like a simpleton trying to convey narrative depth a la Michael Bay. The movie’s violence is so comically one-note and cartoony that it divorces the narrative’s political themes from reality. The movie feels like a rebel without a cause, with less motivation and sympathy for its protagonist than Rambo (2008) or First Blood.
Much like the Rocky franchise (1976, 1979, 1982, 1985, 1990), the Rambo series represents the best and worst of Sylvester Stallone. Stallone at his best is a talented director, a charismatic genre-auteur, and an idiosyncratic yet captivating lead-man. At his worst, however, the “Italian Stallion” comes across as an arrogant meathead whose ego consumes his films from pre to post-production (e.g. Judge Dredd ). I feel his weaknesses as a filmmaker are often overlooked by members of Generation X with playful comments like, “Oh, it’s just some dumb fun,” or, “That’s corny ’80s action for you,” dismissive statements that remind me of peers rationalizing the gratuitous excess of Michael Bay’s worst blockbusters (e.g. Armageddon , Transformers [2007, 2009, 2010, 2014, 2017], Pain and Gain , etc.). Rambo: First Blood, Part II may be dumb and corny, but it’s little fun at all thanks to its heavy-handed preaching, dumb characters, and surprising dearth of action. First Blood, despite having only a single (accidental!) on-screen death in its entire story, feels more brutal, edgier, and more action-packed than its sequel, however much that sequel may have defined its parent franchise for the worse.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Clocking in at a brief 96-minutes, Rambo 2 is overstuffed with a meandering plot, bland villains, and a baffling political message with all the subtlety of a Fox News segment. Sylvester Stallone gives one of the lesser starring performances of his career, using this film more as a peacocking exercise than a cohesive, rock-’em, sock-’em action flick.
— However… the action hasn’t aged as well as fans’ might think, but the violent set-pieces are entertaining enough in their own right. I just wish they were longer and there were more of them.
—> NOT RECOMMENDED. Though not quite as jingoistic as, say, Wolf Warrior 2 (2017), First Blood, Part II doesn’t have nearly enough mindless action to justify its right-wing pandering or tiresome cast.
? It’s like someone invites you to a party and you don’t show up. It doesn’t really matter.