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Rambo: First Blood Part II

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1985

‘…still fun to watch despite the head-spinning hypocrisy…’

Where does John Rambo stand politically? Aside from being a loner, a one-man war, and the many other epithets he’s been given over five movies, plus a cartoon series for kids and more, how would he vote, if at all? David Morrell’s book was originally developed for Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro, so one imagines that the account of government vs individual featured in the first film would smack of some kind of liberalism, or at least neutrality. But by the time of this 1985 sequel, Ronald Reagan was in the White House, the inglorious past had been forgotten and a new cartoonish future was being forged. Historians may note that back in the 80’s, 138 of Reagan’s administration officials were subject to investigation, indictment, or conviction, so a little upbeat propaganda to change the mood was in order.

So although Rambo 2 claims to be based on the characters created by Morrell, the overall effect is almost the exact opposite as in First Blood. Instead of fighting against the establishment, Rambo now fights for them, albeit reluctantly. Rambo is smashing stones in a rural labour work camp when Col Trautman (Richard Crenna) approaches him to go back to Vietnam and locate US soldiers left behind after the war. Rambo agrees, but is double-crossed by the authorities, so once he’s completed his mission, rescued the POWs’ and killed everyone else, Rambo heads back to the US to shoot up the offices of the double-dealing corporate zeros who sent him on his way.

George P Cosmatos’ action game-changer is a surprisingly slow burn; not much has happened after an hour of this 96 minute film, but the last half hour makes up for it by offering non-stop carnage. Stallone is credited as writer here alongside James Cameron, who brings a little of his Terminator relentlessness to the narrative. Stallone still glowers like the old John Rambo, but now comes complete with a ridiculous physique that the camera pores over like a car advert depicts a new car, and all kind of military gadgets like grenade launchers. This isn’t much like any real war, it’s a video game set to easy, and the pumped-up action feels more like a playground fantasy than any kind of actual real-world conflict.

I re-watched Rambo: First Blood Part II as part of assessing StudioCanal’s streaming channel; probably the most popular of the five films, it’s also one of the most neglected, possibly because it’s seen as having the most overt political messaging. But Rambo isn’t so much of a Republican or Democrat fantasy, but an adolescent one of killing baddies with impunity. If the first film was about survival, this one sets up a new and unlikely scenario through which Rambo, like Rocky, can not only endure suffering but win. It’s a visceral, ridiculous film that reworks genuine veterans issues to create a comic-book of justified war. Ronald Reagan apparently loved it, and it’s still kinda fun to watch despite the head-spinning hypocrisy of watching Rambo kill 75 times and then walk off into the sunset to a song titled Peace in Our Life, performed via the unique vocal stylings of Sylvester’s brother Frank.

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  1. This got a one-screening reissue some time back and I was hoping to get to see it again. I doubt if anyone then or now was much bothered about the politics. it’s an action picture. And thank goodness Scorsese never got to direct it.

    • He was mooted for the first one, but I think I’m more than happy with Kotcheff’s version, he really dialed that film back, played down the mythic qualities that the other films went bananas with. This film seems to be in some disrepute, but it’s got a certain raw majesty at times.

  2. Is Rambo II a Republican or Democrat movie ? Very good question. When you look at it, it seems to be Reaganish propaganda, but it’s counting without Jim Cameron (which is many things but a lady 😉). Stallone is the right side and Cameron is a lefty, defending blue collars and heroes of the last row in his ow movies. If Johnny R goes back to the dirty war first, I think it’s not win that bloody time, but to rescue the old companions like him. And the rightist government behind is a filthy betrayer. I’m not sure of that but it could make sense, don’t you think?
    Got another theory for the first First Blood but it’s in my own review so… 😉
    Anyway, the “playground” answer should be the cleverest escape.

  3. Your critique was fairer than most. Per (Canadian born) Morrell, ‘Rambo died at conclusion of book 1, end of story.’ However, xenophobia lives as does the retelling of US imperialism… The line I best remember from Rambo II ‘do we get to win this time?’ It morphed into something darker in Rambo III-V (I and III are my favorites), best captured with ‘old men start it, young men fight it, no one wins, everyone in the middle dies, and no one tells the truth.’ However, we can.

    • And I think Rmabo was meant to die at the end of the first film. The Rambo in the second film may be similarly dour and skillful, but his powers have risen to a supernatural level. I’m fond of all the Rambo films, but the politics is never quite the same twice. He’s similtaneously pro-peace and the greatest fighter ever, and these elements are rarely balanced well. And yet you don’t have to any any grasp of politics to enjoy the simple pleasure of cinematic war, a can’t lose scenario in which Rambo alaways comes out on to while decrying the sport he’s the world champion of. The first one, as usual, is the best, but I’m intrigued by your positivism about the third, often seen as the worst. The truth, as you suggest, is not invited to the party in this franchise…

  4. When I was a kid, I thought Rambo and Rocky were the same character. I understood that actors were playing roles, but I thought it was a Clark Kent-Superman situation. No clue why I thought this, but it was such a shock when I realized the truth. Also not sure why I was watching these films at a young enough age to believe that!

    • Well, I can totally see why you might think that they were the same. That’s what I was getting at when I said the first film was about survival, the second was about winning. That works for both Rocky and Rambo films. The First Rambo film is still pretty awesome, but I can imagine this would be light relief for you after The Bear!

    • I’m beginning to think that every Rambo film is different from a political point of view. War is no laughing matter, but these sequels really don’t need to be taken any more seriously than the war comics we used to read at school.

  5. The carnage you mention always made me compare these movies to slasher flicks. When Rambo goes on the hunt you’re just watching people being killed. That’s the whole point of the movie.

    locate US soldiers, and James Cameron has gender swapped.

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