1985 was very good to Sylvester Stallone at the box office: he enjoyed two titanic hits with sequels to past successes, Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part II. Both are united by a rah-rah, U.S.A.-all-the-way mood that was perfectly in tune with Reagan-era America. This element was surprising for a sequel to First Blood, which offered a pretty intense critique of how America treats its veterans. That theme is nowhere in sight with Part II, which pushes machismo, musculature and military fetishism to epic heights.
Rambo: First Blood Part II begins with our hero (Stallone) getting sprung from prison by his former commander Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), promising freedom if Rambo can successfully undertake a mission for the U.S. government. Soon, they are in Thailand, where mission honcho Murdock (Charles Napier) gives Rambo the orders to go behind enemy lines in Vietnam and take pictures of American P.O.W’s. When Rambo finds some prisoners and attempts a rescue, he discovers he has enemies on both sides of the mission – and he must draw on all his soldier skills to complete the mission.
If you Rambo: First Blood Part II back to back with First Blood, the changes in tone and attitude are enough to give you whiplash. The first film’s cynical attitude and pointed commentary on the mistreatment of Vietnam War veterans by their country is replaced with a simplistic comic book fantasy where the psychic wound of the Vietnam War can be fixed by simply sending one super-soldier back to avenge his P.O.W. brethren. The film announces this intention in the opening scene when Rambo, in a line designed to elicit applause from the audience, asks Trautman: “Do we get to win this time?”
Rambo: First Blood Part II is often rejected by critics as being a right-wing and/or jingoistic movie. A closer look reveals that it delicately tiptoes through those minefields. The non-Vietnamese bad guys here are revealed to be politicians who want the appearance of doing something for P.O.W.’s without having to commit to the expenses necessary to pull it off. The conservatives who were eager to claim Rambo as a standard-bearer often overlook the fact the film doesn’t differentiate between left or right wing politics: they’re all corrupt in this film’s eyes. As for the military issue, it is pro-soldier over everything else, a point encapsulated in Rambo’s monologue at the film’s end.
A young James Cameron co-wrote the script with Stallone but you’d never see his future greatness here: the story mechanics are crude, with a mid-point twist that’s obvious as soon as you meet the character that will perpetrate it. It’s also full of paper-thin supporting characters on both the hero and villain sides: the Vietnamese soldiers are simply animals who exist to brutalize their American prisoners, the Russian officer (Steven Berkoff) in cahoots with the Vietnamese is a power-tripping sadist and even Rambo’s loyal Vietnamese ally (Julia Nickson) takes the “nice foreign kid the soldiers like” archetype that you saw in old WWII-era potboilers and updates it to a shapely female assistant who of course falls for Rambo.
Despite these issues, Rambo: First Blood Part II still works at a reptile brain level. The direction (George P. Cosmatos is credited, Stallone is rumored to have contributed) is slick and pace-conscious, trimming the fat and putting the focus on excitement. Stallone knows how to exploit his brooding sensibility and ripped muscles for the camera and gets quality support from a well-chosen supporting cast. Crenna and Nickson are likeable in essentially thankless roles, Berkoff’s icy intensity shows why he was the go-to villain in the mid-’80s and Napier steals every scene he gets as the film’s grinning sleazeball mission chief. Look out also for Martin Kove, fresh off of The Karate Kid, as a particularly smarmy mercenary in Murdock’s employ.
It helps that the crew on this film is a veritable A-team: distinguished Brit cinematographer Jack Cardiff draws out the vibrant textures of the jungle locales, Jerry Goldsmith contributes a rousing score rich in textures (orchestral, electronic, percussion) and a team of editors including action/sci-fi wiz Mark Goldblatt makes sure each battle is cut in a punchy manner. In SCTV terminology, the second half of the movie “blows up real good” and this crew keeps the action rolling out like a fine-tuned machine.
Thus, you can sneer at the thematic clumsiness and entry-level simplicity of Rambo: First Blood Part II if you like but one viewing will reveal why the Italian genre film mill spent the back half of the ’80s ripping this film off. It’s a different film for a different mood, a skillfully made potboiler without an ounce of fat on it. If you want to mainline the feel of ’80s action, you’ll got a rich source of that vibe right here.