Difficult as it may be to believe, I never actually grew up watching or as a fan of the Rambo films (Various, 1982 to 2019) and my exposure to the works of Sylvester Stallone was comparatively now compared to that of Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, having recently watched the entire series from start to finish, I’m attempting to rectify that by dedicating the next few Fridays to celebrating the fact that First Blood (Kotcheff, 1982) was released on the 22nd of October, 1982.
Released: 22 May 1985
Director: George P. Cosmatos
Distributor: TriStar Pictures
Budget: $25.5 million
Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Charles Napier, Julia Nickson, Steven Berkoff, and Richard Crenna
Three years after the events of the first film, in Hope, Washington, former United States Army Green Beret John J. Rambo (Stallone) is released from a federal prison by his old commander, Colonel Sam Trautman (Crenna). Rambo is assigned the task of confirming reports of U.S. prisoners of war (P.O.W.s) in Vietnam in exchange for a pardon but is quickly forced to once again rely on his extensive combat training after being betrayed by corrupt governmental bureaucratic Marshall Murdock (Napier).
After the spectacular box office performance of First Blood (Kotcheff, 1982), a sequel was all-but-inevitable. Initial ideas for the sequel revolved around partnering Rambo up with a sidekick, rumoured to have been played by John Travolta, and legendary movie director James Cameron even came on board to write the film’s script. However, while Cameron was able to capture the more action-orientated focus of the sequel, which plastered Rambo’s name front and centre, Stallone once again stepped in to handle to more meaningful, political subtext of the film. Similar to the first film, Rambo: First Blood Part II was met with mixed reviews; critics were unimpressed with the film’s violence and excess, its lack of poignant commentary and subtlety compared to the first film, and for being a step back for portrayals of foreign threats. And, yet, Rambo: First Blood Part II absolutely smashed it at the box office, making over $300 million (thus making it the most profitable of all the Rambo movies) and propelling the character into mainstream pop culture the very definition of a “breakout sequel”.
When we re-join Rambo in Rambo: First Blood Part II, he’s toiling away breaking rocks in a prison labour camp; having accepted his lot, and his punishment, he feels safe and secure inside of the prison. However, when Trautman offers him a highly dangerous reconnaissance mission with the potential promise of a Presidential pardon, he accepts the proposal in the hopes of actually being able to “win this time”. In Thailand, he meets with Murdock, who summarises Rambo’s storied and decorated career and even sympathises with him since he’s a former soldier himself; Murdock debriefs on the specifics of the mission, which is to go into Vietnam, completely alone, to find evidence of P.O.W.s.
Rambo is ordered not to engage the enemy as a follow-up strike team will handle the extraction and is afforded a great deal of equipment and technological backup…all of which is rendered completely mute when he’s forced to separate himself from all of his equipment to avoid being torn apart during his drop into the jungle. Although Murdock comments on Rambo’s stoic demeanour, Trautman continues to have the utmost faith in Rambo even though Rambo remains unconvinced that Vietnam has changed since he was last there and spots a flaw in Murdock’s backstory. Ultimately, Rambo’s suspicions about Murdock are quickly shown to be true as he’s incredulous to the ill-advised Vietnam war, is determined to pull out after the thirty-six-hour mission time is up, and sabotages Trautman’s attempt to rescue Rambo. A corrupt bureaucrat, Murdock merely wished to sweep all the rumours of P.O.W.s under the rug with a convenient patsy and is perhaps the most significant threat due to his betrayal that leaves Rambo at the mercy of the film’s more sadistic villains.
It turns out that the Vietnamese forces, led by Captain Vinh (William Ghent) and Lieutenant Tay (George Kee Cheung), are in league with the Soviets, led by Lieutenant Colonel Sergei T. Podovsky (Berkoff) and his right-hand man, the stoic and barbaric Sergeant Yushin (Voyo Goric). When Rambo is captured during his botched extraction, he finds himself at Podovsky’s mercy and once again enduring unspeakable trauma. However, fuelled by his anger at Murdock’s betrayal, Rambo is able to not only endure this torture but also escape from his captors in dramatic fashion before waging a veritable one-man war against the combined forces of the Vietnamese and the Soviets.
Since he had to ditch his equipment during the drop, Rambo is immediately left with little more than hits wits and his trademark hunting knife to see him through. This time around, however, he’s joined on the ground by Co Bao (Nickson), a Vietnamese freedom fighter who arranges safe passage for him up the river. While Trautman continues to talk up Rambo’s unparalleled skills and fortitude, interactions between Rambo and Co explore his humanity and mentality; weary of conflict and the world, the world nevertheless only makes sense to Rambo out in the field and he begrudgingly prefers to be back in the fray if only to be able to recognise his enemy. Although Co fights for similar reasons as Rambo (out of duty and loyalty), she is far more idealistic and naïve than he but still a very capable warrior in her own right and even saves Rambo after he is captured by Podovsky.
In First Blood, we saw how adaptable and capable Rambo was and his ability to survive in the wild and subdue his opponents through non-lethal methods; this time around, these aspects are downplayed greatly but are still evident in decidedly different ways. Rambo favours a bow and arrow, for example, in order to make less noise and adopts a sneaky, stealthy approach to his rescue effort and fighting skills to pick off the Vietnamese and Podovsky’s men. However, given that he’s now in the midst of a war zone, all pretence is dropped and we get to see just how skilled of a soldier he is; Rambo shoots arrows through guys’ heads, blasts them to bloody chunks with a shotgun, and brutally stabs them to death with his big ol’ knife, proving to be every bit the remorseless and fierce killer Trautman sold him as in the first movie.
Right from the start, Rambo: First Blood Part II is a very different film to First Blood; there’s very little time wasted in the early going and Rambo is dropped into Vietnam within the first fifteen minutes. However, despite being a much more action-orientated film, Rambo: First Blood Part II’s pace is largely similar to that of the first film and, while the body count is much higher, the action escalates over time and continues to primarily focus on Rambo’s guerrilla tactics rather than just being a nonstop, action-packed extravaganza.
This isn’t entirely surprising and is telegraphed during Rambo’s meeting with Murdock; Rambo is appalled at his orders not to attempt a rescue and, whether due to his own previous experiences as a P.O.W. or because of his suspicions about Murdock, he immediately disregards the reconnaissance mission to rescue one of the P.O.W.s, Banks (Andy Wood), and it’s pretty obvious the Rambo always planned on rescuing the P.O.W.s just as much as he relished the idea of getting a measure of revenge against the Vietnamese forces.
Rambo’s mission is much more personal this time around thanks, firstly to him being betrayed by his own government and, secondly to Tay’s killing of Co right as the two began to explore their mutual attraction. Already fuelled by his traumatic experiences in the Vietnam War, these betrayals and losses and being surrounded by enemies on all sides only drive Rambo to fight harder and more aggressively. He cakes himself in mud, fires explosive arrows at enemy encampments from afar (and makes Tay pay for his actions with a similar arrow), and eventually commandeers a Soviet attack helicopter (after a particularly brutal fight with the indomitable Yushin) to rain unrelenting fire down upon his enemies.
In the end, Rambo: First Blood Part II delivers an exciting and explosive finale as Podovsky and Rambo engage in a helicopter chase and firefight; Rambo, again displaying how smart and cagey he is, feigns defeat and death to fool Podovsky into hovering in range of a fatal rocket strike and he’s able to carry all the remaining P.O.W.s to safety, leaving Vietnam little more than a smouldering mess. Returning to the base, Rambo then confronts Murdock, destroying his office in an iconic hail of gunfire and demanding that he find and rescue the remaining P.O.W.s held in Vietnam before delivering a sobering monologue and walking off the an uncertain future.
At its heart, Rambo: First Blood Part II is the ultimate redemption story, especially for Rambo; in the first film, he was haunted by his memories and experiences in Vietnam and was on the razor’s edge of sanity and humanity. Now, far more jaded and disillusioned, he’s given the chance at serving once again and helping to rescue fellow soldiers from the same situation and, in the process, dropped right back into the meatgrinder. However, as dangerous and cunning as Rambo was on home soil, he’s (as Trautman says) right at home in the thick of it all and, thanks to his incredible skills and volatile nature, is able to extract a measure of revenge for all the atrocities he suffered in Vietnam. While the body count is higher and the action is bigger, the film retains the same visceral, bleak undertones as the first and delves a little deeper into Rambo’s psyche to explore his vulnerability a little bit more. A patriot at heart, he’s perfectly willing to put his life on the line for his country and his fellow man but all he wants in return is a little respect and gratitude. It’s not a massive part of the film’s plot but this is clearly a story about a man confronting his demons and, while Rambo might lament conflict and be tired of all the killing and chaos, he’s still a savage and wily soldier when pushed into action and this is emphasised even more here since he’s actually in a war zone so he doesn’t have to worry about pulling his punches. In the end, it’s maybe lacking a little of the nuance of the first film but I’d say it’s just as good, if not better in some ways because of the brutality and more explosive nature of the action.
What did you think to Rambo: First Blood Part II? How do you feel it holds up today, especially compared to the first film and the sequels? Were you disappointed that some of the nuance of the first film was lost in favour of a far higher body count or do you think the sequel compliments the first in providing Rambo the chance at confronting his demons? What did you think to the brief romantic sub-plot and to seeing Rambo’s skills in the field? Which Rambo film is your favourite? Whatever your thoughts, leave a comment below and be sure to check out my review of the third film.