The Vietnam War: an open wound in American history. Especially back in the 70s and 80s. Hollywood picked up on this sentiment back then with movies like The Deer Hunter and First Blood. While the title character of First Blood, John Rambo, is now mostly known for a series of over the top action movies the first movie is fairly low-key by comparison. First Blood was a bleak movie. A movie about dealing with topics such as the loss of friends and P.T.S.D. Sure it was wrapped in a survival movie in which one man destroyed an entire town, but Rambo was a tragic figure. Taken into police custody at the end of the movie with the downbeat song “It’s a long road” accompanying the end credits. Makes me cry every time.
So what does such a movie need? A kicking ass sequel of course!
Well not really actually, but Rambo made so much money and Sylvester Stallone was in a need to get another franchise to his name. Save for the Rocky movies, most of the movies he starred in where box office duds. Rhinestone, Victory, Paradise Alley, F.I.S.T.; I haven’t seen any of these movies. So Rambo: First Blood Part II was Stallone’s hope to more regular success. He would also star in Rocky IV later that year. At the time it probably seemed that the Rocky franchise was reaching its end. Oh how wrong he was.
In Rambo: First Blood Part II the imprisoned John Rambo is given an assignment by the government: do some recon to find out if there are still prisoners of war (POWs) held captive in the jungles of Vietnam. In return he’s promised his freedom.
This could have been a thoughtful movie in which they further explored the emotional trauma the horrors of war often give people. Instead they go out full on balls to the wall action. Rambo: First Blood Part II is probably the quintessential “one man army” movie. Sure, Chuck Norris did Missing in Action a year earlier, but that movie was never as big as this one. Schwarzenegger would star in Commando just a few months after the release of this movie. A movie that is almost a parody of “One Man Army” movies.
Then again, “One Man Army” movies are basically almost always parodies in their own right.
One of the most frustrating things about the Vietnam war was that the biggest, most technological advanced army in the world could not defeat “a bunch of farmers”. Rambo: First Blood Part II tries to soothe that pain, by having Rambo defeat a small Vietcong army with only the help of a young local woman. She dies, halfway throughout the movie, giving Rambo some extra personal motivation. As if the P.T.S.D., a double crossing superior officer and his freedom were not already enough.
Rambo becomes this indestructible force who single-handedly takes out one guy after another. Equipped with just a bow and arrow. He outruns explosions, hijacks a chopper in mid-air and creates extensive traps in just a matter of minutes.
There are glimpses of the John Rambo from First Blood, mostly during the first act of the movie. He utters lines like “Do we get to win this time?” and mumbles about how he is expendable. These scenes feel forced due to the excessive nature of the rest of the movie. In a different movie, there would be catchy post-mortem one-liners. Here they are meant to be thought provoking. But they’re hard to take seriously when Rambo is destroying a small village full of farmers with explosive arrows a scene later.
A hero is only as good as its villain and Rambo: First Blood Part II offers surprisingly many villains. There is the commanding Vietcong officer who runs the camp Rambo infiltrates. He turns out to answer to a Russian military officer who has his own small army wherever he goes. But there’s also the lying bureaucrat Murdock, whom both Rambo and Trautman answer to. Unlike in First Blood, which had rather grounded antagonists, these villains are rather cartoonish and have little development. It suits the more over the top approach this movie takes, but they’re not very memorable. Murdock does give Rambo a reason to shoot up some American property again. A nice nod to the original movie.
Rambo: First Blood Part II lacks the emotional punch the original movie had. But it’s a silly and fun movie that actually has an enormous legacy. It paved the way for 80s action movies like Commando and it gave Stallone’s career a boost in a new direction. With this movie he became one of the leading faces of 80s and 90s action movies. Movies like Cobra, Tango & Cash, Cliffhanger and Demolition Man. Quite the impact for a goofy movie in which one soldier is apparently capable of winning a war the entire U.S. Army lost a decade earlier.