“To survive a war, you gotta become war,” says John Rambo.
David Morrell’s 1972 novel First Blood took 10 years to reach the big screen, culminating in Ted Kotcheff’s 1982 cult classic First Blood. A tale of a Vietnam veteran who was wrongfully imprisoned for vagrancy in a small town in the Pacific Northwest and later broke out and stood up to police brutality (and a National Guard manhunt), the film starred Sylvester Stallone, was a decent box office hit, and gave birth to Stallone’s second iconic film character. Stallone would return as the haunted Vietnam vet in the first Rambo sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II (the film that helped the Rambo character achieve iconic status). I got to see First Blood on the big screen seven years ago, and I’d always wanted to see the sequels on the big screen as well. I finally got a chance to see a midnight showing of Rambo: First Blood Part II at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York City. Despite seeing the film on DVD many times, it was still a blast to see it on the big screen.
1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II follows the former Green Beret John Rambo as he is recruited by his former commanding officer for a top secret recon mission that will bring him back to Vietnam to confirm the existence of American POW camps. Once he’s betrayed by an American bureaucrat, Rambo vows vengeance and unleashes hell (as well as trying to rescue some American POWs). George P. Cosmatos (who is allegedly the credited director while Stallone was actually the one calling the shots) gathered returning cast members Stallone (as Rambo) and Richard Crenna (as Col. Sam Trautman) as well as new cast members Charles Napier (as Murdock), Julia Nickson (as Co-Bao), Martin Kove (as Ericson), Andy Wood (as Banks), Steven Berkoff (as Lt. Col. Podovsky), and Voyo Goric (as Sgt. Yushin). Stallone is in fine form again as the elite soldier Rambo. He subtly conveys how Rambo is still haunted by his experiences in Vietnam and his hope that he’ll find American POWs. Crenna is excellent once again as the fatherly Trautman, who continues to do all he can to help Rambo. Nickson shines as Rambo’s ally and eventual love interest, and Napier and Berkoff are both wonderfully slimy and villainous (respectfully).
The screenplay by Stallone and James Cameron explores how Rambo psychologically deals with returning to the place that has haunted him (mostly through thrilling action sequences that offer Rambo the chance for him to determine whether he gets to win in Vietnam this time). The editing by Mark Goldblatt, Larry Block, Mark Helfrich, Gib Jaffe, and Frank E. Jimenez moves the film at a terrific pace and heightens the action. Jack Cardiff’s cinematography is beautiful, highlighting the exotic locales and the darker tone of certain scenes (Rambo’s interrogation scene is one of my favorites). Bill Kenney’s production design recreates a U.S. military base and convincing Vietnamese POW camps (the mud pit with the leeches was certainly gruesome-looking). Frederick Brown’s sound design creates a sonic jungle environment and emphasizes all sorts of weapons fire and usage, picking up an Oscar nomination for Best Sound Editing.
Jerry Goldsmith returns to deliver another exciing Rambo score, mixing electronics with orchestra. In addition to reprisals of his original Rambo theme, Goldsmith introduces a new Rambo action motif, a villainous Russian theme, and an Asian motif that sprinkled throughout the score. The legacy of Rambo: First Blood Part II is an interesting one. It was a huge box office success, cementing Rambo as an iconic figure. The film had an impact on Vietnam veterans as well, many of whom began to open up about their experiences during the war after seeing the film. The film also inspired a short-lived animated series and two more live-action sequels, in addition to a number of poor imitators such as the Missing In Action franchise (which was ripped off from Cameron’s original script). Rambo: First Blood Part II is an action classic that continues the cinematic journey of John Rambo and serves as a continuing commentary on the Vietnam War.