Tuesday, January 22, 2008

First Blood: Revisiting the Series - Part II

In anticipation of Friday's Rambo, I am revisiting the entire First Blood series in three installments. This is part two. (Here is part one).

Title: Rambo: First Blood Part II
Release date: May 22, 1985
Domestic box office: $150.4 million
Director: George P. Cosmatos

The Backstory

Sylvester Stallone was ridin' high in 1982: his Rocky III was a summer smash, and First Blood followed in October with his biggest non-Balboa gross to date. Perhaps even better, he had announced himself as the King of Action, with both of his films that year beating the efforts of Arnold Schwarzenegger (Conan the Barbarian), Charles Bronson (Death Wish II) and Clint Eastwood (Firefox). Life was good ...

... until 1983.

Stallone was no stranger to the director's chair, but he had also acted in those projects: Paradise Alley, Rocky II and Rocky III. Undoubtedly wondering what it would be like to stay behind the camera, he signed up as director, writer and producer of Staying Alive, the sequel to Saturday Night Fever. The decision would not go down as one of his best.

What no one remembers is Staying Alive was actually a hit. It was the 8th highest grossing film of 1983, beating the likes of Risky Business, National Lampoon's Vacation and Superman III. But oh lord, it was awful, and everybody knew it. The New York Times called it "clumsy, mean spirited and amazingly unmusical," which is not exactly what one hopes to get from a supposed flashy, fun musical.

With the directing bug squashed for the time being, Stallone decided to stretch his wings in another direction, this one sure to be more successful - COMEDY!

So yeah, that wasn't the best idea either.

Rhinestone, the absolutely tragic pairing of Stallone and Dolly Parton, barely scratched $20 million at the box office. To make things even worse, while he was dabbling in comedy, other action stars were sticking to their genre and flourishing - Schwarzenegger (Conan the Destroyer, The Terminator), Chuck Norris (Missing in Action) and Eastwood (Tightrope) all had hits that year. Oh, and did I mention Stallone turned down Beverly Hills Cop and Romancing the Stone to pair with the country star?

What's a struggling star to do? You've made unsuccessful leaps into directing and comedy, and the competition is catching up. Shall we go back to the familiar?

We shall. The final 1985 box office statistics looked like this:

1) Back to the Future - $210.6 million
2) Rambo: First Blood Part II - $150.4 million
3) Rocky IV - $127.9 million

The Year of Stallone.

The Plot

Two and a half years after First Blood, John Rambo is doing hard labor for his supposed crimes. With five years remaining in the sentence, he gets a visit from old mentor Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna). The Colonel has an offer: go to Vietnam and look for American prisoners of war. Don't attempt a rescue, just gather photographic evidence for a later extraction team to use.
So he takes a camera. And a big knife. And a bow with exploding arrows. The latter two are the audience's first hint that Rambo's "search" mission will eventually have an "and destroy" element added to it.

Once Rambo arrives in Vietnam, the prisoners are located within convenient minutes, and soon nothing will stop our hero from making sure each and every one of them boards a friendly helicopter by the time credits roll. The Vietnamese - and later, oddly enough, the Russians - don't take kindly to the American intrusion. Bullets fly, things go boom, mayhem ensues.

The Review

The disparity between the first two installments of the Rambo series reminds me of another noted action franchise: Lethal Weapon. The first Weapon was a pretty hardcore action-drama, with the lead character suicidal in the beginning and only a little less so by the end. Lethal Weapon 4, on the other hand, was practically a slapstick comedy, with the suicidal lead character now a practical joker, ceding screentime to the likes of Joe Pesci and Chris Rock.

At least Weapon slowly devolved over four films; the vast chasm between First Blood and Rambo: First Blood Part II is immediate. While the 1982 original was mostly a dramatic effort, Part II is practically a cartoon, ceding any realism for a few quick bangs. Sure, there's a tacked on "message" at the end (and, granted, a fairly effective one), but the movie leaves the memory banks as soon as the credits roll. Hell, I watched the movie 25 times as a kid, and I had completely forgotten there were Russians involved until I rewatched the film this week.

All of that said, Rambo II is effective for what it is. The lead character is an original, and the film is certainly never boring. There is some wonderful supporting work from Crenna and Charles Napier, and Stallone is completely invested even if his screenplay is not. Perhaps it's nostalgia talking more than anything, but this movie gets every benefit of its many doubts from me.

Grade: B

The Trivia
  • In Vietnam, Stallone meets up with a native woman who serves as his guide through the jungle. Naturally, she's beautiful, and ends up (briefly) serving as a love interest. I didn't remember, however, how absolutely hilarious her dialogue was. "I just want to live, Rambo. Maybe go America." Naturally, she dies 15 seconds after saying that. (I'm not giving out spoiler warnings for 23-year-old movies, folks).

  • The movie does have its genuinely nice moments. One that stands out is the look on one P.O.W.'s face when he finds out it is 1985.

  • Rambo: First Blood Part II was the first R-rated film my parents let me see in theaters. My best guess is that my brother and sister were at camp, and they didn't want to pay for a babysitter for just me. So at nine years old, I went with my parents, and soon thereafter became the object of all my friends' insane jealousy. "I saw Rambo, and you didn't!" Yeah, fuck y'all.

  • And actually, when I saw it, I had no idea it was a sequel to anything. I mean, if you see The Empire Strikes Back without first seeing Star Wars, you're going to be lost. If you see Rambo: First Blood Part II without first seeing First Blood - well, you're going to have an easier time of it.

  • "I always thought the mind was the best weapon," Rambo says. And they say there aren't valuable lessons in these movies.

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