Yesterday we looked at the cinematic origins of John Rambo in First Blood and how it greatly differs from the general perception of the characters as a muscle-bound hero of pure American might. Today brings us to the first sequel in the Rambo saga, Rambo: First Blood Part II. Here is where we begin to see the origins of Rambo as jingoistic figure as he returns to Vietnam nearly 20 years after the fall of Saigon. This is where the myth of Rambo and unyielding might of American militaristic force is initially forged, though it’s still not on a level that matches the popular understanding of the character. That, dear reader, will be saved for Rambo III.
The sequel opens with John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) breaking rocks in a prison work camp. He’s paying the price for his rampage in the previous film. Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) finds his former soldier to make him a proposition – go back to Vietnam on a reconnaissance mission to earn an early release. He’ll be going behind enemy lines to search for POWs that have been there since the end of the war. In his mumbling macho voice, Stallone’s Rambo asks his commanding officer the question that will define Rambo: First Blood Part II: “Do we get to win this time?”
Under orders from Col. Trautman and a Washington bureaucrat Marshall Murdock (Charles Napier), Rambo will enter Vietnam and only document where the missing POWs are being held. He is under strict orders not to engage the enemy. As he parachutes down, Rambo’s bag gets stuck and he’s forced to cut loose his bag with all of his equipment, leaving him mostly unarmed for his dangerous mission. The former Green Beret will have to mostly rely on his wits to survive this journey into enemy territory.
On the ground, Rambo meets his liaison Co-Bao (Julia Nickson). Upon reaching the POW camp, Rambo disobeys his orders and attempts to rescue one poor POW. He’s noticed and a fight breaks out with the Vietnamese soldiers. As Rambo reaches the extraction point, the helicopter pilot notices he’s got a POW with him and Marshall orders his men to retreat. Once again, Rambo and his fellow POWs have been left behind by their government.
Many see this film as Stallone and his immense ego relitigating the Vietnam War only this time America emerges victorious on his sweaty, muscular shoulders. I, however, don’t find the film to be doing that. First Blood Part II is much more concerned with using the POW story as a means to drive the film’s ridiculous action, which quickly shifts the away from making the Vietnamese villains and instead focuses on Stallone’s favorite villains – the Soviet Union. In his other 1985 smash hit, Rocky IV, Stallone singlehandedly took on the Soviet Union. Each of these films proved to be mega-hits for their star as he tapped into Cold War tensions for his self-aggrandizing escapist fare. Once Rambo has been captured trying to escape with the POW, it’s revealed that his whole nefarious operation to keep these soldiers imprisoned is a Russian plot headed up by Lieutenant Colonel Podovsky (Steven Berkoff). It always circles back to the Russians.
I see this sequel less of a jingoistic exercise in American might and more a kind of pulpy revisionist history, the kind that Quentin Tarantino would do with Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Here we’re revisiting painful moments in history and rewriting them to offer the audience catharsis through violent retribution. The only difference here is that Stallone plays the material entirely in earnest, perhaps too earnestly. Director George Cosmatos seems to be a little more aware of the absurdity of the material, as he leans in on making this a stylishly absurd work of revisionist history. The violence is over the top to the point where Rambo kills a lone soldier with an explosive arrow, his mortal remains splattering in every conceivable direction.
One of the more unfortunate aspects of First Blood Part II come from the character Co-Bao. This, to be clear, is not the fault of Julia Nickson. It’s the fault of the material given to her, complete with broken English when she asks Rambo, “What mean expendable?” Eventually, the character is shown to be able to hold her own in a fight and it seems that this sequel is ready to move in the right direction with its lone female character. Well…not so fast. Rambo and Co-Bao exchange their feelings for one another and within seconds she’s gunned down by a Vietnamese soldier. It’s an absurd example of what has become known as “fridging,” where a female character is slaughtered to motivate the story’s male protagonist.
Despite its various issues there’s one thing about Rambo: First Blood Part II that trumps everything else – it’s a whole lotta fun. A lot of credit to that has to go to James Cameron, who wrote the first draft of the screenplay and is mainly credited with devising the film’s action scenes. Stallone is credited on the screenplay as a co-writer and Cameron has been clear in stating that the film’s political content came from the star. This pulpy revisionist history entertains because it’s not bound by any rules, be they international law or simply common sense. We can go back to Vietnam and win this time because we’ve got John Rambo, the biggest, baddest motherfucker to ever walk the face of the Earth. And you know what? While we’re there we’re also going to beat the Soviets because we’ve got John Rambo. It doesn’t have to make sense as long as it entertains.
Rambo: First Blood Part II
An absurdly violent work of revisionist history, Rambo: First Blood Part II marks the beginning of Rambo’s evolution from a character critical of American militarism to the poster child of violent American might.