"We're still at war, Plissken. We need him alive."

"I don't give a fuck about your war... or your president."

Rambo: First Blood Part II

May 22, 1985
(yes, 35 years ago today!)

RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II was a phenomenon. And an unlikely one. It’s right there in the title: FIRST BLOOD PART II? How the hell do you do a FIRST BLOOD PART II?

Sure, the makers of FIRST BLOOD famously went with the ending where Rambo didn’t die, as he did in David Morrell’s book. But the character doesn’t exactly lend himself to a rousing second adventure. He wasn’t your typical action movie protagonist, a hero who comes along and saves the day. He was a drifter who was mistreated and fought back hard. Went on a rampage. Single-handedly waged a war against law enforcement (one guy died falling off a helicopter), wrecked a whole town, finally broke down about his experiences in the war and then turned himself in. A great movie because of its simple, character-driven story mechanisms, emotional center and excellent, largely internal and physical (and finally blubbering) performance by Sylvester Stallone.

So what’s Rambo gonna do, get out of prison, try to go straight, and get hassled by some other sheriff? Nope. They figured we got a perfect killing machine, let’s plug it in. Let him out for a dangerous mission, a one-man DIRTY DOZEN.

To this day I’m amused and kind of impressed by the audacious ludicrousness of the idea. For years I’ve joked about a BICKLE: TAXI DRIVER PART II where Travis Bickle has to use his driving skills and similar psychological profile to stop an assassination attempt. This Rambo guy, he’s traumatized because he was captured and tortured in Vietnam and his buddies all died? No problem! Let’s say there’s still some guys locked up and he can go back and save them. The war’s not over yet! He can still win it! Happy ending!

THE MOVIE

That makes for a great opening. It starts with an explosion. As the camera moves down we see that it’s not a battle – it’s a rock quarry, where Rambo is hammering away. Prison labor. Then the guards come get him, because his mentor/father figure Trautman is there to recruit him for this mission.

In earlier scripts Rambo has some smartass lines that could’ve worked, but Stallone inhabits the character so thoroughly he knows a better way. “How are ya, Johnny?” Trautman asks and when Stallone grunts, “Good” it doesn’t come off as sarcasm. I like the idea that Rambo kind of likes it in there, because “At least in here I know where I stand.” He agrees to the mission when he realizes he could save P.O.W.s from camps like the one he was in, but he agrees with a slight nod.

Though Stallone’s body is completely chiseled and the movie helped usher in the age of shirtless bodybuilder movie stars, he looks absolutely lithe compared to the tree trunk physique he gave the character for later films. Compare Stallone’s largely non-verbal performance, his heavy eyelids, lack of eye contact, and his cobra-like movements in battle, to jibber-jabbering, lovable goof Rocky Balboa. It’s entirely different. I don’t think he ever got enough credit for that. (True to form, The Stupid Fucking Razzies gave Stallone worst actor, picture, screenplay and original song for this.)

Rambo reports to intelligence officer Major Marshall Roger T. Murdock (Charles Napier, MANIAC COP 2), who assures him he was in ‘Nam himself and understands how the vets feel, though the details he offers convince Rambo that he’s full of shit. Lee Marvin turned down the role of Murdock, as he had the role of Trautman in FIRST BLOOD. I like that Napier has more of a resemblance to Brian Dennehy. Similar kind of blowhard, but this time they’re supposed to be on the same team.

The mercenary who welcomes Rambo to the base and goes with him for the drop off is Ericson, played by Martin Kove (STEELE JUSTICE) between KARATE KID 1 and 2. So it’s a reunion of Nero the Hero and Machine Gun Joe Viterbo from DEATH RACE 2000. I think the movie asks us to view him with suspicion from the beginning, and consider it a comeuppance when Rambo smashes him with his gun at the end. But Kove gives him some layers, making him seem torn between following orders and loyalty to Rambo and the P.O.W.s, even though he makes the wrong choice.

Though Rambo’s parachute gets stuck on the way out and he’s nearly killed, he somehow lands right where he needs to to meet up with his guide and future momentary-love intelligence agent Co Phuong Bao (Julia Nickson, DOUBLE DRAGON). Nickson is pretty cool in the part, as flimsy as it is. I understand the need to make Rambo a one man operation, but as long as she’s there, they could have her do more.

Rambo discovers that there actually are still P.O.W.s ten years after the war, not even particularly hidden, and right exactly where they were supposed to be. But due to Those Damn Bureaucrats and Their Red Tape he’s supposed to just take pictures and let another team do the rescue. This is visualized in a pretty cool montage that intercuts the loading of guns with the loading of film into the camera. I’d argue that it actually wouldn’t be an unreasonable plan if they had a specific team ready to go, but it’s understandably frustrating for Rambo.

He tries to save one prisoner who’s in imminent danger (Don Collins, musical director of Boyz II Men Motown: A Journey Through Hitsville USA Live [2008]), and when the extraction team reports that to Murdock (“That’s Rambo! Christ, he’s found one!”) he flips out and cancels the pickup. This is a very loaded emotional moment, this character who was literally left behind, and then figuratively left behind, has gone back, only to be literally left behind again, standing there looking into the eyes of the guys doing the leaving.

Of course in the ‘80s our fear of communism was concentrated on the Soviet Union, so the Vietnamese captors seem to be working for Soviet Lieutenant Colonel Podovsky (Steven Berkoff, an accomplished playwright who was the bad guy in OCTOPUSSY and BEVERLY HILLS COP but more importantly was in BARRY LYNDON and UNDER THE CHERRY MOON). We cut to Rambo shackled shoulder-deep in leech-infested mud water. They torture him, but I’m unclear what information they think they need out of him – they already know that he’s been disavowed and abandoned, which they taunt him about.

Rambo’s escape from the torture is a cool Oh Shit It’s On moment, though it feels a little bit off to me. The Soviets get him to talk over the radio to Murdock. They want him to tell him “the mission was a failure and all missions will fail.” Murdock wants him to tell him where he is. Instead he says “Murdock – I’m comin’ to get you!” and then escapes.

Maybe I’m a dummy, but I had to kind of study this scene to understand okay, I guess he could only escape at that moment because he used the microphone as a weapon. To me it plays kind of like he could’ve escaped at any time, like he’s Blade or something. I also missed that Co fires a machine gun at them from under the floorboards – a relief, because it always played to me like she snuck in there just to be standing at the door when he escapes on his own.

But this leads to the most laughable part of the movie, when within about a minute Rambo agrees to bring Co to America, they kiss, and she gets shot to death. A DEATH WISH 3 moment. I read that there was originally a shot where he yelled “NO!” and it echoed throughout the jungle, but they cut it because it made test audiences laugh. So I guess give them credit for pulling it back a little.

Co’s death is just a turbo boost button for Rambo to go into action. We get the classic shot from behind of him tying his headband, then from the front as he ties on her Buddha necklace. Soon he’s a pair of eyeballs in mud coming out to stab everybody (the FIRST BLOOD portion of the action).

It’s not absent of grace notes. I like that when the prisoner tells him he’s been locked up for a year and then hears that it’s 1985, the look on his face is allowed to say it all. But more than anything, this movie is remembered as a balls out Val Verde style action movie, with lots of the bullshit that makes the genre fun. Napier does great with the Just How Badass Is He scene, putting on reading glasses and summarizing Rambo’s file like he’s still familiarizing himself with it. And you gotta appreciate the goofy lines like when Trautman tells him, “You’re the one that’s making the mistake.”

“Yeah? What mistake?”

“Rambo.”

We enjoy the over-the-top-ness of Rambo firing arrows that cause many gigantic explosions of vehicles, bridges and buildings. I always thought the arrow tips he screws on were explosives, but maybe they’re supposed to be igniting gas tanks? There’s a part where Rambo finds a gas can that he uses, but it’s weird because there’s a clucking chicken in the middle of the frame. It really seems like the chicken is what you’re supposed to register in the shot!

You think the exploding arrows are gonna be the climax, and then there’s the part where the Soviet helicopter flies too close to the water (what were they gonna do, check his pulse?) so he jumps in and commandeers the vehicle to fly over the camp firing the minigun at every individual bad guy in the camp and drop bombs causing, by my count, around 30 explosions. (Good thing they didn’t use that stuff on him.)

That might be the climax, but as Rambo escapes with the prisoners we get another, more intimate sequence involving a helicopter duel, and then he still needs some release so he comes back to the base, storms into the command center with his machine gun – nice “okay he’s lost it and is a straight up murderer now” fakeout – and destroys all the equipment around Murdock. I would appreciate if he also went up and honked his nose like Mr. Miyagi in part 2.

Stallone understood the importance of FIRST BLOOD’s emotional speech. He tells Trautman that all he wants is “For our country to love us as much as we love it.” When Stallone did an Ain’t It Cool News Q&A back in 2006, he described the film’s politics as, “a right-wing stance coming from Trautman and his nemesis, Murdock, contrasted by Rambo’s obvious neutrality, which I believe is explained in Rambo’s final speech.”

Nevertheless, the movie was received by many fans and detractors alike as a celebration of American military might, and a chance for us to puff our chests out and not be ashamed of the Vietnam War, as if losing was the only thing wrong with it. They latched onto the “Do we get to win this time?” line. Again, those bureaucrats, if they would’ve just let us keep killing for a while longer, we would’ve been redeemed. It’s on them.

On the other hand, even “right wing” Trautman refers to “the whole damn war” as a lie, and admits to Rambo, “The war, everything that happened here may be wrong.” Maybe the secret of the movie was not tapping into any particular sentiment from the time, but getting you to fill in your own.


THE SCRIPT

The premise of Rambo’s return to Vietnam didn’t come out of thin air. The idea that there were still live prisoners being held after the war, their existence covered up by the U.S. government, was a real belief among some families of M.I.A.s. “I always felt that they did exist,” says Stallone on the DVD extras. And there were in fact private citizens and groups that publicized missions to go try to rescue them, though all were unsuccessful and/or scams.

Chuck Norris had already used the same premise in MISSING IN ACTION. Supposedly the RAMBO screenplay was making the rounds in Hollywood, inspiring Cannon to take the premise and rush into production. But that story seems to ignore the existence of UNCOMMON VALOR, which starred Gene Hackman, Fred Ward, Reb Brown and Patrick Swayze in a similar story, from FIRST BLOOD director Ted Kotcheff and Rambo series producer Buzz Feitshans. There were many filmmakers circling this topic.

A few months before UNCOMMON VALOR was released, during a time when James Cameron was waiting to film THE TERMINATOR and needed a paycheck, he suddenly got two writing gigs on the same morning: the sequels to FIRST BLOOD and ALIEN. He had three months to finish them, so he set up one desk in his bedroom and one in his living room to keep his notes (and presumably mindsets) separate. He had one lunch to discuss RAMBO with Stallone, who supposedly told him, “Put a girl in it.”

So he wrote it, turned it in and that was the end of the job. He shot THE TERMINATOR and became James Fucking Cameron while Stallone reworked the script into what he wanted.

In 1992, Cameron told On Production Magazine

“The second film, the one I wrote, was by its nature a little more violent because Rambo was going into enemy territory, but I tried to walk the same line. He didn’t go out of his way to slaughter people just because they were wearing the wrong uniform. A lot of moral distinctions I tried to build into the script got carved away during the shoot. I didn’t want to attach myself to that film in a strong way because the end result didn’t represent what I wrote.”

Indeed, the movie ditches Cameron’s scene where a young Vietnamese conscript closes his eyes and clings to a Buddhist prayer medallion, only to find that Rambo has left him alive. It does not share Cameron’s fascination with a Buddha statue, which at one point is engulfed in flames to resemble a self-immolating monk.

A few of his ideas made it into his own movies. His script opened with Rambo in “an isolation cell that hasn’t been used since the Spanish Inquisition” in the “Chronic Ward” of the “Neuropsychiatric Wing” of the V.A. in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Makes sense, but I’m so glad Stallone changed it to the rock quarry. Not only is that a cool opening, but Cameron might not have had his reintroduction of Sarah Connor in TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY.

To set up Rambo’s piloting of the Huey during the finale, Cameron had a pre-mission scene where he impresses Murdock by flying one. “I didn’t know you were a stick man!” Cameron used basically the same trick to perfection with Ripley using the powerloader in ALIENS.

And I do believe he used this image:

UNDERWATER SEQUENCE

Rambo dives to the bottom as a sun-bright CANOPY OF FIRE
rushes across the surface with a muffled ROAR.

in TRUE LIES.

Kevin Jarre (GLORY, NAVY SEALS, TOMBSTONE, JUDGMENT NIGHT) gets a “story by” credit. I haven’t been able to find any confirmation if he wrote a treatment, or Cameron rewrote a draft by him, or what. But whoever’s responsible for the basic story in Cameron’s draft, it stayed pretty much intact for Stallone’s. Trautman gets Rambo out of lockup to do a mission to parachute into Vietnam, meet with Co and take pictures of alleged P.O.W.s, but he tries to rescue one, so they abandon him there, and it turns out the mission was meant only to placate. Cameron had the Russian interrogators, and wrote most of their dialogue that’s in the movie. He had Co’s attempt to rescue Rambo from torture on an electrified bed frame as they read him a transcript of the pilots abandoning him. His Rambo goes to a village and steals a gas can that, yes, is near chickens (though he leaves them with their throats slit, “A bizarre little shrine.”) Rambo has a (much longer) talk with Co about going to America together (and getting married!), she dies in his arms (though after getting to be involved in some action, and after he gets some emotional dialogue, including telling her his first name). He steals the helicopter (using “a sweeping SHAO-LIN CHUN ROUNDHOUSE”). He doesn’t shoot up the mission control center at the end, but he does go in and pull the trigger of an empty gun on the Murdock character Kirkhill’s head.

Stallone changed numerous details and dialogue, in some cases for the better. Cameron teamed Rambo with a partner named Brewer, introduced in a loud Hawaiian shirt, being obnoxious with a Thai prostitute. I like to think Cameron was picturing Bill Paxton, but producers eyed John Travolta. The character added a little comic relief, which we didn’t really need, and not much else. It was wise to cut him.

Cameron gave the first prisoner they find a name (De Fravio) and a personality. When they find him he’s being punished for putting a cobra in the guard barracks. I like that he’s more of a character than the movie’s equivalent “P.O.W. #1”, but I can see that he’s a little too jokey for the situation.

Crucially, Stallone added the bow and arrow. Cameron had him blowing everything up with a rocket launcher.

Stallone removed some good end-of-FIRST-BLOOD type comments from the beginning (“In ’Nam I flew gunships. Million dollar equipment. Back here nobody trusts me to park cars”) and added the conversation with Trautman at the end. Maybe most significantly for the reception of the movie, he added the famous “Do we get to win this time?” line. Though Cameron’s draft used the live prisoners theory it didn’t push the “second chance to win the Vietnam War” button so hard.

THE BOOK

Many aspects of Cameron’s script lived on in the form of the authorized novelization, which was written by none other than First Blood author David Morrell, and spent six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Though movie tie-in novels often differ from movies due to being written before production is complete, Morrell did this deliberately. In an interview on his official websight, he explains that they were forced to offer it to him and let him do it his way because his contract stipulated no one else could write books about the character. He felt the shooting script was “not much to work with” but that he “struck gold” when he read Cameron’s draft. He estimates that he used “one-third original material from me, one third adaptation of James Cameron, and one third the final script.”

Rather than saying Rambo ate a certain Kentuckian root to slow his heart rate and was secretly dug up from Arlington by Trautman, Morrell starts with an author’s note simply saying, “In my novel First Blood, Rambo died. In the films, he lives.” He also gives Trautman his rank from the movie (Colonel) instead of the book (Captain), but doesn’t entirely surrender to movie continuity: novelized-Rambo is reminded of his experience in the cave, where he encountered not rats (like the movie) but bats (like the book).

The book uses alot of Cameron’s abandoned dialogue, including pre-mission setup where Murdocks offers him state-of-the-art equipment and is flabbergasted that he turns it down. (Morrell has him take the bow and arrow.) Rambo wants to use an AK just like his enemies so the sounds of his shots aren’t distinguishable.

Rambo has more lines in the book, some of them hard to picture Stallone saying. Near the end he tells the rescued P.O.W.s about STAR WARS and that the actor Ronald Reagan is president. Both seem out-of-character for Rambo. Cameron wrote the STAR WARS lines for Brewer.

Morrell also uses one of Cameron’s more vicious twists where Murdock actually orders the mercenaries to kill Rambo and the P.O.W.s and destroy all evidence of their existence. Pretty cynical. But he also sticks with Cameron’s happy ending where one of the prisoners tells Rambo he did a good job, which Rambo earlier said was all he wanted for his service in Vietnam. So our boy finally gets some satisfaction. (The script ends with Rambo giving a thumbs up, the book gives that to the prisoner.)

Of course, the most interesting stuff is that third that’s all Morrell. He adds a mischievousness to Rambo by having him fly in to Bangkok, intentionally lose his tails as if he’s trying to escape, then just show up at the base as expected and play dumb. Fucking with him.

From the novelization we learn that Rambo practices Zen meditation while in prison. In fact, in the first sentence Rambo is “immersed in the purity of a perfect timeless Zen moment” while hammering rocks. He considers himself a Zen Buddhist, having learned it from “a mountain tribesman with whom he’d worked on his first in-country mission.” Zen taught him not to fear, because life was “but an illusion. A veil. A magical trick that the Holy One played on us.”

Morrell tells us that Rambo’s father was an Italian Catholic, that his mother was Navajo. He’d participated in both their religions in and around Bowie, Arizona. In 2005 a bizarre press release touting a version of RAMBO 4 that never came to be mentioned “the return to Rambo’s Navajo roots” and Rambo’s family being terrorized by white supremacists. This was a surprise to many, having forgotten Murdock’s differing description of Rambo’s heritage (“Indian-German descent – hell of a combination”), but it might not have been a shock if we’d all read this novelization.

We also learn that he was drafted but applied himself so well he was accepted into Special Forces. And that Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was “a book that he’d admired in his innocence.”

Stallone abbreviated what Cameron did with Co, but Morrell expands on it. Co only asks him to marry her so she can get a green card, and at first he doesn’t want to do it. He ultimately says yes, but has to abandon her for safety purposes, causing her to feel betrayed. But they have growing feelings for each other. When she’s killed in the movie the melodrama feels out of place. In the book there’s more setup, and more payoff: he’s so affected by her death that he risks his life to stick around and dig her a grave – first using his knife, then his bare hands. He not only takes her Buddha necklace as a souvenir, but cuts off a strip of her dress and wears it as the headband. And he’s thinking about her in the last lines of the book.

While the sequel movie matches the First Blood book’s level of violence (reportedly the body count is 85), Morrell carefully avoids turning the novelization into a blow-by-blow of the action scenes in the movie. Instead of taking the time to describe some of the scenes in detail he cleverly has characters screaming over the radio about what’s going on and what Rambo has just done. So you still know about all the shit he’s blown up, who he’s killed and how, but hearing it from this perspective he’s more of an unseen force like a ninja, an Alien, Jaws, or the Glimmer Man.

Morrell gives more explanation to the exploding arrows. Rambo rolls C4 into a worm shape, slides it into the hollow shafts of the arrows and uses detonator arrow heads (not sure where you get those). So it’s not just a bomb on the tip of an arrow. There’s also a detailed explanation of how he recovers his arrows to re-use them, to explain how he doesn’t run out. (And even so he’s not able to have as many as he wants.)

Morrell dedicates the book

To Stirling Silliphant,
for October 7, 1960, and the first episode of “Route 66,”
for teaching me to love a story

To Tiana Alexandra-Silliphant,
who lived there and survived

Two years later the latter would star in CATCH THE HEAT, from the director of RAPPIN’. Anyway, there’s your two degrees of separation between Rambo and Bruce Lee.

THE PRODUCTION

RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II was directed by George P. Cosmatos, his second North American movie after OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN (1983), which had caught the eye of Stallone’s horror-fan son Sage. The crazy thing about that is that Sage was 9 years old when RAMBO was released! What the fuck? But the story has been confirmed by Cosmatos’ also-great-director son Panos:

There’s a weird bit of controversy here. RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II credited-story-writer Kevin Jarre later wrote TOMBSTONE and was slated to direct it. A month into shooting he was behind schedule and producer Andrew Vajna thought his footage wasn’t working so he fired him and replaced him with Cosmatos, who came on with only three days to prepare.

By all accounts, Kurt Russell put extra work into that movie, involving himself in rewrites, for example. But in a 2006 interview with True West Magazine the actor claimed

“We brought in a guy to be a ghost director. They wanted me to take over the movie. I said, ‘I’ll do it, but I don’t want to put my name on it. I don’t want to be the guy… I got him from Sly Stallone—called up Sly, said I need a guy. Sly did the same thing with RAMBO 2 with George. And I said to George, ‘While you’re alive George, I won’t say a goddamn thing.’”

He said, “I was doing it all on the sly. George and I had sign language going on.” But he also lamented, “I didn’t get a chance to edit the movie…”

Hmm. I wonder who did? That ghost director?

Obviously we all agree Kurt Russell is the man, and people love to believe these kinds of scandalous behind the scenes “actually…” legends. But I strongly suspect what Russell did was secretly produce TOMBSTONE, not direct it. An Entertainment Weekly article from before the movie came out talks about Russell’s hands-on role, but also gives plenty of evidence of Cosmatos directing, including TWILIGHT director Catherine Hardwicke (who was the production designer), saying she stayed on “because she felt Cosmatos improves the visuals.” She also mentions that “He was demanding,” upsetting the director of photography and others. What, was Kurt giving him hand signals for that?

When Russell came to Vajna and said, “I got the perfect guy, a friend recommended him,” did Vajna say, “Oh shit, that’s crazy that you would say that, because I actually know this guy, he directed the smash hit movie I’m most famous for producing, which was also written by Kevin.” And then did he say, “Hey Buzz! Buzz, c’mere!,” calling over Buzz Feitshans, who also produced both RAMBO and TOMBSTONE. “Kurt says get George Cosmatos. Remember? The guy we did RAMBO II with!”

Regardless of whether or not that could’ve happened, Stallone had already directed PARADISE ALLEY, ROCKY II, ROCKY III and STAYING ALIVE before this. He was not shy about taking over as director on an established series. Why would he have had to pretend direct? I don’t buy it, Kurt. Not cool to start that myth.

Cosmatos had some great craftsmen working with him, including legendary AFRICAN QUEEN director of photography Jack Cardiff, which was serendipitous. Another d.p. had to be replaced at the last minute for health reasons, and lead villain actor Berkoff happened to hear from a friend that Cardiff was vacationing nearby in Mexico, recuperating after shooting CAT’S EYE. They were able to offer Cardiff enough money to convince him to do it. It was one of his last features.

The editors include some all-time greats of action movie cutting: Mark Goldblatt (ENTER THE NINJA, HALLOWEEN II, THE TERMINATOR, later PREDATOR 2) and Mark Helfrich (REVENGE OF THE NINJA, later PREDATOR). Production designer Bill Kenney had been the art director of DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER and CARRIE, and production designer of BODY HEAT. He’d continue to work with Stallone on ROCKY IV, COBRA, RAMBO III, LOCK UP and OSCAR, as well as doing UNDER SIEGE. Stunt coordinator Richard “Diamond” Farnsworth, who would go on to do THE DEAD POOL and PINK CADILLAC.

THE RELEASE

RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II was the first movie released on more than 2,000 screens. It made $20 million on its first weekend and went on to make $300 million worldwide, breaking various box office records. Danny, who lived up the street from me, reported that a guy yelled “RAMBOOOOOO!” at the beginning and everybody cheered and it was awesome.

Though critics generally had a sense of humor about the movie’s politics and brutality, many sneered at Stallone himself. Vincent Canby in The New York Times wrote that “Rambo, as personified by Mr. Stallone, isn’t a man who needs the love of others. He loves himself quite enough.” This conflation of the damaged character of Rambo with a perception of Stallone as an egomaniac shows how little consideration many gave his movies at the time.

Stanley Kauffman in The New Republic was more respectful: “RAMBO is cinematically no piece of schlock; it was made with prime professional skills. (Cinematography by Jack Cardiff, an Oscar winner.) In credibility, the action is as ludicrous as old Saturday-afternoon serials; in execution, the skills help it to skate over the incredibilities.”

(Then he says some weird stuff about Rambo’s “half-Indian, half-German stock”)

Siskel and Ebert had a good attitude about it, laughing at various aspects but seeming pretty delighted, and Ebert called Rambo a “very appealing” character.

In retrospect it was kind of a nice gesture to retitle the series. FIRST BLOOD is a separate entity that I hold high above any of its sequels. But this figuratively cartoon Rambo that soon became a literal cartoon Rambo – I get some kind of kick out of this guy too. I don’t consider this one of the greats, but there’s undeniably something special about it, something that could only really rise out of the mud in the Summer of 1985.

 

SUMMER OF 1985 NOTES

Cultural references:

I don’t think there are any pop culture references in the movie, but Cameron’s draft had a few. Co tells Rambo she plans to go to the U.S. to see her son, “Maybe teach economics. Buy Cadillac. Watch Dynasty.” (Note that in GOTCHA! he meets German punkers whose idea of America is watching Dallas.)

During the helicopter escape Brewer says, “Hell. This is just like fucking STAR WARS, man!” When he realizes P.O.W. De Fravio doesn’t know what that is, he says, “You’re gonna love it.” Later, we hear him trying to explain Darth Vader.

Cultural impact:

RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II was 1985’s #2 highest grossing movie, and highest R-rated one. I think it’s likely the most imitated action movie of the ‘80s, even just in the area of poster art – the specific shirtless-with-rocket-launcher pose made its way into many an awkwardly painted b-movie cover. Rambo became a ubiquitous pop culture reference, mentioned by Reagan, parodied by Johnny Carson in a skit, Weird Al in UHF, Gizmo in GREMLINS 2, Charlie Sheen in HOT SHOTS! PART DEUX, etc.

Tie-ins:

There was plenty of merchandise, unusual for a violent R-rated movie at that time. This includes trading cards and lunch boxes (both a red plastic one and a metal one with camouflage sides, plus two Thermos designs – one a logo, one with a drawing of Rambo and his bow).

And I like this birthday party centerpiece somebody posted on ebay:

There were different tie-in video games released for Commodore 64, Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Master System. A great thing about the Nintendo version is that Trautman asks, “Your mission is to sneak into the enemy camp and find them. Are you up to it?” and you have the option to choose “I feel better in prison,” but can’t actually continue the game until you click “I’m not afraid of death.” One thing that sounds pretty different from the movie is that he fights giant spiders. Also, at the end Rambo throws the kanji for “anger” at Murdock and he turns into a frog. Which was not even in the Cameron draft.

By April of the next year the Rambo: The Force of Freedom cartoon was on the air, developed by story editor/head writer Michael Chain, a singer-songwriter, “improv comedy master,” Transformers voice actor and writer of She-Ra: Princess of Power and the Punky Brewster cartoon. (He later did an episode of Police Academy: The Animated Series.) I trust I don’t need to explain why it’s funny that this particular movie was adapted to a children’s cartoon and toy line.

(I used to joke about a TOXIC AVENGER cartoon, and then that happened too.)

Most importantly, the movie inspired some topnotch dance tunes, which I will leave you with. Happy 35th RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II anniversary everybody, and thanks for skimming.

sources/additional reading:

James Cameron Online

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39 Responses to “Rambo: First Blood Part II”

  1. Rambo’s headband is really weird because in the first movie he only has it because he gets winged in the head and ties something around it to stop the bleeding. It’s just meant to be functional, but then in real life the look became iconic, I guess, so in the sequels he wears it for fashion purposes. It sort of sums up the difference in tone between the original and the rest.

  2. I suppose I never gave this movie a fair shake and should watch it again now with more of a Zen-like, Vern-like eye. I thought it was pretty shitty at the time, basically because it struck me as such a u-turn from the very strong first movie. I couldn’t divorce the two, but that’s on me.

    As Vern points out, Stallone has always been underrated and over-blamed, and I’m part of the problem, but damn, man, what whiplash to take this moving sad character and turn him into a flag draped badass. I know I’m conflating later Rambo movies here, and that Part II really wasn’t even all that much of a reversal from First Blood, but I’ve never gotten past it anyway. Again, more my problem than the movie’s problem.

    In short, I give myself two stars. But I think I give Rambo II two stars as well.

  3. Damn, I got so wrapped up in my own bullshit that I forgot to commend this excellent (lengthy!) review. Nice one, Vern.

  4. David Morrell is one of my favorite writers. I know he hated LAST BLOOD but i wished he did a novelization of the fourth Rambo film.

  5. I remember the novelization mentioned Rambo’s scrotum a lot. What it was doing, how it was feeling. That’s the kind of thing cinema can’t really get across.

  6. That novelization sounds so interesting. It makes me wonder how Morell’s Rambo III novelization diverged.

    Excellent deep dive, Vern. I always found Co’s death laughably blatant too. Within 30 seconds of confessing her love for Rambo she’s dead.

    I think it’s also significant that this and Rocky IV came out the same year. Sly really had his finger on the pulse of America, winning Vietnam and The Cold War in the same year.

  7. I have the RAMBO III novelization and apparently he did the same thing – chose to base it on an earlier draft that he preferred. He liked these characters that Rambo was protecting that ended up not even in the movie. I’ll definitely have to read and compare some time down the line.

  8. There were yet more Italo Disco songs inspired by FIRST BLOOD PART II

    https://m.youtube.com/watchv=8xztejyka_0IN

    Say what you will about this film, but did FIRST BLOOD get as many ties tapping.

  9. There were yet more Italo Disco songs inspired by FIRST BLOOD PART II

    https://m.youtube.com/watchv=8xztejyka_0IN

    Say what you will about this film, but did FIRST BLOOD get as many ties tapping?

  10. Sorry I posted twice and autocorrect still messed things up for me

  11. Majestyk, there are plenty of movies that focuses on the scrotum. But they’re usually in a genre that we tend to leave alone here on Vern’s sight.

  12. Sly directed most of his 80s movies. The movie companies did not, however, accept him as director after the flop of Staying Alive, so ghost directors were needed. He also needed someone for shooting the action scenes. A good example is Rambo III, where the production was divided into two units, with Peter MacDonald directing the action sequences while Sly directed the rest. This is also the reason behind so many directors being fired from his movies during this time. It was Sly’s way or the highway.

  13. Pegs: Sure, movies can SHOW us the scrotum, but prose can let us in on its innermost thoughts and emotions. Cinema can’t do that without resorting to voiceover. And that’s just bad screenwriting in my opinion. You would need to find an uncommonly expressive scrotum to get that across through visual storytelling and frankly few directors have the patience for that.

    I remember telling some people at a party about the scrotal motif going on in the novelization, and the very mention of the phrase “Rambo’s scrotum” made a girl run screaming from the room. It’s a combination of words with uncanny power.

    Also probably a pretty great band name.

  14. A lot to appreciate in this, the definitive RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II retrospectivizational analysis. A simple observation that particularly resonates is the contrast between the Rambo and Rocky characters, and how much this highlights the talent, hard work, and nuance in display in Stallone’s work as an actor and as a storyteller. Both of the characters are clearly close to Stallone’s heart, and they are united by a common dualistic moral code, a rock bottom sense of right vs. wrong in terms of justice and duty. Both of them have their idiosyncratic quirks, lapses, and at time surprising red lines. But at bottom, they’re two guys who are about “what’s right,” as we see so poignantly in BALBOA’s speech to the boxing commission.

    But, still, these are two very different realizations of the Stallone ethos — in personality, intelligence, gait, non-verbals, and capacity for lethal violence. Freddie from COP LAND is kind of a strange mixture of the two of them, while also being his own kind of person.

    Great piece!

  15. Nice write-up, Vern! What a cool tidbit that Cameron wrote his scripts for Rambo 2 and Aliens concurrently. There’s a similarity in how he dramatically approaches getting Rambo and Ripley back in action for their respective sequels – both have endured their individual traumas (‘Nam for Rambo and encountering the Alien for Ripley) and only by going back and facing it again can they begin to heal themselves. Probably not a new insight by any means, but I find it interesting and worth mentioning. Not actually having read the Cameron draft for Rambo 2, I wonder if there’s more of that aspect in there that Stallone might have dialed back for the final movie…

  16. No offence Mr M, but sometimes you make me feel like the kid who tries to tell a joke in a room full of drunk uncles who are all stand up comics.

  17. Sorry, pegs. I was trying to “Yes and” your joke, not step on it, but we drunken uncles are not known for being graceful.

  18. No worries, we love you anyway!

  19. If you guys are serious about this scrotum movie, I don’t think Matthew Barney’s up to anything at the moment.

  20. Stallone is like Jackie Chan…Jackie may not be the DIRECTOR, but he’s calling a lot of the shots and when Lau Kar Leung diverge from ideas for the end of Drunken Master 2, bye bye Lau.

    There’s a bunch of articles on Rebeller (which is generally not worth reading I think) that goes into Russell directing Tombstone. He was probably not calling every shot, but he basically took over. Doesn’t mean Cosmatos had zero input, I’m sure he did. But he’s not the big dog. I’ve actually been on the ghost directing thing before, having to basically take over for a director who couldn’t cut it but stayed on. I have no credit for directing at all, as I had a different job on set..but everyone there knows who got that movie finished. And getting the movie done was what matered to me.

  21. But there’s a pretty big leap between “he’s an actor who has a ton of say over everything” and “he directed the movie.” Like, I bet Tom Cruise has as much or more power over many of his movies as Russell or Stallone ever did, but he’s not gonna claim he directed the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLEs.

  22. For some reason, the Route 66 thing is really weird to me
    I mean, it’s not even a very good episode of Route 66… Todd and Buzz break down in a little southern logging town run by a tyrant with a murderous secret past. If that sounds like “Bad Day at Black Rock” it’s because it’s pretty much a hour version of that story with two good-looking young guys instead of Spencer Tracy

    Why it would inspire enough love to dedicate a book to it 25-years later is beyond my realm of understanding.

    Although, it does explain why Todd is able to beat the living shit out of anybody or anything that crosses his path: “He grew up in a tough neighborhood”

  23. That’s right, Cruise wouldn’t and when you see those movies you can tell he didn’t. But I have no real inclination to believe that a director can come onto a set of a movie that’s already shooting and is cast and has costumes made and sets built and the script is done and then claim to have truly directed that movie either. Val Kilmer backs up his claim, I don’t know about the others. But if Russell was actually giving a shot list for the day, and then basically directing the actors…well by that point, that’s pretty much directing the movie. At the very least, co-directing it. I mean I’ve been on many sets where the acredited director was absolutely not running things. Sure they had input, and ideas and wanted to do some things in their way…but you could stick the DP’s name on the main credit, or the action director, and no one on set would disagree.

  24. But it is hard to tell for sure…the guy has no real style, he’s just a Hollywood hired gun who makes competently enough made movies with no real style to them. Tombstone isn’t good because of the amazing singular directorial vision, it’s a wonderfully acted movie with a great script. But visually, it’s not like a DePalma or a John Woo where you’re like yep it’s THAT guy. Van Damme certainly has a ton of say on Hard Target but no one would believe him if he tried to claim credit.

  25. I don’t think it was all-Russell-all-the-time, but based on statements by Val Kilmer and various others over the years, I can totally believe that he co-directed TOMBSTONE. The Hughes Brothers (MENACE II SOCIETY; THE BOOK OF ELI) would direct by having one brother handle the actors and the other brother handle the crew. I’m guessing it was kind of like that with Russell and Cosmatos, with Russell dealing with the actors as well as making sure things got done. Russell mentioned in that article that he would give Cosmatos a daily shot list, but I’m willing to bet it was more like a general to-do list of the required coverage for the day’s scenes (rather than a super specific detailed list of close-ups/dolly shots/inserts/lens choices) that Cosmatos would then facilitate by working with the crew to accomplish the tasks. In other words, Russell’s ideas would go through the Cosmatos filter, with Russell then making sure the necessary shots were in the can by the end of the day. He mentions not getting to work on post-production, which wouldn’t have been necessary since Russell’s main deal was to make sure that things got done on-set, I’m sure Cosmatos and company were more than adequate at getting that part of the process done themselves.

    Anyway, to keep things closer to the main topic, here’s some pics I took of a taco joint which I feel is a far more fitting conclusion to the RAMBO saga:

    Rambo's Tacos

    Post with 1 votes and 0 views. Shared by EfContentment. Rambo's Tacos

  26. Yeah I’d say just looking at the acting in that movie…there’s nothing before or since is that director’s filmography that makes me think he made that happen.

  27. If we look at ESCAPE TO ATHENA, RAMBO and TOMBSTONE I would say that Cosmatos has a really good eye for filming sunny locations. That’s a style.

  28. If I were to guess a film that Cosmatos ghost directed for Sly it would be COBRA, which has a lot of stylistic similarities with ROCKY IV

  29. 1) Somewhere I’ve seen Cameron’s daily breakdown where he determined how many hours he had between the beginning and his deadlines and how he broke his days up between Aliens, Rambo, and Terminator pre-pro. It was pretty insane. Dude didnt get much sleep.

    2) Regarding Russell directing Tombstone, I always thought it was the same sort of thing with Gibson on Payback, where he couldn’t technically take over because of guild rules. (Writers or producers with vested interest cant take over production for some reason. I don’t remember, pandemic has been long and I’ve been drinking too much these past few months). Anyway, im sure Cosmatos called action and cut and Russell steered the ship.

    3) Much like Aliens (whoa!) I saw Rambo: First Blood Part II before seeing first blood. (Like decades before seeing first blood.) So this was always the definitive version of the character for me, followed by the cartoon and part 3. Much more interesting to see it from this perspective. Thank you again for the deep dive Vern!

  30. “It does not share Cameron’s fascination with a Buddha statue, which at one point is engulfed in flames to resemble a self-immolating monk.”

    Oh man, this image along with you doing a Summer of 1985 movie series has my toes and fingers crossed for a Legend of Billie jean review Vern!!

  31. E.f. – Beautiful! Thank you for sharing those!

  32. The Winchester – There’s still so much mystery about what happened with PAYBACK. I always thought the “he just had his hairdresser pretend to be director” story was somewhat disproven by said hairdresser, Paul Abascal, going on to actually direct stuff (like, I doubt Mel secretly directed PAPARAZZI). But when looking for sources for a recent column about Parker movies I discovered that Wikipedia doesn’t even mention Abascal, and says that production designer John Myhre took over.

    Abascal lists it on his resume though:

    http://paulabascal.com/

    Ray – The bad news is I don’ think I’ll be doing LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN in this series. The good news is that it’s because I just reviewed it a few years ago:

    http://outlawvern.com/2017/09/28/legend-billie-jean/

  33. If all those rumours about movie stars that aren’t known for directing taking over the reins on big projects, are true, then there are lot of hidden talent out there. My man Peckinpah was pretty much out of it after lunch. And if we are to believe that James Coburn, to name just one, directed large parts of Sam’s movies, then he really missed his calling. To my knowledge he only directed an episode of THE ROCKFORD FILES. And believe me, there’s nothing that reminds us of Peckinpah in there.

  34. Speaking of the NES game, another notable element was that you could actually choose to leave the POWs behind at the camp! When they asked to be freed, Rambo could say his orders were to only take photographs.

    Normally you’d expect this to lead to a quick “joke” ending, but instead the game made you fight your way back to the helicopter rendezvous location. Once you arrived back at the base, Co was still alive but would express her disappointment in Rambo if you spoke with her!

  35. My ONLY gripe about Stallone is that he’s never really worked with top notch Action Directors, apart from Renny Harlin on Cliffhanger there hasn’t been an artist who has collaborated with to make his films stand out and unique. I mean just look at Arnold! he’s worked with John Millus, James Cameron, John Mctiernan, Paul Verhoeven, Walter Hill i mean thats a hell of a list of Action Gods. I mean even Van Damme has worked with better and more Action visual stylists that Stallone has ( Woo, Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark, Peter Hymas and Roland Emmerich.
    I guess thats just one of Sly’s quirks as he likes to be in total control of the projects he’s involved in.

  36. Stallone did team up with Walter Hill for BULLET TO THE HEAD in more recent years, but it’s true he probably would not have in the 80s/90s. I guess the closest, bar Harlin, is Richard Donner for ASSASSINS (and Landis for OSCAR?)

  37. yes i forgot about Hill and Bullet To The Head but can you imagine if he hooked up with some great action Directors in his prime during the 80’s and 90’s? DAMN!!!

  38. Bullet To The Head would’ve been better if they’d cast Thomas Jane as Sly’s partner.

    What a waste of Christian Slater as well.

  39. Great review. I read the novelization when the movie came out. It was a bargain I made with my parents. I was way too young to be seeing Rambo in the theaters but kept begging. Eventually, my parents said they would take me but only if I read the book first. I was at the age where most kids are maybe reading Goosebumps, so I think my parents thought there was no way I would read that whole book. They underestimated how bad I wanted to see Rambo, I guess, because I read that thing all the way through in about 2 days.

    This movie has one of my favorite Stallone dialogue moments. When he explains to Co what expendable means. I don’t know why but I just love the way he delivers the line about not showing up at a party and nobody really cares. I feel like there was a missed opportunity in the Expendables movies to have a gag about them not showing up at a party.

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