Most action franchises, if they go on long enough, eventually stray so far from their source material that it’s sometimes hard to even see the connective tissue under all the nonsense. Think about the chasm between the first Lethal Weapon and the farcical Lethal Weapon 4, or how Die Hard and whatever the fifth one is called aren’t even in the same universe in terms of quality. Both action and horror franchises will willingly branch off in ridiculous directions, and one of the first ones to wade into these absurdist waters was, without a doubt, 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II.
For a moment, put aside how ridiculous the title is. It’s First Blood, but the second part? Anyway… First Blood had been a surprise hit for Stallone, much like Rocky was in 1976. And like he did with the Italian Stallion franchise, Stallone saw potential in a big, corrective, heroic sequel to his muted, subtly thrilling character debut. He found the story he wanted to tell in a screenplay from the up-and-coming sci-fi director James Cameron, who wrote the initial draft, called First Blood II: The Mission.
Stallone took Cameron’s screenplay and held on to the dynamic action scenes while Cameron moved on to direct Aliens; as for the dialogue exchanges connecting these action beats, Stallone injected some politically-charged dialogue that tied directly to Ronald Reagan and his Morning in America message to the country, where the failures of the previous decade were shed like old skin. John Rambo had been persecuted in First Blood and now, in the hands of his creator, would be able to go back to Vietnam and make things right. “This time,” he asks Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), who’s visiting him in a prison camp as the film opens, “do we get to win?”
That’s up to Rambo, but not until being thrust into a world of corrupt bureaucrats and blue-collar mercenaries, jealous that they didn’t have their own war. Charles Napier and the dastardly Martin Kove are the film’s central villains, who assure Rambo the journey back into Vietnam is not to save any POWs, but to take pictures of them. It’s a setup for failure, and the film hops into its rather thin, uneven storyline.
Rambo is captured, tortured, escapes, and seeks vengeance for the death of his romantic interest, Co (Julia Nickson), the weakest part of the story. There is little to no chemistry between Nickson and Stallone, and it stifles the story every time they have a “big emotional moment.” Nevertheless, at a brisk 94 minutes Rambo: First Blood Part II gets in and gets out and does the job to which it was intended. The story is nothing special, but the action set pieces are tremendous exhibitions of 80s pyrotechnics, where a single bomb creates multiple explosions up and down a waterfall and characters leap into the air from their spring boards to avoid fireballs. It’s fun and loud and almost nothing like its predecessor.
First Blood was a moody character piece with action beats anchored more to suspense than bombastic stunts. Just as Ted Kotcheff was a great fit for the original film, George P. Cosmatos was clearly a perfect fit for the departure from reality into more wild action. It may not have worked as effectively as the first film on an emotional level, but that didn’t seem to be the goal here. This is Reagan’s land, where dingy browns and grays are replaced with soft-focus and bright daytime action.
More than anything, Rambo: First Blood Part II is a cultural touchstone that captured a specific place in time better than any film in the earlier half of the decade. This was the attitude of the country, full steam ahead, and Stallone had an uncanny ability (and desire) to speak to the political landscape through his most iconic characters; the same year John Rambo is correcting the outcome of Vietnam, Stallone’s Rocky Balboa defeats Ivan Drago and puts an end to the Cold War – at least in his mind.
Critics were not particularly kind to Rambo II, which in turn did not matter one bit. It opened Memorial Day weekend in 1985 to more than $20 million on its way to a $150.4 million domestic haul, best for second place on the year-end list behind only Back to The Future. It spawned video games, cartoons, and spoof material for a solid decade. The critics were probably mostly right to dismiss the film at the time, but like so many items from the 1980s, the very distinct cultural iconography and afterglow of parody and mimicry tied directly to this film has endeared it to us all in a way. It’s certainly not the best of the franchise, but First Blood Part II is definitely the first thing most of us think of when we think of Rambo.