Ted Kotcheff, George P. Cosmatos and Peter MacDonald direct Sylvester Stallone, Brian Dennehy, David Caruso, Richard Crenna, Charles Napier, Steven Berkoff, Martin Kove, Kurtwood Smith and Marc De Jonge in this Eighties action trilogy where a Vietnam vet John Rambo can’t find peace and keeps being dragged into wars where he has to be an Army of One.
I was always an Arnie guy from Ages 7-40. Can’t see that changing anytime soon. Contrarily, I wasn’t into Rambo though. I didn’t care for Stallone. Make a Top 10 of my favourite action stars I doubt Sly’d make the cut. For little Robert Carroll, this shaggy haired mope was a lunk, slurry, seemed to have no broad sense of humour (I was wrong) and The Terminator could have turned him into rigatoni. Growing up I definitely watched a few Rockys and Over The Top… the arm wrestling Rocky for kids. I enjoyed Tango & Cash but I would have rented that more for Kurt Russell. I went to the cinema to see Stop or My Mom Will Shoot! He wasn’t helping himself. Then he had an underrated period of good ‘uns that turned me around a bit as I entered my teens; Cliffhanger, Demolition Man, The Specialist, Judge Dredd (I like it!), Daylight, Copland. It wasn’t just sequels to films that had left me cold as a kid. He suddenly had bonafides. So there’s no nostalgic affection for Stallone or Rambo or red bandanas or massive knifes or bigger bows and exploding arrows programmed into me. Time to revisit a trilogy that is more yours than mine.
First Blood is not what you now expect from a Rambo film. It is more like The Deer Hunter or Taxi Driver Meets Deliverance or Standing Tall. That’s a good mix. Sensitive vagabond Stallone wanders muddy North America until a small town sheriff pushes him. Dennehy doesn’t want homeless veterans bringing down his neighbourhood. So he pushes John Rambo. “Why are you pushing me?” Won’t let him stop in town for a warm meal or a gentleman’s wash, arrests him, his deputies torture him like some kinda hippy. This sensitive soul fought for his country. The sensitive soul takes out a whole police station from cells to carpark. He escapes into the wilds leaving a motorbike chase of well orchestrated chaos in his wake. It is a brilliant fast moving extended action sequence. Not a soul dies during the rapid, constant escalation of scale.
And that pretty much defines First Blood. Rambo evades, survives, stalks, threatens. But he doesn’t kill… he might cause a fatal accident… but he isn’t a machine gun blasting death machine… yet! The excellent forest section has the same vibe as Southern Comfort. Or Predator. But Stallone is the Predator. The law and the National Guard are the helpless prey. They just don’t know it. Vietnam is replayed. Guerrilla survives onslaught from better armoured but overconfident invaders. It ends with a finale more suited to a Western. Stallone tears down the town in an act of redemptive vengeance. It is mindless carnage. Mindless carnage would define the future films. Getting bigger and bigger. But as a stand-alone First Blood is still a great action flick.
Not perfect. It is mawkish. Stallone might have been attuned to what cereal box humanity the shitkickers and trailer park video renter wanted in the mid-80s but that was the mid-80s. The stew of tone deaf sentiment and ultraviolence doesn’t sit well. Sure, the local cops were horrible to him but he terrorises an entire community in the final act, risks burning down homes, small businesses, schools and hospitals… all because they voted in a slightly over zealous public official? Then marches out triumphant and patriotic in handcuffs like he is a chickensweat honky Martin Luther King or Malcolm X. Troubling. Troubling politics would continue to mar the less sophisticated instalments.
First Blood was never made with mega budget sequels in mind. But then Rambo started getting assigned missions. Started trotting the globe. Now, instead of stabbing young David Carusos in the ass and telling them to go home before they killed, he was mowing down hundreds of faceless exotic commies with AK-47s, land mines, M68 Fragmentation Grenades, mini-guns that shoots a 7.62 round at 3600 rounds a minute, explosive arrows, a bazooka AND his trademark knife. He is not at risk during these bulk executions. Only when captured does Rambo 2.0 become skin surface vulnerable. He is tortured. Like an impervious Jesus Christ on the cross. America’s sins are his to be endured for, Johnny Foreigners despotic politics are his to absorb and shield us from. You wanna queue for bread or watch Sly cauterise hit bullet holes with a burning stick and gunpowder? This is slick poster boy patriotism as a gung-ho capitalist passion play.
The only carry over from the relatively small scale and natural survival pic we enjoyed a few summers back is John is a well trained killer and naturally quiet soul, he starts off in a hard labour lock-up for his previous actions, Richard Crenna is still a shadowy Army higher up with soft spot for him and we all feel the government owes an unpaid debt to the vets of Vietnam. In 1985 there were close to 2,500 Vietnam vets still Missing-In-Action. Rambo gets them out of their bamboo cages and flies them all home in a hijacked Soviet chopper. He massacres gormless gooks and slimey Spetsnaz like they are fish in a barrel. Nobody gets a human emotion, only Rambo feels temporary pain. Soft rock soars over the credits.
Regan-era blunt unashamed bad taste and monotonous kill frenzy aside, Rambo 2 is pretty cheap looking. The location work in Asia never seems to venture beyond one rice paddy and a secret camp. The footage has the nasty sepia tinge of Seventies exploitation. Look at Commando… mindless action movies didn’t have to look diarrhoea brown in 1985. And this film was the widest blockbuster release of its year. There’s little to distinguish it in production values from a Chuck Norris Cannon video rental. Very little to distinguish it all. James Cameron wrote an early draft of the screenplay. The military tough guy speak rings true. The final swathe of action stands out; we get a fight on a helicopter and then a duel between helicopters that pretty much reinvigorates a ropey, stale film. Just enough climatic endorphins to rescue an average experience.
This isn’t really a sequel to First Blood. That story and vibes is left back in the States. The character of Rambo loses all perspective. He kisses a helpful local girl, so they kill her off seconds later so that any further romance doesn’t get in the way of juddering pectoids. Rambo’s war record says he killed 59 people during his tours, here he beats that record in one weekend. The film doesn’t even know what to to do with him at the end. He is left floating down river, leaving the homeland were he’d be shunned as a mentally unstable vagrant behind him for a future God knows where…
The polished but soulless Rambo III is that future. John has been working as a stick fighter and Buddhist temple restorer in Thailand. Crenna asks him to help sneak ground-to-air arsenal into the Middle East and assist the Taliban against those pesky Commie fast food and MTV haters. Rambo says no. Nothing to do with the murky ethics of treating the thoroughly un-American Mujahideen like freedom fighters. He just likes the Thai stick fighting scene and in all honesty he’s not wrong. That stick fighting is the highlight of the film. Crenna gets captured so Rambo volte faces and takes on the entire Russian army with a bow and arrow, bandana, some tubes of blue chemiluminescence and an annoying local boy he can’t get rid of. Everything that happens is rote and millions miles from the neat, little anti-war, pro-Veteran survival thriller we enjoyed in the forests of Portland years ago.
At a budget of $63 million this was the most expensive film ever made before Total Recall and T2 made some significant use of a ridiculous production spend. I’m not saying the scale is not all up there on screen. It is a BIG movie. Rambo genuinely faces down the Kremlin’s entire defence arsenal at one point. But there’s very, very little that gets the blood pumping. Like a dusty destruction orgy porno this plays out very much like too many blank eyed nameless studs pumping away for a paycheck. They’ve got the biggest dicks, the most dicks ever put on screen but there’s no heat or chemistry to what they violating and thrusting at. So little personality or intelligent thought… No doubt that cute Jihad kid went on to mastermind 9/11. We have had a better belated sequel most recently… Rambo: Last Blood. And these cash-ins did their job back in their day if you can ignore the inherent one-dimensional racism and dodgy self belief. But that’s about it. Let’s leave them in the past. They don’t have the wit or tension of The Running Man or True Lies. If you must watch Sly on a rampage then please stick to First Blood.
8 / 5 / 4
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