Three years into his prison sentence, Vietnam veteran John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is pulled out of incarceration to participate into a secret reconnaissance mission into Vietnam to look for prisoners-of-war still in custody. The mission is supposed to be a white-wash, but when Rambo actually finds prisoners still being tortured by Vietnamese and Russian soldiers he is abandoned by his government and forced to fight for himself.
Rambo came to cinemas three years after First Blood had been a popular hit, and managed to eclipse the original more than twice over at the global box office. It is one of the most iconic American films of the 1980s, inspiring countless copies, rip-offs and parodies. It is also terrible. More than that, it’s a remarkable and thoughtless inversion of close to everything the original film represented. Where First Blood bemoaned the human cost of the Vietnam War, Rambo goes back to win the conflict in a de facto fashion. Where First Blood was a tragedy about a broken veteran forced by circumstance back into brutal violence, Rambo actively celebrates that same veteran machine-gunning, strangling, stabbing and shooting with arrows literally dozens of enemy combatants. One film was a savage indictment of the American state, the other a jingoistic act of blind, crass patriotism.
Rambo is sent on a solo mission to photograph a Vietnamese army base. It is supposed to be deserted. His superiors, personified by the dodgy CIA operative Murdock (Charles Napier), need it to be deserted, so they can parade Rambo and his photographs in Congress and stop grieving families from pressing them to investigate for surviving prisoners-of-war. When Rambo finds an active prison camp with starving American prisoners and tries to rescue one to show proof of life in the USA, he gets abandoned by the government and captured by the Soviet colonel (Steven Berkoff) who runs the camp.
It is the ultimate in 1980s American action cinema, simultaneously decrying the government as untrustworthy while celebrating the traditional American exceptionalism that has been a cultural cornerstone for decades. It shoe-horns a Russian villain into a Vietnamese story to emphasise the Cold War, feeding into a Reagan-friendly narrative of American winning that Cold War. Rambo even asks Colonel Trautman before he leaves for Vietnam: ‘Do we get to win this time?’ Trautman replies, ‘That’s up to you.’ The film’s politics are blunt and simplistic, and Rambo’s spirited speech at the film’s epilogue feels remarkably trite and naive – particularly in comparison to the same character’s emotional breakdown at the climax of First Blood.
What is more, in retrospect the film feels actively cruel. At the time it was produced, rumours were widespread that Vietnam had not repatriated all of their prisoners in 1972. Many Americans believed that prisoners were left behind to be tortured and interrogated for a whole extra decade. In 1982 James Gritz, a decorated green beret, led a mission into Cambodia to find POWs. He found nothing, but gained a lot of publicity at the time. No prisoners were ever found, because it turns out they very likely were not there. Sustaining the myth in a film like this, and the Chuck Norris vehicle Missing in Action (1984), just seems like keeping a hope alive in American families that would have been better off grieving.
Stallone does his best, but the nuance of Rambo is gone in this screenplay (credited to both Stallone and James Cameron). As Colonel Trautman, Richard Crenna again goes for a dignified but passive role. He’s watchable, but the stakes feel much lower for him the second time around. As the Russian Lt. Colonel Podovsky, Steven Berkoff sleep-walks his way through a combination of glares and sneers. He always did Hollywood work to fund his personal theatre projects, but he is rarely less enthused on screen that he seems here.
With sidekick Co Bao, played by Julia Nickson, the film also gets to be fairly racist as well. Nickson performs the role with a clipped and fairly neutral American accent, except that the screenplay has dropped out particle words like ‘the’ and ‘and’. ‘What mean expendable?’ she asks Rambo at one point; one of numerous lines that simply make her sound like a racist’s idea of a funny joke.
The film is passably directed by George P. Cosmatos, but there is nowhere near the intensity that Ted Kotcheff brought to First Blood. There is never a sense that Rambo is in any real danger, and therefore very little tension. The aerial sequences are a bright spot: it’s little wonder that when Rambo III came around, it was aerial director Peter MacDonald who sat in the director’s chair.
First Blood is a bona fide American classic. Rambo: First Blood Part II just feels like cheap and lazy propaganda. Sure it was popular at the time, but so were a lot of terrible things. It is a film of its time, and it is really best off staying there. That it’s the most famous and widely seen installment of the franchise is almost criminal.