Carl takes a retrospective look at Sylvester Stallone‘s superb Rambo sequel
Has it really been 35 years since Sylvester Stallone unleashed Rambo on the world for the second time? I remember the film and the trouble I had actually getting into a cinema to actually see it so well. The film had opened in the U.S and had stormed the box office there before it finally made its way over here to the United Kingdom. I expected the film to be popular after the enjoyment people got out of the original ‘First Blood‘ back in 1982 but it took four attempts for me to get into seeing the all-action sequel.
Every time I tried to go and see the movie, it was sold out. These were the days where you couldn’t book your seat in advance unless you were going to see a film in London’s West End, you took your chances of getting in. If you managed to get in, great, enjoy the movie. If you didn’t, then tough luck and better luck next time. After failing with the first three attempts to get myself a seat, I was starting to fear I would have to wait for the inevitable VHS release and take my chances in managing to rent a copy of it once it emerged. But I decided to try just one more time before giving up. This time, I arrived an hour early and got myself at the front of the queue! People tried to jump to the front but a few choice (and I admit, foul words of the four-letter variety) were uttered from my mouth, I got my seat and finally managed to see the film I had heard so much about. Was it worth all the hassle of getting myself in to see it? Are you kidding? It was a brilliant experience!
Although the film gained mixed reviews upon release, the audiences around the world lapped it up in droves. Ok, it is pretty cartoonish at times and that final Rambo monologue at the end is a piece of cringe-worthy flag-waving nonsense that, although I can see what Stallone was trying to portray and commend him for the attempt, comes off as unintentionally funny. But despite its flaws that I have noticed over the years, it is still one of the best action films to emerge from the 1980s. And every time it is shown on TV, whether it’s free to air or on subscription services, I’m there, parked in front of the screen and no-one is allowed to distract me while Rambo is doing his thing. I guess it’s an age thing in reality but it still appeals to me to this day. I’ve got the entire franchise on Blu-ray and DVD many times over but the second film is the one I’ll reach for if I need to drift away for ninety minutes. The screenplay is credited to have been written by Stallone and James Cameron. Yes, THAT James Cameron. Cameron wrote the first draft for the film called ‘First Blood II: The Mission‘. In his version, Rambo has a partner in his mission to rescue POW’s in Vietnam and had John Travolta in mind for this secondary role before Stallone completely dismissed the idea. He hated the idea of having what he called ‘a tech-y sidekick’ with him during the film and cut that idea from the film completely. He also wasn’t impressed with Cameron’s screenplay because it took almost Forty pages to get to any action and had a similar structure to the first film.
Along with the returning Stallone, actor Richard Crenna reprised his role as Colonel Sam Trautman from the first film but it was the casting that DIDN’T come off which would have raised the most eyebrows. When the original ‘First Blood‘ was being cast, the producers approached the legendary actor Lee Marvin to play the role of Trautman, which he turned down. When the second film rolled around to the casting phase, Marvin was again approached for a role in the film but this time as the slimy Major Marshall Roger Murdock. It would have been interesting to see Marvin appear in the franchise he had turned down three years previously but once again, he declined the chance to appear and so the role went to Charles Napier instead. Napier played Murdock pretty well, making him all charm and a slimy bureaucrat but it is hard to not visualize what Marvin would have done in the role.
The film was shot in Thailand and Guerrero, Mexico between June and August of 1984. The filming didn’t go off without tragedy however as the special effects wizard, Clifford P. Wenger Jr was tragically killed when one of the film’s many explosions went wrong. The film cost an estimated $25.5million to make but went on to gross $300.4million at the box office including $150,415,432 in the United States and Canada alone with the rest of the gross coming from overseas markets, breaking several international box office records along the way. The film opened in The U.S on May 22nd of 1985 at a then-record 2,074 theatres and managed to top the box office in its first weekend by grossing $20,176, 217. With an epic and brilliant score from composer Jerry Goldsmith, returning to score the franchise once again, a feat he would go on to repeat three years later with 1988s ‘Rambo III‘, complementing the film perfectly and bringing back several cues from his earlier score for ‘First Blood‘, the film was a perfect all-action film for the fans of both Stallone and the action movie genre. Even then United States President Ronald Reagan who, after seeing the film quipped ‘At least I know who to send next time’, could be counted amongst the film’s legions of fans.
Set three years after the events of ‘First Blood‘, the film picks up with Rambo in prison where he has been sentenced to serve eight years for what he did to the town of Hope, Washington. He is visited by his former commanding officer, Colonel Sam Trautman with an offer. If he undertakes a covert mission in Vietnam, searching for American POWs left behind, Rambo may be granted a Presidential pardon for his crimes and be released. Feeling strongly about the mission and especially as the camp he is to recon is the same one he escaped from while a POW himself, Rambo takes the mission. After meeting the special ops designate, Marshall Roger Murdoch who is running the operation and getting all the details he needs along with weapons and equipment, Rambo parachutes into the Vietnamese Jungle but not before a near-fatal accident when he jumps from the plane almost kills him, losing most of his equipment in the process. Meeting up with his guide, Co Bao, she takes him along the river to the camp via river pirates. The camp is supposed to be empty but Rambo is shocked to find that not only is it occupied by Vietnamese forces but several POWs are being held inside.
Rambo cannot stand idly while his fellow countrymen are being held prisoner and so breaks into the camp, rescuing one prisoner who is tied to a bamboo cross. As they make their escape, Rambo is forced to kill three of the soldiers he encounters including one who discovers Co and is about to execute her. After the discovery of the dead men the following morning, Lieutenant Tay (George Cheung), the soldier who tortured Rambo years before, leads his men in pursuit of Rambo, Co, and the escaped prisoner, Banks. The trio manages to make it back to the river pirates and make their escape, only to find the pirates have sold them out. Brutally killing the pirates, Rambo has Co and Banks leap into the water while he destroys a gunboat that is approaching them to take them, prisoner, with an RPG. Rambo himself makes his escape and, along with Banks, heads to the extraction site where he is due to be picked up from. However, Tay has tracked Rambo to the site and he has his men launch grenades at the escaping pair. Rambo’s rescue helicopter, with Trautman aboard at first aids Rambo in his defense against the soldiers but Murdoch, discovering Rambo has broken his orders and has an actual POW with him, orders the chopper to abort the pickup, fearing reprisals if a POW actually returns with news that they have been abandoned by their government who know they are still alive and being held, thus saving Congress money.
Rambo and Banks are captured and Rambo is interrogated and tortured by Russian forces led by Lieutenant Colonel Podovsky (Steven Berkoff) who are among and training the Vietnamese forces. After being forced to contact his home base (and threatening to come and get Murdoch for his betrayal), Rambo makes a violent escape along with Co into the jungle with the plan to get across the border to Thailand and return home. He promises to take Co with him but Tay has tracked them down and opens fire, killing Co. Rambo buries her in the jungle and then goes on an all-out rampage of violent revenge and retribution against both the Soviets and the Vietnamese in his attempt to not only escape himself but to rescue the POWs as well before he keeps his promise to get his hands on Murdoch. All of this is packed into 96 minutes of bullet-ridden, bloodthirsty, violent, and explosive mayhem.
The film is dated somewhat now of course. Even Rambo utters that the year is 1985 during proceedings. But the film still lives on and is still a favorite amongst action film fans. It is also the first film I can honestly say that when it made its way onto VHS and I rented it out to see it again, I watched it, rewound the cassette, and watched it again…ALL DAY! Although it isn’t the film I’ve seen the most times in my life (you wouldn’t believe the film that holds that record, believe me), it is right up there in the top five films I have seen the most times. And it continues to play in my home every month at least. It is the perfect popcorn movie to sit down with late at night with a refreshing beverage, some snacks, and the lights off and no distractions.
The original ‘Die Hard‘ followed in the same vein three years later, a film that no matter how many times you sit and watch it, you’re guaranteed a good night’s entertainment but ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II‘ got there first. And now, 35 years later, it still feels good to find out ‘I’m coming to get you!’.
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Carl Roberts is a Senior Staff Writer and Books and Literature Correspondent for The Future of the Force. Aside from being our horror genre aficionado, he is also passionate about Star Wars, Marvel, DC, and the Indiana Jones movies. Follow him on Twitter @CarlRoberts2 where he uses the force frequently!