Monday, June 10, 2019

Film Appreciation - The Blood and Guts Routine

Rambo returns in Rambo: First Blood Part II, and Cody Hamman has Film Appreciation for it.

While James Cameron was preparing to go into production on The Terminator and polishing up the script for that film, he was also hired to write the screenplays for both the Alien sequel that he ended up directing and a sequel to the 1982 hit First Blood. The thought of this is mind-blowing to me, that one man was working on the scripts for The Terminator, Aliens, and Rambo: First Blood Part II at the same time. Those three movies are so badass, and they were all flowing from the mind of the same person simultaneously.

Since Cameron directed The Terminator and Aliens but didn't direct Rambo: First Blood Part II, the Rambo film did drift a bit from what he was putting down on the page, as the script got a substantial rewrite from star Sylvester Stallone... and while The Terminator and Aliens turned out to be exactly what they needed to be, I believe Rambo did as well. The finished film is an improvement over the Cameron draft of the script.

If First Blood had been faithful to the source material novel written by David Morrell, a sequel wouldn't have been possible, since Rambo was killed at the end of that novel. But since the character had survived the film, was much more sympathetic than he had been in Morrell's version of the story, and was played by an actor who was no stranger to carrying a franchise (moviegoers had already seen Stallone play Rocky three times before they were introduced to Rambo), a sequel became a sure thing. But what do you do with a troubled Vietnam veteran who was headed to prison after the events of the first film? The idea struck someone: you send him back to Vietnam.

The story, which is credited to Kevin Jarre (Tombstone, The Mummy 1999) even though he said most of his contributions didn't make it to the screen, actually has some basis in reality, although I don't know if anyone involved in the film would have known it at the time. In the early 2000s, a Delta Force operator claimed that his unit was told on two different occasions in the early '80s to prepare for search and rescue missions into Vietnam to extract American soldiers who were still being held prisoner there, but the missions were never actually carried out. Such a mission is carried out in Rambo: First Blood Part II, though.

Directed by George P. Cosmatos, who would go on to work with Stallone again on Cobra, First Blood Part II shows us that Rambo was sentenced to hard labor for the crimes he committed in the first film, and when we catch up with him here he still has five years left to serve. His former commander Colonel Samuel Trautman (Richard Crenna) promised he would help Rambo if he could, and he shows up at the prison with a deal. There's a covert mission into Vietnam being planned, and a computer system has deduced that Rambo is one of three people who would be most likely to be able to pull it off. It's a recon mission, a search for POWs, and the target area is the same prison camp Rambo was held captive and tortured at, and eventually escaped from, in 1971. No one knows the terrain better than Rambo, this is his chance to get out of prison for at least a little while, and if things go well he could receive a Presidential pardon.

In the Cameron draft of the script, Rambo wasn't serving a prison sentence, he was locked up in the psych ward of a VA hospital. Interestingly, by changing it from a psych ward to a prison, the basic set-up of First Blood Part II becomes more similar to John Carpenter's 1981 film Escape from New York, which Cameron worked on in the art department. A war hero turned criminal is recruited for a mission that could earn him a Presidential pardon.

Cameron's version of the story was really a buddy picture, in which Rambo would have been going on the mission with a guy named Brewer, a cocky twenty-something who carries hi-tech equipment and state-of-the-art firepower, and thinks Rambo is outdated. John Travolta was being considered for the role before Stallone decided to remove the character completely.

Before embarking on the mission, Rambo asks Trautman, "Do we get to win this time?" Trautman responds, "This time it's up to you." Trautman doesn't realize how true his words are, because Rambo will soon find himself betrayed, abandoned, and outnumbered in the Vietnam jungle. The mission is run by a government stooge named Marshall Murdock (Charles Napier), who clearly has no investment in its success and makes up a phony back story for himself that Rambo sees through immediately. Murdock is backed up by a couple jackass lackeys, one of whom is played by Martin Kove from The Karate Kid. Rambo informs Trautman, "You're the only one I trust." Trautman finds out too late that Rambo is a great judge of character.

Rambo is told to do nothing more than take pictures of the prison camp, he is not to engage the enemy under any circumstances. If there are prisoners in the camp, a Delta Force assault team led by Trautman will be sent in to rescue them. Rambo will be extracted in 36 hours. But the mission gets off to such a poor start that Murdock figures Rambo is dead and wants to pack up and leave right then. Trautman has to argue to get him to stick to the plan. Things really go off the rails when Rambo finds American POWs at the camp, and even takes one to the extraction point with him. When the extraction team spots the prisoner and reports back to Murdock, the panicked government man orders them to abort the mission and leave Rambo and the POW stranded out there.

The whole mission was just an act. Murdock and his higher-ups thought the prison camp was empty, and it was empty a week earlier. The mission was supposed to be the last word on the question of whether or not POWs were still being held in Vietnam. Even if he had only taken pictures, Murdock might have been able to work with it. The pictures could have been lost. But Rambo had a person with him, and the discovery of POWs with proof like that would cause too much trouble.

Rambo is ditched in Vietnam at right about the halfway point of the movie, clearing the way for the second half to be packed with action and heroic moments. He is captured again. Tortured again. And he escapes again, becoming a one-man army against the Vietnamese soldiers based in the area of the camp - the standout being George Kee Cheung as Lieutenant Tay - and their Soviet benefactors, represented by Steven Berkoff as Lieutenant Colonel Podovsky and Voyo Goric as Sergeant Yushin.

In the midst of this, Rambo does have an ally, Julia Nickson as his ground contact Co Bao, who works for an intelligence agency. Rambo and Co make a personal connection very quickly, then she's impressed by his heroism and she even manages to save him at one point. Rambo told Co that he was sent on this mission because he's expendable (long before Stallone made The Expendables), and once she understands what that word means she assures him that he's not. Rambo and Co decide that they're going to return to the United States together. They kiss. And about 30 seconds later, Co is killed. More tragedy to drive Rambo forward in his neverending war. Rambo and Co barely have any downtime to stir up this relationship, but somehow it works just well enough and Nickson is endearing as Co.

One of my favorite moments in First Blood is when Rambo threatens douchebag Sheriff Teasle, "Don't push it, or I'll give you a war you won't believe." One of my favorite moments in First Blood Part II also involves Rambo threatening a douchebag. This time it's Murdock, who he gets a chance to speak to when Podovsky has him radio back to headquarters. Podovsky wants him to warn the Americans not to send anyone else into the country or they'll meet the same fate Rambo has. Instead, Rambo takes the opportunity to give his own warning. When Murdock gives the empty promise that they're going to "come to pick you up", Rambo responds - tightening his grip on the base of the microphone while lightning flashes and thunder rumbles - "Murdock, I'm comin' to get you."

And from that moment on we get about 30 minutes straight of action, with only a few brief seconds taken to breathe here and there. There's gunfire, explosions, knifings. Rambo hunts humans with a bow and arrow, sometimes using arrows with explosive tips. He uses some of the survivalist skills he displayed in First Blood to take enemy soldiers by surprise in the jungle, in one instance even completely coating himself in mud to blend into his surroundings. There are helicopter chases and battles. Rockets are launched. When Murdock is looking over Rambo's file, it's stated that Rambo had 59 confirmed kills while serving in the Vietnam War. By the time the end credits start rolling on this film, Rambo has killed around 75 people just within 48 hours or so.

First Blood was one of the best action movies ever made, and this sequel is right up there with it. While I prefer the story, style, and emotional content of the previous film, First Blood Part II really delivers the action and excitement. Like its predecessor, this is a movie I have been watching ever since I was a little kid, I have fond memories of sitting through it over the years, and I'll never get tired of revisiting it.

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