Sunday, September 19, 2010

Rambo marathon: First Blood Part II

Rambo: First Blood Part II (George P. Cosmatos)

The sequel. For many film lovers, sequels are the bane of their existence. For studios, they are the opportunity to cash in on a familiar property which resonates with the paying movie goers. However, unlike what those who snub sequels would prefer to believe, there is planning and execution required in making a sequel. A studio just doesn’t ‘churn out’ another installment in a franchise. However much one might frown on sequels and prequels, there is a writing stage, a pre-production stage, filming, editing, etc. It’s still a movie and it has to get made before shown to an audience. Someone down the production line people (or someone) has to say ‘Alright, this product seems good enough, let’s release it.’ Questions must be posed when facing the challenge of a continuation episode in movies. Do the filmmakers up the proverbial ante? Do they give more of the same? Do they take the characters in a radically new direction altogether? Like I said, it remains a movie and therefore requires time, money and effort in getting made.

Hence, the disappointment that crept in with every further minute of Rambo: First Blood Part II’s running time.

1982’s First Blood, while at times taking a few steps too far in depicting John Rambo as someone who had unfortunately lost his direction and life and was reduced, by circumstances mostly beyond his control, to epically violent episodes, it was still a mostly serious movie. There was some genuinely compelling drama surrounding that character. The depiction of John Rambo’s downfall was not afflicted by much caricature (with maybe a couple of exceptions, such as the psycho cop). First Blood Part II, whether willingly or not, takes the opposite route: caricature abounds while character sits this one out. Tom Brady is sitting out for whomever the back up is in New England. Martin Brodeur is on the bench for ‘what’s his face’ in New Jersey.

Directed by George P. Cosmatos, the film opens with Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) visiting Rambo (Silvestre Stallone) while the latter endures some hard labour in prison for his crimes in the first movie. There is an offer on the table: head back to Vietnam for a simple reconnaissance mission. There are rumours that American troops are being held as POWs in the thick jungles of that country and all Rambo needs to do is take some photographs of where the American military believes the prison camp to be, just to be sure whether or not there truly are any prisoners in the area. If the mission goes well, there is a presidential pardon in store for our morally beaten up hero. Rambo accepts, although inquires in a deadpan tone if ‘we get to win this time?’ I wasn’t sure what he was taking about (the war over by ’85, people and politicians were probably trying to forget all about it and what he is offered is a mere reconnaissance mission), but whatever. Let’s do this thing.

…95 minutes later. Oops. That wasn’t a good idea to ‘do this thing.’

Look, I need to get something out of the way to my readers and to Bill. I don’t enjoy writing about films I didn’t like. There is no pleasure in it. Right now, as I am typing these very words, I’m not having any fun. If this review, in terms of quality at least, is not up to par with my usual work… well, at least you were warned.

There was indeed potential with First Blood Part II. After all, it does set Rambo loose in his element, that is, as the deadliest soldier the Americans have with a mission in Vietnam, thus giving him a chance at some sort ‘redemption.’ The more the minutes passed, the more I came to the realization that the Rambo of the first episode was more interesting. The terrible reputation of the Vietnam War is no secret to anybody , American or not, nor are the potential psychological repercussions of warfare on veterans. The exact situation Rambo found himself in First Blood made him compelling, unique, fascinating, as did the fact that he kind of went berserk on his own countrymen. Part II tries to do three things and I didn’t think it was terribly effective in attempting any of them. First, it wants to give Rambo moments of glory after the horrific downfall of First Blood. It throws hoards of skinny Vietnamese soldiers his way, all of which he mows down with the greatest of ease, sometimes with machine guns, other times with the missiles of a chopper. I suppose he’s doing this for a reason. I mean, there are fellow Americans trapped in the clutches of the Vietnamese, but the entire affair felt anti-climactic. The Vietnamese honestly didn’t look very terrifying. I'm not going to intricately analyze any particular scene otherwise this review might last a long, long time, but I think the scene where the Vietnamese are riddling Rambo’s escape boat was very telling (did they really not see 2 people swimming away right next to the freaking boat?!?). There hoards of other silly action sequences that just don’t seem very well planned either: the botched parachute jump (random!), the total annihilation of the prison camp with chopper missiles (again, Rambo seems to know exactly how to blow absolutely everything to shit except the things he knows he shouldn’t like where the American POWs being held), etc. Continuity errors abound as well: Rambo is bloody and soaking wet in one scene, not so much 2 minutes later…

The second thing it tries to do is provide the protagonist with a love interest. Wow, does this ever backfire. Julie Jackson plays Co Boa, Rambo's female contact for the mission, and I swear by the beard of Zeus that, having never even heard of Julia Jackson prior to watching this movie, that I guessed she was faking her ‘broken/me love you long long time’ English accent. Lo and behold, I watched the Blu-ray featurette after the movie and during an interview she was taking like someone who was born and bred in L.A. or something. There are times when I honestly don’t know what to say other than ‘that acting was bad.’ This is one of those rare times. Julia Jackson can’t be blamed for the story arc the script gives her. What exactly Co Boa sees in Rambo to fall in love with him (the strong, silent and Terminator-esque type I guess?) I’ll never know, but her performance didn’t help one iota. By the time she gets mowed down with a hundred bullets (I don’t care about the spoilers for this movie), I really, really didn’t care.

The third and final thing Part II attempts is give the audience, at point blank range, a depiction of how corrupt and sneaky the American bureaucracy is and, by extension, how the purpose and handling of the infamous Vietnam War was total hogwash. Much like with the first point (Rambo’s glory), I liked what was going on in the first movie so much more. There is no subtlety here, none whatsoever. Charles Napier plays Marshall Murdock, the man coordinating the reconnaissance mission, a mission we soon learn was bogus because the people in Washington basically wanted to cover their political behinds. The existence of Murdock is for people who don’t like governments and politicians to have someone in the movie to hate. Vietnam was a stupid war, the politicians who orchestrated it (if one may be so bold to call that an orchestrated war) were fools, and all this is represented by Charles Napiers character. Sure, if you really hate politicians, bureaucrats and the people who clean their asses, then I guess you’ll have a good time hating Marshall Murdock, but I need little bit more subtlety, just a pinch, a grain. This culminates in late scene in which Rambo, having returned to home base after the mission, chooses to blast his machine gun away at the computer hardware that had been set up to assist him on his bogus mission. It’s not cathartic, it’s hysterical. Funny, not profound.

There are still others things that I won’t get into, such as Steven Berkoff playing ‘General Orlov light’ (Orlov being the mad Soviet general from Octopussy, a Bond movie that actually, genuinely has more subtlety to it than Part II), the final helicopter showdown, the weird score by Jerry Goldsmith that is supposed to sound Asiatic, etc. I’m not calling this film a total failure because I did like some of the kills and there is something about Richard Crenna’s Colonel Trautman that I find really cool, but suffice to say that Rambo: First Blood Part II was a massive letdown.

Injury to insult? The video quality of the Blu-ray was atrocious.

Done here? Find out if Bill saw clearly through the thick Vietnamese jungle at his Movie Emporium.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, terribleness abounds. But worry not my friend, your review was still top notch.

I just don't know what to specifically attack with this film, and saying it was generally bad/terrible seems to about cover it.

edgarchaput said...

I really wanted you to like this one too, just so I could make you look like the fool next Sunday. Darn.

Anonymous said...

Wow, you really hammered into this film. I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. Not the greatest story, but the Rambo character intrigued me and I liked the idea of him trying to go back and win the war as a commentary on some American power fantasy. Plus, I though the action setpieces were pretty great.

edgarchaput said...

@cinemasights: There is nothing wrong with Rambo's mission turning into a commentary on the United States' power fantasy, I would have liked it to be more intelligently written. I thought the first one succeeded in balancing good writing and commentary. There's none of that here.