“You forgot you were dealing with Rambo” First Blood, Part II

1985’s RAMBO: First Blood Part II is not a good movie. But like the original Red Dawn and Invasion USA, the politics make it worth watching.

Rambo’s former CO, Trautman, frees him from prison (his fate at the end of First Blood) for a covert mission: go back into ‘nam, take photos of a prison camp that might still hold American POWs. As I mentioned last month, it’s assumed that anyone MIA in the Vietnam War is a possible POW unless proven otherwise, an idea Nixon popularized. Rambo’s cynical question: “Do we get to win this time?”

Actually, no. The government knows that Vietnam is holding prisoners to trade for war reparations, which nobody in Congress wants to advocate for. Murdock (Charles Napier), the organizer, plans to send Rambo to an empty prison camp, thereby looking like the government’s doing something without actually doing something.

Ooops. Turns out some POWs have been stashed there recently and Rambo gets photos. When the Vietnamese close in on him, Murdock calls off the rescue. Rambo’s Red Shirt female companion, Co (Julia Nickson), gets shot down. The Vietnamese torture Rambo, then their Russian masters take over. Finally Rambo breaks free, kills a lot of enemy soldiers, and takes a helicopter full of prisoners back to safety.

As an action movie this is clunky and dull. The Russian and Vietnamese troops go down so easy, it might as well be a video game. Stallone plays Rambo is a monosyllabic killing machine, and it doesn’t make him compelling (I’m sure a few watchers enjoyed his gleaming physique). But politically?

First, as I noted in the previous post, we have the implied assumption that we were the good guys in Vietnam. The war was a lie, Trautman says at one point, but the victims were Our Boys, not the injured dead or injured Vietnamese. They acknowledge the U.S. never paid the war reparations it agreed to, but nobody suggests that we were wrong for doing so, or that we should just pay them and get the POWs back. Rambo barks at Murdock at the end to get the POWs back, but he doesn’t suggest how.

Heck, the Vietnamese are clearly bad guys here. Not only are they abusing prisoners and treating them like shit, they torture Rambo and they’re working for the Russians. After the U.S./USSR detente of the 1970s, President Reagan actively pushed to make the USSR the “evil empire” again, and Rambo, like Red Dawn and Octopussy, reflects his rhetoric.

Then there’s Rambo’s methods. During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese use of low-tech warfare, such as ambushes, pits and booby traps, gave them an advantage in jungle fighting (much as Iraqi insurgents would fight US forces decades later). In Rambo, that dynamic gets reversed. Rambo starts his mission equipped with cutting edge American tech, but has to dump it almost immediately. After Murdock’s betrayal and Co’s death, he equips himself with a bow and arrow, though with exploding arrowheads. Using stealth, ambushes and arrows, Rambo takes down forces equipped with the best modern weapons. Everything the North Vietnamese did, he can do better! Take that, evil empire puppets!

I’m not sure how it would play for anyone too young to remember ‘nam or the Reagan era, though the “save the POWs” element makes it more watchable than Red Dawn.

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Filed under Movies, Politics

8 responses to ““You forgot you were dealing with Rambo” First Blood, Part II

  1. This is such a weird sequel to First Blood. Rambo III is even stranger.

  2. Zosimus the Heathen

    I must admit I have a bit of a soft spot for the Rambo films, as silly as they tend to be (though I thought the most recent one actually did quite a good job of showing the horrors of life under the Burmese military junta). When I was growing up in the ’80s, I remember First Blood Part II having a real notoriety – it had supposedly been the inspiration for so many mass shootings (as had the equally silly Arnold Schwarzenegger flick Commando) that it became almost like this crucial ingredient in a recipe for creating a mass killer ie “take a mentally unbalanced young man and just add Rambo”. When I finally saw it for myself (in the mid-2000s), though, I couldn’t get over just how ridiculous it was. “THIS was the movie all the do-gooders were getting their collective knickers in a twist over?!” I remember myself thinking at the time (and I had a similar reaction to Commando when I saw that).

    • I don’t remember that controversy. I’d have thought the Rambo vs. Cops framework of First Blood would have made it a more likely template for shootings, if any of them were.
      There’s a neat little movie, Son of Rambow, about two kids trying to make a sequel to First Blood and Rambo.

  3. I’ve never seen any of the Rambo movies before, but I’ve heard III is a mess.

    • Zosimus the Heathen

      III’s actually pretty good IMO, though like its immediate predecessor, it’s pretty silly as well. It’s definitely funny in hindsight seeing the movie lionize the “brave, freedom-loving mujahideen”, though – y’know, the very same people who, in many cases, would go on to fill the ranks of al-Qaeda.

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