1985 was a fine year for Hollywood. Icons fell under the stampede for sequels while future classics were created. It’s time to look back.
In the coming weeks and months the HeyUGuys team will focus on some of best from ’85, exploring their legacy and capturing something of their enduring essence.
We’ve already watched a boxer win the Cold War, shone a light on an oft-forgotten Disney outing, hung out in a pool with Steve Guttenberg, endured bad Bond, enjoyed a Cruise Curry, today we draw First Blood, again…
There are many films from 1985 which not only typify the cinematic landscape of that year, but extend that reach to typify the entire decade. Whilst by no means unique in that respect, Rambo: First Blood Part II is one such film.
The first entry in this (currently) four film long saga was simply called “First Blood” and was much more of a piece with films from the 1970s which aimed to address the collective scars to US consciousness that had arisen from Vietnam. Coming Home and The Deer Hunter were its peers, rather than the one man army films that would characterize the 1980s and of which First Blood Part II was prototypical. First Blood was both a lean action film and a considered analysis of the plight of returning Vietnam veterans – wrecked by their experiences, misunderstood and maligned by their own countrymen and seemingly unable to return to anything resembling normality.
Having been carted off to prison at the end of First Blood, Part II finds John J Rambo approached by Colonel Trautman with an opportunity for redemption – freedom in exchange for a mission into Vietnam to find POWs, held since the end of the war. Inevitably, Rambo trusts no-one except Trautman and equally inevitably that turns out to be absolutely the right position to adopt. The mission is a sham, a PR exercise dreamed up to give family members Stateside a sense of closure and when Rambo not only finds a camp but rescues a prisoner and brings him to a pick-up point, he is (adopts gravelly voice) “double crossed and left behind enemy lines”. There then ensues much none-more 80s nonsense.
Villainous Ruskies are helping the North Vietnamese, Rambo gets repeatedly electrocuted, he gets his hands on exploding-tipped arrows and there is more machine-gun fire than you can shake a stick at. Basically all of the most memorable bits from Hot Shots Part Deux just with none of the irony or self-awareness. There is even a conversation with a Vietnamese woman who is a point of contact on the ground for Rambo in which the definition of “Expendable” is discussed. It’s like if you’re invited to a party and you don’t turn up, no-one really notices. One can only assume that Stallone cast his mind back this far when settling on the name for his 80s throwback franchise.
Three years on from First Blood, a considered dissection of the experiences of traumatised vets had given way to Reaganized Cold War militarism. Director George Cosmatos would go on to direct Stallone again in Cobra (and then much of the rest of Hollywood in Tombstone) but he hadn’t done much before then to mark him out as an action director. To his credit, he acquits himself admirably in that respect and works the best he can with a script that tends to eschew nuance in favour of “I’m coming to get you” and “Do we get to win this time?”.
James Cameron is co-credited with the script and although it remains a considerable level above the nonsense of Rambo III, it is still a step down from First Blood. Charles Napier, Martin Kove and Steven Berkoff give good villain, with lots of sneering and sweating thrown into the mix.
Given that Arnie had, in between First Blood Parts 1 & 2, established himself as a muscle-bound Hollywood hardman (Conan, The Terminator and Commando), it was inevitable that Part 2 would begin to draw comparisons between the work of the two of them. Arnie is of course without doubt the heftier physical specimen of the two of them (though Sly deserves plenty of respect for the extent of his beefing-up efforts), but Sly always had the edge as an actor. Certainly this and Commando both began and set the benchmark for the ensuing cycle of one-man army films, a sub-genre that Van Damme, Willis, Seagal, Lundgren, Norris and any other martial arts icon you could name from the past thirty years have all tried their hand at.
First Blood Part 2 wasn’t quite as much of a pantomime as Rambo 3, nor has it aged quite as badly, but its geopolitics remain trite and simplistic, more of a piece with Missing in Action or The Green Berets, than Platoon or Born on the Fourth of July.
First Blood Part 2 improved on the box office haul of First Blood (an already respectable $125m worldwide) by bringing in $300m and indeed Rambo 3, despite a much bigger budget failed to even reach $200m worldwide. It obviously hit a nerve with audiences, perhaps caught up in the jingoism of mid-80s America. Against a (high for the time) production budget of $44m those are impressive numbers and rendered the critical reception largely irrelevant. Although it is easy to look back and sneer condescendingly (as I often do), the reality is that despite the triumphalist trappings and wish-fulfilment narrative, First Blood Part II remains a thoroughly watchable, entertaining action film.
As mentioned earlier, First Blood Part II remains a cherished founding member of the “One Man Army” club, with Commando, Die Hard, Red Scorpion, Hard to Kill, Under Siege, The Long Kiss Goodbye, Con Air and a dozen others following in its wake. Films as recent as The Raid show there’s life in the old sub-genre yet, even if John Rambo himself needed the help of a whole team of mercs in the problematic most recent entry in the franchise, Rambo.
That film tried valiantly to find a cause that Rambo would fight for, but delivered an ultra-violent stylistic take that even Rambo III would have blanched at. Talk endures of a further entry in the saga, even though the final shot of Rambo was as fitting an end as that of Rocky Balboa, the much more apt culmination of Stallone’s other most famous character.
What remains to be said? First Blood Part II remains superb fun, albeit with a bit of a wince at some of its hackneyed characterisations. Steven Berkoff turns the ham up to 11, Stallone was, from here up to perhaps 1993’s Cliffhanger, at the height of his powers, the action is superbly handled and within the highly crowded section of the marketplace it occupies, it continues to hold its own. Ultimately, it is not a film to be ashamed to enjoy and that should count for something.
It hasn’t aged as well as First Blood, but considerably better than Rambo III and you can never really give up on a film with exploding arrows, even if Hot Shots – Part Deux has meant that it cannot really be taken seriously any longer. If you haven’t before, give it a try. You’ll probably like it despite yourself.
Read on about other classmates from 1985…
Most Likely to invoke a lifelong love of Curry:
Most Likely to make an inappropriate joke while arching an eyebrow: