I can see what the filmmakers were going for with Rambo: First Blood Part II. The first film introduced us to the character of John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), a Vietnam War veteran and someone who was most definitely suffering the effects of participating in that war. In this film, he’s made to return to Vietnam, the place that scarred him so effectively and viciously. First Blood worked so well as both an action film and a psychological thriller, so ramping up the second aspect by having him confront the place on Earth that scarred him makes sense.
That’s not actually the movie we get, but at least the potential was there for it to happen. I’m not sure why that isn’t the route that the filmmakers took with this installment, but they didn’t. There’s no psychological aspect to First Blood Part II. None. We don’t know what Rambo is thinking at any given moment, and we don’t really care. He’s in the jungle, there are people to kill and other people to rescue, and nothing else matters. There’s a large part of me that’s really disappointed by this, but another part — a far more juvenile one — that thinks making a terribly uncharismatic action hero just kill the bad guys and nothing else isn’t a bad plan.
So, yes, Rambo goes to Vietnam, explicitly told by the task force leader (Charles Napier) that he is not to engage the enemy. In fact, we don’t even know what he’s going to find. There’s a chance that he’ll find Prisoners of War (POWs), but there’s also a chance that he’ll see nothing. If he finds anything important, he’s to take a picture and then be extracted; he can’t rescue them, much to his dismay.
Does anyone think that would fly with an audience? “Yes, we’re going to send our killing machine into enemy territory, but we’re not going to have him kill anybody.” I don’t think so. Suffice to say that it does, eventually, become an action film, and Rambo does, indeed, kill bad guys. There are POWs in an encampment, and they need rescuing. Lots of gunfire fights happen, let me tell you, and there’s even a twist midway through — of sorts, at least.
It’s hard to call it a real twist, because if you don’t see it coming, you need to pay more attention to the way people act. It allows the film to go on longer, as Rambo needs to get revenge on the person or people who betray him, as well as saving the day, killing all the bad guys, rescuing the POWs, and so on. He’s got a lot of things to do, really, and he’s only one man. He’s actually got a sidekick this time around in the form of a local named Co-Bao (Julia Nickson), who actually serves somewhat like a love interest.
Their relationship is also the only one that’s developed at all in the film. The first film showed us how Rambo was affected by his time in the Special Forces, and he was sympathetic as a result. He didn’t really grow as a character, but at least he was a believable character and had some depth to him. Here, he’s pretty much just a tool of destruction. As a result, First Blood Part II is a pure action film.
I’m almost okay with that. It means that all Stallone has to do is be in good shape, perform the action scenes well, and let the better dramatic actors deliver all of the key lines. If he grunts acknowledgment of barks orders every now and then, that’s fine. However, this makes First Blood Part II far shallower and less fulfilling than its predecessor. There was some meat on the bones of First Blood, but this one is far more simple-minded. There’s nothing to think about here, and even the one relationship it develops is ended rather abruptly.
I won’t say it isn’t entertaining. Many of the action scenes rival those of the first one, and if that’s all you’re looking for, you won’t have a bad time. Stallone is still in great shape, and he still manages to make you believe the impossible. The villain is more “evil,” so to speak, and you want him to lose, although the one in the first film was more fun. Putting Rambo with an almost equally competent partner is a good decision, too, although it means they occasionally have to speak, and that means Stallone has to deliver dialogue.
Everyone in the film has the potential to out-act Stallone in dramatic scenes. That’s not why he’s part of this project. He’s there to be the action guy. It’s the same thing that happened in the first film. This formula works well. Something I haven’t yet mentioned is that Richard Crenna returns as Colonel Trautman, who spends most of the film at the side of Napier’s character. Those two are juxtaposed with Rambo’s forest situation; they provide the drama and he provides the action.
Rambo: First Blood Part II is still a fun movie, and if you’re a fan of Stallone’s character, you’ll probably still enjoy him killing a bunch of bad guys. The film serves as a giant missed opportunity, but as it is, it’s a passable action movie that never stops being entertaining, even if there’s absolutely nothing below the surface. It’s not the classic that First Blood is, but it has a main character who is best suited to just go into enemy territory and engage in action scenes. That’s what happens, and I did, on the whole, have a good time with it.