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Rambo: First Blood Part II

Artisan Home Video

Starring Sylvester Stallone and Richard Crenna

Directed by George P. Cosmatos

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Rambo: First Blood Part II begins with a big explosion. A rocky hillside is blown to bits. This loud, destructive intro is purely incidental to the plot, but makes for crucial foreshadowing. There are lots of explosions in Rambo: big, beautiful, exciting explosions.

This first kaboom, however, is mere scenery, as beleaguered Vietnam vet John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) hacks at rocks with a pickaxe in a hot, dusty prison work camp. He's serving time for crimes committed in the film's predecessor, First Blood. In First Blood, Rambo declared war on a redneck northwestern town where he was senselessly arrested and abused by callous law enforcement officers. Rambo never wanted a war, but they drew first blood, and he gave them a war they couldn't handle. At the end of First Blood, the former Green Beret surrendered after leveling Main Street with explosives and an M-60, and single-handedly sending the town's police and the local national guard to the emergency room.

Now Rambo is paying for his destructive ways, until Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna) offers him a way out. Rambo's former mentor approaches him with a mission: go back to Vietnam for the purpose of releasing American POWs. Rambo has only one question, "Do we get to win this time?"

Rambo was one of the most popular movies of the 1980s, and a big surprise as First Blood hardly made a blip in 1982. Rambo was something else. Beside raking in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, it was a cultural phenomenon. There were toys, comic books, and all the usual post-Star Wars paraphernalia, but Rambo hit something deeper. It was the Reagan era, and it only took a shallow gesture to unleash an torrent of patriotism. Rambo was a powerful shallow gesture. A lone warrior goes back and refights the war we never won, killing lots of Vietnamese, plus the Soviets who support them, and he returns with American soldiers who have been held prisoner for 15 years. Such was the effect of Rambo that parents were naming newborn babies after Stallone's iconic character.

In retrospect, it's easy to understand the impact that Rambo had. It's a wonderfully made film, with brisk action and simple, well-defined characters. It's beautiful visually, and it's hard not to appreciate the struggles of the main character: he wants to finish unfinished business, and earn respect doing it. As Trautman too often muses, Rambo is a highly trained killing machine, but he was trained so for a job he was never allowed to finish. When he returned from the war, he was spit on. As Rambo eloquently speaks for all vets, "We just want our country to love us, as much as we love it."

There's much that is silly in Rambo, notably the underdeveloped villains and the broken speech of Rambo's native guide (she speaks like, "I go America," but doesn't have an accent). In terms of craft, however, Rambo is easily one of the top action films of the '80s, outclassed only by Die Hard and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Unlike the modern action film, Rambo uses close-ups only sparingly, and to great effect. The editing is swift, the fight scenes are creative, and each well-placed explosion is viscerally gratifying.

The key to Rambo's success, though, is the character of Rambo. Imagine Stallone's Rocky, the ultimate underdog, but he has to fight Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang, and Drago in the ring at the same time. Stallone plays the part perfectly. His character is defined not by speech, but by action, by his intent focus on the task at hand and the emotion that fuels his purpose. When Rambo finally cuts loose at the end and delivers his pained speech of disrespect, we care because we know him so well, and know that he doesn't string more then two sentences together unless he has something really important to say. And what he has to say is stirring.

It's a comic book with heart.

This is a great looking transfer, although the source print has a few glitches. Anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) presentation and Dolby 2.0 Surround, with Spanish subtitles. Extras include (lame) commentary by director George P. Cosmatos, a Stallone trivia game, and the fun documentary "An American Hero's Journey."

— Gregory P. Dorr

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