by Pauline Kael
Rambo: First Blood Part II explodes your previous conception of “overwrought”—it’s like a tank sitting on your lap firing at you. Jump-cutting from one would-be high point to another, Rambo is to the action film what Flashdance was to the musical, with one to-be-cherished difference: audiences are laughing at it. More specifically, they’re laughing at its star and progenitor, Sylvester Stallone, who comes across as a humanoid Christ figure with brown leather skin and symmetrical scars. Rambo has been programmed with (a) homoeroticism, (b) self-pity, (c) self-righteousness, (d) sweat, and (e) an insatiable need to be crucified over and over. He has a sour pout on his face, and he’s given to deep, enigmatic utterances, such as “To survive a war you have to become war.”
According to Rambo, we didn’t lose the war in Vietnam—the United States soldiers weren’t allowed to win it. And when it ended, our government made a deal to pay war reparations of four and a half billion dollars to North Vietnam for the return of our captured men, then reneged on the deal and tried to forget all about the prisoners of war.* Rambo goes in and brings a bunch of survivors out. Of course, he has his moments of pleasure: he has bits of his flesh sliced off by a sadistic, Nazi-like Russian (Steven Berkoff), he’s spread-eagled on an electrified rack by torturers who think they can make him talk, he’s branded in the face with a red-hot knife, he’s immersed in pig glop while hanging crucifixion style. And, boy-oh-boy, what this killer Christ does to those Commies! He shoots them with his bow and arrows—arrows with explosive points that send them up in fireballs.
The jungle greenery is very lustrous; the cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, gets something of the effect in color that Josef von Sternberg got in black-and-white in a studio-made jungle in his 1953 Anatahan— it’s as if each leaf had been oiled and buffed. And with the bare-chested Stallone slipping through these leaves the effect is mighty odd: you’re supposed to be intoxicated by his lumpy muscles. The way he’s photographed, he’s huge—our national palooka—and the small Vietnamese in their ill-fitting uniforms don’t look as if they had a muscle (or a brain) among them. They just stand around stupidly, waiting to be blown up; you may want to yell at them “Take cover!” But who could be heard above the soundtrack alerting you to watch for the next killing, and the audience’s catcalls and the giggly cheers for Rambo’s Zen marksmanship and his gorgeous fireballs? (The film reaches climax when two boats crash in flames.) The director, George P. Cosmatos, gives this near-psychotic material—a mixture of Catholic iconography and Soldier of Fortune pulp—a veneer of professionalism, but the looniness is always there. Rambo’s old Green Beret colonel calls him “a pure fighting machine,” yet, like Rocky, Rambo always has to have bigger guys in his movies—real bruisers, like the Russian giant here—to beat him up. We mustn’t forget that his namesake is Arthur (A Season in Hell) Rimbaud: trying to explain Rambo to a corrupt official, the colonel says, “What you choose to call hell, he calls home.”
What Sylvester Stallone chooses to call a movie is a wired-up version of the narcissistic jingoism of the John Wayne-Second World War pictures. Its comic-strip patriotism exploits the pent-up rage of the Vietnam vets who feel that their country mistreated them after the war, and it preys on the suffering of the families who don’t know what happened to their missing-in-action sons or brothers, fathers or husbands. A Sylvester Stallone hit movie has the same basic appeal as professional wrestling or demolition derbies: audiences hoot at it and get a little charged up at the same time.
David Morrell, whose novel First Blood was the basis of the first Rambo picture, has written the novelization of this sequel, from the screenplay by Stallone and James Cameron. It’s a love letter to Rambo’s weaponry—his nasty serrated knife and his bow and exploding arrows. In the author’s note at the front of the book, Morrell tells us who “created” the weapons and where we should write to order them. I can hardly wait for my set to arrive.
* There is some factual basis for this: in 1973, President Nixon promised President Pham Van Dong $3.25 billion in U.S. economic aid, but Congress refused to grant the money.
The New Yorker, June 17, 1985