Neoliberal American aimlessness is recoded as anticipatory national fantasy in Rambo: First Blood Part II, a film that both thoroughly disgraces the legacy of its progenitor and perversely fulfills the dormant desires which may have animated many viewers’ affection for the original character. That original film envisioned Stallone as a bruised dog. He was as inarticulate as any of his other characters, but his motor-mouthed struggles were construed less as a function of a screenplay disconnected from humanity (as in, say, Cobra) and more as a theme: the result of a nation and a man unable to vocalize their severe trauma and societal disaffection. The original First Blood, then, was a fairly doleful thriller about unmet expectations, a thoughtful meditation on American lapses that framed the US’ involvement in Vietnam as a national aporia that not only chewed out and spit up the soldiers but cast the whole nation adrift, leaving it to wander a moral wilderness.
Out of the many early ‘80s action films that dissected the corpse of the Vietnam war in one way or another, one would be hard-pressed to pick that Stallone vehicle as the likeliest candidate for a sequel of any caliber, let alone the sequels we received. There’s no obvious commercial reason why First Blood became the basis for its sequels, excepting perhaps Stallone’s success in another role in another franchise that had undertaken a similar rightward trajectory: the disaffected populist working-stiff boxer who had, with America’s rightward drift, metamorphed into America’s new Great White Hope capably defeating both black and Soviet enemies. Within the span of a few years, Stallone was no longer a cipher for a wayward everyman but an icon for American ego-boosting, the latent whiteness of his characters’ populism suddenly on full display as he became an American avenger.
I don’t know that I would call either the original Rocky or First Blood conservative per-se, but the sequels absolutely qualify and draw into relief the limits of the original films’ visions. Specifically, the sequels expose the ways in which their respective originals’ populist empathy for America’s platonic every-person can easily sour into its cracked, negative-mirror shadow image: the quintessentially American (read: white) victim entitled not only to recover his former glory but to solidify America’s stability in doing so, and to test the boundaries of a floaty, ambiguous liberalism in doing so. That same sense of dehumanization that infested First Blood courses throughout this 1985 sequel’s bones, but what was a diagnosis of America’s wounds and its own crushing, self-bruising inability to properly address those wounds (in the original) has transformed into an unabashed prognosis: kill the other dead, so that we, the white everyperson, can remain the norm.
And with that, Rambo: First Blood Part II was not only the second highest-grossing film of its year after Back to the Future but also a proper zeitgeist motion picture, the kind which both unapologetically encapsulates an era and pistons it forward, dragging the spirit of its predecessor down with it. In First Blood, Stallone was a kind of pathogen. Rambo was the underbelly of the nation that had been turned into an invasive species (revealing what the country would rather not acknowledge) who still, in fact, summarized the soul-crippling edifice of neoliberal America itself. Part II enervates that last bit of self-reflective humanity out of the figure and weaponizes the pathogen, turning it outward and rhetorically repairing the national walls the original film had cast such a thoughtful light on. When Rambo asks his ex-commander Col Trautman (Richard Crenna) “Sir? Do we get to win this time?” the film lays its cards down for all to see: this is an absurd allegory for America’s past mistakes, a bastardization of history that aims to replay the schisms of the mid-late 20th century as a simple case of not enough bullets not directed where they needed to go.
Unrepentantly playing out the Cold War in one pair of extremely bulky arms with an extremely phallic machine gun, First Blood Part II outright states (“implies”, I almost just wrote, but little about First Blood Part II implies anything) that replaying the past only without those pesky protestors and pull-outs is the best salve for the nation’s wounds. Specifically, this Rambo (not to be confused with 1989’s Rambo III, or 2008’s Rambo, since this franchise’s naming conventions are as thoroughly promiscuous as the franchise is ludicrous) decides that a POW rescue mission in Cambodia is the ticket to America’s woes, except that it is thoroughly under-interested in the humanity of those POW’s as long as our titular character gets to carry all of America’s dejection on his rippling shoulders. Which is to say, First Blood Part II cares about Rambo’s humanity as little as it does anyone else’s, mindlessly weaponizing him into a, well, mindless superhuman transparently meant as a facsimile for the nation, not any flesh-and-blood person.
First Blood Part II is essentially a slab of meat as raw (yet somehow overcooked) as Stallone’s muscles, which makes its oddly emphatic political perspective a curio in the 21st century, an era of conspicuously curated political centrism as far as the eye can see. This might be refreshing if not for the film’s grotesqueness, its pummeling moralism in service of a murderous ideology. In prison after the events of the first film, Rambo meatily signifies his disgruntled contentedness early on when asked to fight for his country again: “in here I know where I stand”. Ostensibly setting up a brutal dichotomy between existentially wayward freedom and clarifying imprisonment, the film thoroughly refuses the possibilities of such a claim by ensuring that we are never once in doubt about where the film, and we, stand on the issues at hand. Rambo is meant to stand up for America, and the film disowns the possibility that its ambivalence about Vietnam could suggest an immanent critique of the war itself, preferring instead to direct its ambivalence only onto America’s treatment of veterans, not onto the unnecessary conflict they were forced into in the first place. Its ridiculous pseudo-complications aside (Marshall Murdock, an American handler character played by Charles Napier, obviously only cares about making money, and the film’s attempt to vilify him is obviously intended to counteract its untroubled racism), First Blood Part II dedicates one hundred percent of its energy to ensuring we know exactly where America ought to stand.
So it has a petrified morality, and the film also treats it petrifyingly, choking up on so much congealed moralistic phlegm and clearing its throat so much about its perspective that it exsanguinates any sense of craft or fun. Customarily straight-faced, as was Stallone’s modus operandi at the time, Part II has none of Schwarzenegger’s cheeky, self-deprecating sensibility that tended to effuse into his films from this era. Even the thoroughly absurd final helicopter battle (because those were just hot shit in 1985) is framed as grimly as possible, with no sense of self-reflexive silliness or winking glee.
Which is to say, First Blood Part II is straight-jacketed in more ways than one: morally, tonally, and stylistically. It’s thoroughly committed, at the expense of anything else, to its single-minded goal of ensuring America’s chance to draw first, second, and third blood, and for the film to retroactively suggest that the Soviet Union had “really” drawn all the blood necessary for the US to legitimize its apparently preemptive strikes, sheriffing the world without discretion. It’s perhaps the peak-Reagan era film in that regard, and due to the way its lone-wolf protagonist allegorizes the ex-cowboy president as an icon of American moral supremacy turned sheriff of the world and bulwark against Communism.
This relaying between ex-cowboy President and present-cowboy action hero is never more-so true than in the film’s final scene. Resolving the conflict and wandering off into the distance, Rambo’s roaming identity, once the loneliness of a forgotten man in an inhospitable world, is refigured as the heroic mobility of an American archetype who thoroughly transcends any “home” by protecting and sanctifying the home he leaves behind. His moral certitude and consummate ability launder his itinerancy; his homelessness is kept conservatively respectable and legitimate, in society’s eyes, so that it can’t be figured as a disreputable alternative to the private domestication of the average citizen controlled by the state. In the tradition of the classic Western, he has no place in society because he is elevated as the defense of that society, ensuring that the film doesn’t have to meditate on the existential implications of his permanent exile or the society that created that exile.
In the tradition of ancient Greek warrior-wanderers, Rambo is elevated as the figure who doesn’t need a home to sanctify himself because he carries the spirit of a nation-state with him where he goes as its scion; he becomes his own home, metaphorically wrapped in its warming glow, fully complicit with the immorality of his nation-state. While the original First Blood certainly processed the ambiguities these themes engendered in the mental state of that nation-state in the post-Vietnam early ‘80s, Part II actively fights for the clarification of that nation-state, disabusing itself of any possibility of ambivalence. Or craft. Or even, curiously for a blockbuster, entertainment.