(Second viewing, On TV, September 2017) As a Canadian, it amuses me to point out that John Rambo, a character that has come to embody the worst excesses of American jingoism, was twice created by Canadians—novelist David Morrell for the novel that gave rise to the PTSD-ridden Rambo of First Blood, then screenwriter James Cameron who developed Rambo-the-war-machine of First Blood Part II. The real story is a bit messier than the sound bite (starting with the influence of all-American Sylvester Stallone in re-writing and playing the character), but it’s a reminder that the character has a far more nuanced origin story than simply seeing Stallone re-win the Vietnam war by himself. It’s practically impossible to re-watch Rambo II today from a simple-minded entertainment perspective: the film itself cries out for socio-critical commentary, either as a gold-plated representation of the Regan-era mindset, as a repudiation of post-Vietnam humility, as wish fulfillment writ national, or as a dispiriting proof that audiences will be gleefully cruel as long as you appeal to their base instinct. Because, not to put it too bluntly, Rambo II is in many ways a terrible film. The set-up makes no sense; the dialogue is blunt to the point of being ridiculous, the plot threads are barely disguised and the overall plot couldn’t be more obvious. Appealing to unsophisticated plot elements, the film gleefully multiplies Rambo’s enemies because, well, why not? It’s not enough to fight Vietnamese soldiers holding American hostages—let’s throw in even-more-evil Russians and duplicitous American weasels who clearly can’t measure up to John Rambo, Esq. as a true-blooded depiction of what it means to be American (mostly by killing everyone else). Sarcasm isn’t just easy in commenting Rambo II: it’s almost mandatory. But here’s the thing: it seems to work in a low-level cunning way. I’d draw the parallels with the rise of reactionary elements in American politics circa 2017, but you’re probably ahead of me in this regard—maybe it’s better to sign off while acknowledging than even in reaching for the lowest common denominator, Rambo II does find one and exploits it for all it’s worth.
(Second viewing, On TV, September 2017) The four-movie Rambo series may be all about an American icon, but it’s fascinating to see, peering closer, that all four movies have their own particular aesthetics. The first film is a gritty post-Vietnam drama about PTSD. The second in an all-out revenge fantasy. The fourth is a reprehensible pile of gory grittiness without much of a point. The third … is just plain dull. Heading to Afghanistan to help the soon-to-be Taliban in fighting the Soviet Empire, Rambo III goes through the motions of an eighties action movie without doing much more than the required minimum. The first half of the film has a mildly compelling arc in bringing back Rambo to the battlefield (so much so that it would form the backbone of the Hot Shots Part Deux parody), but the film’s second half loses itself in well-worn action movie tropes, although the ending sequence finally has some energy in it. It doesn’t make for a very good third entry in the series. While Rambo III’s troubled production may account for some of the lack of focus, the lack of excitement does doom the film to mediocrity—if Sylvester Stallone and the Rambo series weren’t linked to this film, it would be essentially forgotten today.