They made First Blood into a cartoon. Literally. Sixty-five episodes of the kids’ animated series Rambo: The Force Of Freedom ran on American TV in 1986. On that show, John Rambo, the disturbed and traumatized Vietnam veteran of David Morrell’s 1972 novel and the great 1982 movie, became a simplistic G.I. Joe-esque super-soldier, taking on General Warhawk and the evil forces of S.A.V.A.G.E. That’s what things did in the ’80s: They became cartoons. (This wasn’t even the weirdest example of an ultraviolent R-rated movie becoming the source material for a cartoon. The same thing happened to RoboCop.)
The movie version of First Blood certainly took some liberties with the novel on which it was based. It turned John Rambo from an unsympathetic killing machine to a more sympathetic maiming machine, and it let him survive at the end. But First Blood was a movie with a point of view. Rambo wasn’t just a hero; he was a victim, too. His enemies weren’t foreign combatants; they were the asshole American cops who’d pushed him too far. And the movie’s real tragedy was that we, as a society, had created this elite killer and then we’d dropped him back into civilian life with no safety net, no way to cope. What happened to the character of Rambo over the course of the ’80s—the way he went from an avatar for our neglect of veterans to the ultimate symbol of nationalistic power—is one of the weirder stories of American action cinema.
The turn, of course, took place with the release of the 1985 sequel Rambo: First Blood Part II. The sequel is just as haunted by Vietnam as its predecessor, but it deals with the specter of the war in a very, very different way. We learn as much from the opening scene. Rambo, now a convict after laying waste to an entire Pacific Northwest town, is grunting away in a rock quarry, smashing things. He and his fellow convicts are all muscled up and covered in sweat in that way that you only really see in ’80s movies. Colonel Trautman, Rambo’s onetime mentor and the man who walked him out of the police station at the end of First Blood, talks to Rambo through the prison fence, offering to send him back to Vietnam on a one-man reconnaissance mission that only he can do. Rambo only has one question: “Do we get to win this time?” Trautman tells him, “This time, it’s up to you.” But the movie itself has a different answer in mind. Yes, the movie decides. Yes, we pretty much get to win this time.
Of course, Rambo eventually learns that there are American prisoners of war still being kept in secret Vietnamese prison camps, being used for slave labor more than a decade after the war’s end. And he leads a one-man assault on the camp, killing scores of enemy troops, both Vietnamese and (improbably enough) Russian. He sets off enormous explosions, fires arrows through sentries’ heads, throws dudes off boats, and—in a climactic fists-up moment—fires a bazooka rocket right into a Russian gunship helicopter. He brings our boys back home. And then, after confronting the American bureaucrats who (for reasons that don’t quite scan) didn’t want those POWs being discovered, he makes an impassioned speech to Trautman, telling him that he wants “for our country to love us as much as we love it.” And then he stalks back off into the jungle, alone, as a shitty inspirational song from Sylvester Stallone’s brother Frank plays over the end credits.
The sequel only came out three years after that first First Blood, and yet the change in tone is jarring and overwhelming. Imagine if next year, in the height of summer, we got an American Sniper sequel where the government finds a way to reanimate Chris Kyle’s corpse and sends him off to single-handedly destroy ISIS. On a certain level, that’s what we’re dealing with here. The first movie was an intense, downbeat affair that still had a bit of the ’70s new-cinema hangover to it. The sequel is a triumphal, over-the-top ’80s action movie. It was different. People noticed.
Critics, for the most part, gave Rambo abysmal reviews when it came out, and it came close to sweeping the dumb-as-fuck Razzie awards, taking home four trophies. (In a weird twist, Rambo: First Blood Part II is also the only movie in the Rambo series to be nominated for an Oscar; it lost Best Sound Editing to Back To The Future.) But the movie still struck a chord, and it did tremendous business, earning more than $300 million.
It made that money for a reason. Rambo might be a deeply silly movie, but it had serious intentions. The whole idea that there were still unaccounted-for prisoners of war in Vietnam was based on a largely discredited myth, but it carried a whole lot of emotional weight in the ’80s. It showed up in action movies again and again—in Uncommon Valor, in the Missing In Action series. Rambo has more contempt for the Americans trying to cover up the prison camps’ existence than he does for the Vietnamese and Russian soldiers keeping them prisoner. James Cameron wrote the original script when waiting around for production to begin on The Terminator, but Stallone rewrote it, just as he’d done with the First Blood script. Stallone added in the political speechifying, and there is such sincerity to it that it’s almost hard to watch now. He was not winking when he was saying this stuff. (Stallone also added the doomed-romance subplot, which might be the most awkward thing about the entire movie.)
And while so many other ’80s action heroes were catchphrase-spouting machines—John Matrix from Commando, a movie I came very close to picking as 1985’s most important action movie, is a prime example—Stallone continues to play Rambo as a sad, haunted soul. When people try to make conversation with him, Rambo just stares at them impassively. When he does get to talking, he’s mostly just describing the ways that battle has beaten him down and robbed him of his humanity: “To survive a war, you gotta become war.”
In any case, if you accept that Rambo is not the same kind of movie as First Blood and watch it on its own merits, it’s a badass action movie. The montage where Rambo suits up, where the camera fetishizes his muscles and knife and gun, is a classic of the form. The part where Trautman describes Rambo—“a pure fighting machine with only a desire to win a war that someone else lost… what you call hell, he calls home”—is nearly as great. He starts his mission into Vietnam hanging off the side of a helicopter, forced to cut himself free with his knife. And when he lands, the first thing he does is choke a giant snake.
In battle, Rambo looks almost Conan-esque: absurdly muscled, barely human, dragging screaming foes into underbrush like some kind of demon from below. And even in a fundamentally silly movie like this, the action shows real craft. This was the pre-CGI era, of course, so we’re seeing real helicopters and real explosions. The stunts are just stunning: bodies flying off burning boats just before they blow up, Russian troops plummeting from helicopters mid-flight.
That kind of action movie, the over-the-top and stylized big-budget kind, was just getting going in 1985, and it would come to define the rest of the decade. The next year, George P. Cosmatos, the Italian journeyman who’d directed Rambo, would once again team up with Stallone for Cobra, a severely ’80s take on the Dirty Harry loose-cannon cop formula, with Stallone’s Marion “Cobra” Cobretti taking on an entire cult full of serial-killer slashers. There’s somehow even less subtlety to Cobra than there is to Rambo, and action movies would continue down that road for the next few years. And while John Rambo wasn’t the first idealized physical specimen to take on overwhelming odds and triumph, he’s maybe the most illustrative. The difference between Rambo and First Blood is the difference between ’80s action movies and the things that came before. In a few short years, action cinema became something entirely new—something that, in its own stupid way, was just awesome.
Other noteworthy 1985 action movies: The aforementioned Commando is sort of the platonic ideal of the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. It’s violent as all hell, but it seems so obviously stylized, so utterly detached from anything resembling reality, that it basically works as a kids’ movie. (Despite the R ratings, a lot of these movies must’ve had kids in mind as their primary audiences. God knows enough of us saw them.) And as with so many Schwarzenegger movies, it’s not the kills we remember; it’s the one-liners that Schwarzenegger would dish out immediately afterward. Remember when he promised to kill you last? He lied.
Rambo and Commando weren’t the year’s only overblown-to-the-point-of-surreality action movies, either. In Invasion U.S.A., Chuck Norris played a one-man army who essentially foiled a Communist annexation on his own; in the movie’s climactic scene, he and the leading enemy general have an Old West shootout, but with bazookas instead of six-shooters. A View To A Kill, Roger Moore’s final Bond movie, ends with Moore dragging his tired carcass to the top of the Golden Gate Bridge. With the first American Ninja movie, Cannon Films did its best to turn former model Michael Dudikoff into a credible martial-arts killer, and it got a long-running franchise out of the experiment. I’d probably have to retire from writing about movies on the internet if I didn’t at least mention Gymkata, the wholly ridiculous low-budget spectacular where a gymnast superhero uses a pommel horse to kick people. And then there’s Death Wish 3, a movie I love dearly. It features a deeply weary Charles Bronson picking off dozens of gibbering punks like he’s playing a video game. In the movie’s most memorable scene, Bronson shoots a petty thief in the back, and an entire neighborhood cheers for him.
But not all action movies were becoming cartoons; some of them were doing fascinatingly strange things. With Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the third (and, until very recently, final) movie in his Mad Max series, George Miller built up the iconic sight of Bartertown, with its gladiatorial dome, and then took an abrupt left turn, introducing a tribe of lost kids who need protecting. People hate Beyond Thunderdome, but it’s aged better than you might expect; the final chase is pure masterful madness. (Also, along that same little-kid line of reasoning, is The Goonies an action movie? It’s at least a little bit of an action movie, right? That came out in 1985, too.)
With The Last Dragon, Motown founder Berry Gordy attempted to make a black American kung fu movie, naming his hero Bruce Leroy. It’s a knowingly silly and extremely fun time capsule of a movie. On the other side of the spectrum is the deranged and rape-filled death-fest Flesh + Blood. It’s really more of a medieval war film than an action movie, but it still bears mentioning here, since it served as the English language debut of the Dutch madman director Paul Verhoeven, a name that will come up again. And then there’s To Live And Die In L.A., in which French Connection director William Friedkin may have done the Michael Mann aesthetic better than Mann ever did it. In its glowing neon and its Wang Chung score, To Live And Die looks like a standard-issue ’80s movie, but its characters are more flawed and complicated than most of what we’d see that decade. It gives us one of the great car chases in movie history and then reveals that our heroes were making a really, really bad mistake getting involved in the chase in the first place. It’s a great movie.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, Jackie Chan would figure out that his kung-fu slapstick could work in a contemporary setting, and his Police Story ended up being the start of a franchise and one of the most important movies in the man’s career. While much of the movie is near-unwatchable slapstick comedy, it starts and ends with some truly head-spinning action scenes, one in a Hong Kong shantytown and the other in a mall, where the hanging lights and escalators gave Chan plenty of chances to create mayhem. Chan would also take another shot at American stardom with The Protector, and once again, he’d fail. It would take a while, but it would happen eventually.
Next time: James Cameron takes his unrelenting, bare-bones style into space with Aliens, giving us one of the all-time great sequels by ignoring everything that made Ridley Scott’s Alien great in the first place.