[Editor's Note: This is the latest entry in our annual "Summer of…" series, copresented by Aaron Aradillas of Blog Talk Radio's Back By Midnight and Jamey DuVall and Jerry Dennis of Blog Talk Radio's Movie Geeks United!.]
One part '70s rogue male action movie, another part innovative Hollywood blockbuster pushed all the way to "11", and totally responsible for changing action movie grammar—big silly war flicks were never the same after its May 1985 release—Rambo: First Blood Part II sits in between filmic worlds. Despite it being one of those movies everybody knows, it's a tough one to parse. Nevertheless, Brandon Soderberg and comics artist and illustrator Benjamin Marra chopped it up about Rambo: First Blood Part II, and tried to get to the center of its wizened, gummy politics but also talk about why it's just, well, awesome.
Brandon Soderberg: Let's talk about the waterfall scene towards the end because it inspired this discussion. Basically, Benjamin was part of a panel at the Small Press Expo (SPX) called "The New Action" that was talking to "indie" creators engaged with more visceral narrative styles. At one point in the discussion, Benjamin just kinda lovingly describes the scene, late in Rambo: First Blood Part II, where Rambo fires this explosive arrow at this guy on a waterfall and there's like one killer beat between the arrow launching and the explosion and then—blam! The guy just gets decimated.
Benjamin Marra: Yeah, that whole scene really resonates with me. I really love it. The music, the way it's edited, it all just really sticks in my head. I think the scene is emblematic of the action movies around that time. Death Wish 3, Cobra, Commando, The Running Man, Invasion USA, Red Dawn, feel, through the prism of time, completely bizarre. I get the feeling they were constructed without any self-awareness. I can only speculate really that what occurred in those movies at the time they came out was totally acceptable and normal action. That's at least how I felt about them, but I was pretty young. If any of those movies were released today, they'd probably be perceived as satire.
Brandon: This may send us into an '80s action vortex too soon, but Rambo: First Blood Part II's directed by George P. Cosmatos, who also directed Cobra. Cobra is just really on some other shit. And Commando is also from "the summer of 1985" so there's this, um, zeitgeist going on here. Some kind of New Wave of Hollywood Action. NWOHA? Kinda like NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) which was going on at the same time. Daringly sincere and over the top, but in this almost unassuming way…
Benjamin: I'm a huge fan of Cobra. I actually think that it's one of the best action movies to come out of the '80s and is totally unsung. It pleases me to hear that Cosmatos helmed that film. I wasn't aware of that fact before. That's a really, really interesting point to suggest that there was some sort of correlation between American action movies and NWOBHM (which I also am a huge fan of). They definitely both represent the attitude of what was successful pop culture being delivered to the holy grail of buying demographics: male, between the ages of 18 and 30 (or something like that).
Brandon: The DVD has a 'Making Of' featurette and a commentary that really highlight Cosmatos' worker-bee perspective on directing the movie. He comes off like an artisan, hired to make the most awesome, invigorating action flick he could make. I think the idea of someone "just doing their job" gets underrated. With Rambo: First Blood Part II, Cosmatos funnels every piece of the movie into that singular goal: "Making a thrilling, innovative action movie."
Benjamin: I didn't check out the "Making Of" feature on the DVD. Now I'm sad I missed it. I think it's totally admirable that Cosmatos worked on the project with a workman-like, just-doing-a-job attitude. I think that attitude can yield tremendous results—Rambo: First Blood Part II being a great example. I can appreciate working like that, not over-thinking things, not approaching a subject with a lot of pretense. I wish that sort of approach to creative work was more appreciated and respected. In comics, the artists that I respect the most are the grinders, the ones who are really productive, who approach making a comic in a workman-like fashion. I also have that same respect for baseball players who play the game right, aren't trying to go for the glamor or be too flashy. It's an attitude that crosses disciplines.
Brandon: There's this palpable transition between First Blood and the sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II, here. You got three years between movies but First Blood is pretty '70s—Rolling Thunder, Walking Tall or even the Billy Jack movies come to mind. Just solid, smart exploitation. Rambo: First Blood Part II is, like, stuck between two worlds. A small kinda nihilistic character piece and a big, crazy, patriotic Hollywood movie.
Benjamin: Both First Blood and First Blood Part II are stories with very specific, legitimate political agendas wrapped in extremely well-executed action movies. First Blood feels real, like it could happen. It's a real downer of a movie in a lot of ways. Rambo is this total victim of circumstance. There's a sense of authenticity. First Blood, Part II is total fantasy, hyperbole, almost on a cartoonish level. But the movie is a total feel-good, fist-pumping, kick-ass action roller coaster. Even at the end, when Rambo delivers his passionate speech about what he really wants, we feel like righteous justice has been served.
Brandon: Yes. And it totally earns that feeling at the end. First Blood is basically a perfect fucking movie. As in, I'll argue with anybody about that one. There's just nothing wrong with it. If it had subtitles, it'd be called "a minimalist character study" or something. Rambo: First Blood Part II does its job perfectly, but I can kinda imagine the snarky responses to it. At the same time, the movie sets everything up and by the end, knocks it down in a way that's just thrilling and rewarding. Given the movie's intended wide appeal and the direct, simple but controversial message, even the doses of obviousness are effective. It has this quiet/loud dynamic, bouncing from subtlety to bluntness, underlined twenty times scenes that drive home the message.
Benjamin: You have to approach the experience of watching a movie like Rambo: First Blood Part II with an open mind and willingness to go to the places the movie wants to take you. Otherwise you can really have a bad time, asking the wrong questions, pointing out perceived deficiencies. There's the down times that set up the intense, cascading crescendos. The action beats of Rambo: First Blood Part II resonate, I feel, because of the quiet moments strewn throughout the narrative.
Brandon: And then the ending more than rewards viewers for moving through those quiet moments. Like, everything just starts blowing up. Also, the scene where Rambo has somehow covered his entire body with mud to just kill a single Russian solider goes there too.
Benjamin: Yes, the ending really reaches an awesome pitch. Rambo unloading his M60 into the computers and confronting the corrupt Charles Napier character is incredibly moving. I love when Rambo takes out the whole squad of Russian soldiers and Viet Cong single-handedly and when he emerges from the mud, that's the highpoint. The whole movie is as subtle as a sledgehammer, or wrecking ball.
Brandon: But also, not a whole lot happens. It's more a lot of tiny, slow-growing details and terse combat sequences.
Benjamin: The downtime is pretty awesome, especially the dynamic between Rambo and Co Bao. Their exchanges are electric. I'd disagree with a lot not happening. Tons of shit happens. The plot, sure, is pretty basic. Rambo goes in to check out the existence of POWs, finds them, tries to leave, gets betrayed, gets caught, fucks up a whole bunch of villains and escapes. But within that there's a whole bunch of stuff that happens: backstabbing Vietnamese pirates, boat chases, helicopter chases, torture, vicious Communists, Stallone flexing, RPGs, explosive arrowheads, different kinds of people, close-ups, disobeying authority, revenge, death of a would-be lover, shooting machine guns from the hip in knee-deep water, etc. Maybe those are the details you were referring to. I don't know. The movie has an epic feeling for me.
Brandon: I guess I'm thinking of it in terms of stuff before and also the action movies of right now, which have a tendency to overload the plot and characterization. Rambo: First Blood Part II is insane, but it's a special kind of insane that didn't exist before the movie and by now has pretty much faded away.
Benjamin: Agreed. One can look at First Blood as being the end of the '70s era action movie, like Bullit or Dirty Harry, where the "action" is more pared down, gut-level in its power. Whereas Rambo: First Blood Part II, ushers in the era of '80s action, over-the-top, cartoonish, hyperbolic in its appeal.
Brandon: There's a J. Hoberman review of Iron Eagle ("Only Make Believe" in Vulgar Modernism) that refers to the Rambo movies and movies like it as "warno"—a conflation of the word "War" and "Porno." Obviously, Hoberman finds this problematic and my guess is seeing the movies when they were released and imagining a certain sect of the audience gave him the creeps, but I don't really think there's anything wrong with "warno." I don't even think Rambo: First Blood Part II is this trashy product.
Benjamin: Yeah, I think that term definitely applies. I love Warno. I would watch tons of Warno and I wish there were more of it for me to consume. My entertainment tastes lean hard toward escapism and fantasy, so I'm down with Warno. I definitely don't think there's anything wrong with it. Is there anything wrong with Romance novels? Hell no. I agree with you about the sheer product point. There's underlying ideas and themes within the first two and fourth Rambo films (I admit I haven't seen the third installment) that are its spine. And they're legit ideas, so that's what makes the Rambo films more than sheer product.
Brandon: This relates back to Cosmatos' approach. Because Rambo: First Blood Part II is a big chunk of entertainment and totally embraces that, there's a tendency not to take it seriously. The divide between "Art" and "Product" is, well, basically bullshit. Your comics really scream this out to me as well. Am I right, or projecting there?
Benjamin: I have a similar opinion as you with regard to the divide between "Art" and "Product." I see my creative approach as similar to Cosmatos. I strive to create accessible, base-level appealing narratives. As far as mainstream cinema goes, I remember when the recent Spike Jonze Where the Wild Things Are movie came out and I was repulsed by its marketing and what I perceived it to be. (My friends who saw it confirmed my prejudices toward it.) I think Jonze's approach to the subject-matter is a great example of a creator applying airs of pretense, unnecessary seriousness and desperate emotional injection to a subject rife with joy and celebration and completely abandoning the value of entertainment. In comics, there's a lot of evidence of devaluing entertainment and fun, especially within the current indie and underground spheres, instead focusing on a tone of pseudo-artistic seriousness and pretension. My comics and illustrations are reactions to this attitude. I want my comics to strike the same chord that Rambo: First Blood Part II and Cobra and Death Wish 3 strike. I feel that the emotional base for narratives, like movies and comics, don't have to wallow in the spectrum of depression and sadness in order to connect with their audience in a serious manner. Emotions of fun, joy and entertainment, things that we might consider "guilty pleasures" (but which I just consider awesome) are just as valid a connection to an audience or reader.
Brandon: I think I can sort of deconstruct Hoberman's invocation of porno to suggest that, like porno, Rambo: First Blood Part II has an awkward, handmade sincerity to it. Like, amongst its base intentions or whatever, there's a touchable hand or voice behind it. I think your comics, especially Night Business, have that too.
Benjamin: My artwork for sure is really about earnest, passionate over-the-top-ness. Sincerity is important in my own work because I've learned that if I don't approach and present my stories in a truthful manner to the reader, the reader won't connect with the narrative. It's essential to not only believe in your work as a creator (because if you don't, neither will your audience), but to inject sincerity, honesty and earnestness into the work. I learned that you can demonstrate lots of technical skill through work, something that I think a lot of pretentious comic creators use to connect with their readers, or you can try to reach your audience through their core, their basic emotional experiences with the world, growing up, their relationship to popular culture. I think there's a overriding sense of sentiment in that too. With regard to Night Business, I'm connecting with people who have had the same experience with certain pop culture examples like Rambo: First Blood Part II. But I hope that the merits of the story are strong enough to capture the attention and connect with readers who haven't had the experience of watching Rambo: First Blood Part II and its ilk.
Brandon: To me, this all connects to structure, which is also underrated. One of the cool things about Rambo: First Blood Part II is how everything fits together. Things introduced early on pay off later. Simple, visceral stuff. The rocket launcher's revealed early and it comes back later. When Co Bao dies, Rambo puts on her necklace and it becomes part of those "Rambo's gonna go kick some ass" mini-montages.
Benjamin: It's an exceptionally well-executed film. I certainly appreciate the attention to detail the folks who put it all together had. They hit great, timely beats. The whole thing has a great rhythm to it. The setup, the conflicts, the action scenes and the down time. It makes the whole experience very full and rich.
Brandon: Something I notice about a lot of recent action movies is the attempts to sneak around so-called "cliches," like its all gotta be new and hip. Tried and true formal elements get rejected. You have a really rigid approach to your comics that I thought of when watching Rambo: First Blood Part II. Your use of panels is perhaps the most noticeable way you do this.
Benjamin: With regards to page layout and the panel architecture of the comics I make you're right on. I try to look to Jack Kirby for solutions to problems on communicating a certain narrative idea. Kirby relied on a three-tiered, 6-panel page which I've based all my comic book efforts on. The reasons why I chose this are because Kirby worked in comics for decades and honed everything down to this format and because it's a tremendous format for supporting the story. I think Kirby's system is the clearest way of executing a comic book narrative.
Brandon: And the movie's message, drummed up as it may be, is sincere and inarguable: "Hey man, Vietnam veterans got a lot of shit and a lot of them died for bullshit-ass reasons and like, what the hell?!" This is where it isn't simple product, where "warno" is just not apt. Rambo: First Blood Part II is skeptical of everybody and everything not named John Rambo.
Benjamin: I think that First Blood is more about the Vietnam veterans being treated unfairly by the American public when they got home from war. To the American people, the vets represented a failure and America wanted to forget them. They wanted to, unfairly, lay blame on the vets. And even though First Blood is a muscular action film, its underlying theme is exceptionally valid. The theme for Rambo: First Blood Part II is hidden a little deeper, but it's even more egregious: The American government sacrificed POW lives to save on paying the Vietnamese government reparations. Our government refused to acknowledge the lives of soldiers it sent to fight on its behalf. It's an amazing and colossal offense.
Brandon: And when he returns from the mission and just shoots all the computers that surround Murdock (played by Charles Napier), it's obviously symbolic, but like art-movie symbolic. It's moved way beyond reality or representation in a true-to-life way.
Benjamin: I love that part, where Rambo just unloads his M60 at hip level into all the computers and equipment. I had a friend of a friend who was in the army and during one exercise he decided to shoot his SAW at hip level like Rambo, but he quickly lost control of it. No one was injured but it destroyed the illusion of Rambo's awesome, default shooting-a-machine-gun stance. Or maybe it just gives credence how strong and macho Rambo is. I prefer the latter.
Brandon: The movie could even be viewed as Rambo's big fantasy. Not saying this is in the movie, but there is a sense that everything is pumped-up just a bit.
Benjamin: Man, I don't think this movie is just Rambo's fantasy. I think this is the fantasy of any red-blooded American male!
Brandon: We end up loving him more, though, because he's so far out. He isn't exactly relateable. He's this sad-sack loner who just gets shit done. Have you seen Michael Mann's Thief? I think Rambo: First Blood Part II moves into that territory. Just so in love with its character's rogue male attributes that real life norms don't matter anymore.
Benjamin: Michael Mann is my favorite director currently operating within the Hollywood studio system, but I haven't ever seen Thief. The idea of an unbroken sense of integrity, duty, a personal code, is very American to me. It supports the individual, the one who's willing to break the rules in order to do what's "right." It's a trait that's common—maybe essential—among American action movie stars and it's the trait you identified in Caan's character in Thief. It's something I try to imbue in my male characters. I think that this trait is absent in most current incarnations of the American male in movies. In the Spider-Man movies, the traits of Peter Parker that were played up were his sniveling, whiny, sensitive side—a decision I disagreed with from a creative perspective.
Brandon: Also, the ostensible villain, Napier, as bad as he is, you see where he's coming from. His whole point of like, "Look, at this point, if we revealed the existence of these P.O.Ws, we'd look real bad" is reasonable. It isn't right, but it's like hard, complex reality running into Rambo's strict code. You see Napier's logic.
Benjamin: Well, there's a multitude of villains, but yeah, the bureaucratic villain, you can definitely understand his motive! It's the reason why anyone would hate the government. Not only would we "look real bad," we'd be forced back into conflict with Vietnam! I think it would be against the law or something like that for the government to not attack Vietnam again. So the most prudent course of action is simply to disavow any knowledge of POWs. Sucks.
Brandon: Yeah, tons of villains, but an interesting point about Rambo: First Blood Part II, is that it's the Bureaucratic villain who is the most nefarious—if only because he's not totally defeated in the end. Napier also plays an important part in underlining the complex dynamics of the movie. Namely, it's tough for me to see this movie with the boatloads of snark most "film" types see it with. This isn't simple Reagan '80s junk. The bureaucrats aren't stuffy Liberals, they're rich white guys who didn't even serve! Sound familiar?
Benjamin: It's funny because I think a lot of Tea Party members would align themselves with Rambo's politics and perspective (I could be wrong), even though they probably are closer to the Napier character in their true nature. It's something that occurs in those folks you accurately stated as not having served, this illusory self-perception of being like Rambo, but in actuality they are not warriors. When they were asked to serve, they worked the system so they wouldn't have to. They are cowards who perceive themselves as warriors. Self-deception.
Brandon: Can we end with Stallone, the actor? I'm a big defender of Stallone and I think he is—and I totally mean this—a Brando disciple: All wounded, mumbly naturalism. Especially in Rambo: First Blood Part II, he goes to great lengths to be eerily charming. Those few moments when he does joke or he finally breaks down and rants about the war mean so much more because most of the time he's so reserved. It's like minimalist acting.
Benjamin: Stallone is an unbelievable actor. He's also an awesome director and screenwriter. Have you seen Driven? It's fucking out of control. It's a testament to his talent that he still works as an actor. Hollywood is not forgiving and yet Stallone operates at a level where he is pretty much bulletproof. I think he's incredibly respected as a professional in the industry. But, yes, back to his acting style. I have no problem with any of his choices. He nails it on every delivery. There are no holes in his performance.
Benjamin Marra is the author of the comic books Night Business and Gangsta Rap Posse available through Traditional Comics.
Brandon Soderberg runs the hip-hop blog No Trivia, the comics blog Comics for Serious, and contributes to The Baltimore City Paper, The Village Voice, The Independent Weekly and some other places.