Comfortable and Furious

A Sly Appreciation: Part 2

“To survive a war, you’ve gotta become war.” Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) & Rambo III (1988)

First Blood is a fave, Part II isn’t, although I’d still argue it’s a must see. The sleek, adrenalin-pumping original, in which Rambo only killed one man, even managed to flirt with plausibility on occasion, but the sequel turns him into a rightwing comic book superhero.

We begin with Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) fishing his highly decorated boy out of a penal labor camp. In the original, Trautman was a combination of father figure, confessor and PR mouthpiece, but by now he’s morphed into a one-man Greek chorus, popping up every fifteen minutes or so to sing Rambo’s praises and remind everyone that they’re basically dealing with a psychic Terminator operating on both angel dust and a hair trigger. “Rambo is the best combat vet I’ve ever seen,” he tells a doubter in the ops room. “A pure fighting machine with only a desire to win a war somebody else lost. If winning means he has to die, he’ll die. No fear, no regrets. What you call hell, he calls home.” Indeed, Trautman is so in love with his muscular protégé that he should be dressed in a beret, army jacket, black fishnet stockings and red high heels while delivering all his lines in a high-pitched lisp.

Anyhow, for some reason Rambo starts off struggling to look at anyone and stiffly walking, as if he’s been bummed solid by the bigger boys in that labor camp. His monosyllabic speech and reactions have been slowed to such an extent that we sense he’s trying to project a world-weary and intense state but ends up appearing borderline catatonic. In the first ten minutes the sole emotion he displays is when a boss conveys the details of a top-secret, 36-hour reconnaissance mission in Nam, insisting Rambo only take pictures of any American POWs and not to engage the enemy. “Photographs?!” Rambo exclaims, almost turning to the camera to say what sort of pussy flick is this? Trautman, standing nearby, somehow resists reaching out to stroke his silky, shoulder-length hair while cooing don’t worry, baby, you’ll soon get to penetrate some gook scumbags.

Part II is simplistic, jingoistic rubbish. It’s brilliantly cheesy in places, such as when Rambo vows revenge over the radio against a treacherous boss with lightning flashing across his face or the time he plays possum as an awesome Soviet helicopter gunship hovers over him. However, Part II is sort of great and likely to be near the top of any teenage boy’s favorite action movies. It’s well-directed and has decent cinematography while its surprisingly lean ninety-five minutes ensure tautness.

The imaginative action is often well-staged, especially Rambo evading mortar fire as he runs across a paddy field with a POW toward a circling rescue chopper. Steven Berkoff, as our main Russian villain, also puts in a one-note, enjoyably OTT shift. The coolest bit, however, is when Rambo whips out his explosive-tipped arrows and begins blowing the shit out of anything that moves. Even now I can still remember the bitter tang of disappointment after asking my parents for a similar archery set for my fifteenth birthday only to end up unwrapping Electronic Battleship. Stallone, in such fantastic physical condition that he even has muscles on his elbows, is awkward and faintly ridiculous early on but grows into the role once he starts unleashing mayhem.

Whereas Part II became ludicrous, Rambo III quickly stomps on the absurd pedal and rarely lets up any time before we arrive at its mind-bogglingly daft gunship-tank finale. Rambo, by now caricature rather than character, is an unstoppable force of nature and the ultimate macho wank fantasy. The Afghanistan-set III had other problems, though, in that the Cold War was thawing as a result of Gorbachev coming to power three years earlier. Worse, Rambo was on the side of the Mujahideen, a Muslim bunch of guerilla fighters portrayed as honorable, jolly good chaps. A shame, then, that real-life Yank soldiers would soon come to fight them in the form of the Taliban.

My main gripe, though, is III suffers because it’s near-identical to its predecessor, even if some ill-fitting one-liners get added. Rambo goes on a rescue mission, downs helicopter gunships, sets off booby traps, infiltrates an enemy camp, fires those ultra-cool explosive-tipped arrows again, and finishes up battling a well-built Ruskie henchman and killing his air-bound evil boss. Rambo’s dazed demeanor, slowed speech, fatalistic outlook and attempts at pithy insight are present and correct, as well as his unconsummated love affair with his mentor (“Promise you’ll look me up when you get stateside,” a flirty Trautman says before leaving for the Graveyard of Empires.) Let’s be honest, II and III is the same film, swapping the jungles of Nam for Afghanistan’s rocky, dust-filled landscape. Well, maybe Rambo playing that game involving a dead sheep was new. How did that not catch on in the West?

I’d like to dismiss III as a numbingly mechanical, anti-Russian action pic in which our former Green Beret is wound up and set down to do his one-man army schtick, but it does have a crude, pyrotechnic-filled efficiency. Hence, once it finished I couldn’t help strapping a black bandana on my bald head, doing nearly ten push-ups, twice triumphing at Electronic Battleship, and proceeding to garrotte any non-American passersby in the street.

“I’m beginning to dislike this Mr. Walker.” Cliffhanger (1993)

Cliffhanger was Sly’s action-based attempt to get back on firmer ground after those disastrous forays into ‘comedy’ with Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shit. It did the job, too, raking in more than $250m. What’s more, it deserved to be a hit as it’s an enjoyably OTT thriller built on an ingenious plot.

Stallone is ace mountaineer Gabe Walker, although he’s not so ace that he can prevent a mate’s inexperienced climber girlfriend from plunging about ten miles to her death. This opening sequence is so well done that it digs into your stomach and makes your skin crawl. Worse is to come, though, when Gabe and pals find themselves at the mercy of a bunch of heavily armed hoodlums who’ve just graduated from the Die Hard School of Hi-Tech Psychopathic Villains. Their attempt at a midair heist of a U.S. Treasury plane has left them somewhat antsy, given their daring plan merely resulted in a fortune being scattered over the snow-capped Rockies. The guilt-ridden Gabe is forced to fetch this loot (contained within trackable boxes) while trying to keep his mates alive and killing the baddies.

Now I have to admit I’ve long believed there’s nothing less sympathetic than a mountaineer’s corpse. Life’s a precious thing and you shouldn’t jeopardize it by doing stupid, avoidable stuff like paying a quarter of a million dollars to circle the Titanic nearly four kilometers below the ocean surface in a tin can. And yes, that does mean I’m a big, lazy scaredy cat who’d rather watch movies all day. In other words, I went into Cliffhanger hoping to cheer the death of every misguided human fly. Things certainly looked promising when introduced early on to a pair of young adrenaline junkies who like to bump their helmets together before jumping off a cliff and yelling: “I’m free! Radical, man!”

Oh, please let your parachutes fail.

Cliffhanger, however, was a nice surprise in that it mainly made me forget about such healthy, understandable urges. It features excellent pacing, especially during the opening half hour, and is filled with first-rate stunts, not to mention a much higher body count than expected. There’s everything from an avalanche and hungry wolves to a rickety rope bridge and a wonderfully daft bit of stalactite trauma.

Sly also scampers up rock faces well, convincingly portraying a mountaineer. Sure, there’s not a whit of character development but he flings himself into the action with gusto. Then again, the longer his death-defying heroics go on the more the plausibility drains e.g. how do people recover so quickly from a savage beating? Can a handgun be fired underwater? Indeed, by the time a baddie tries to kill one of Gabe’s crew while spouting a ridiculous soccer-based commentary (“The crowd is on its feet!”) the flick has long thrown away its brain and discipline.

No matter. The ambitious, well-directed Cliffhanger deserves a pat on the back for its popcorn value while once again distracting me from going outside and attempting to do something brave like climb a mountain.






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