1980s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, War

First Blood (1982) / Rambo: First Blood Part II (1984)

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Directors: Ted Kotcheff / George Pan Cosmatos
Screenwriters: Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, Sylvester Stallone / James Cameron, Sylvester Stallone

By Roderick Heath

In the late 1960s David Morrell, working as an English professor at the University of Iowa, became interested in the Vietnam war veterans amongst his students and their often painful accounts of returning to civilian life in the United States. Morrell, an aspiring writer born in Ontario and whose father had died in combat during World War II, began a novel about a veteran who, trapped beyond the fringes of an oblivious or outright hostile society, erupts in a display of nihilistic murder and destruction, turned on the victimising civil authorities of a small Kentucky town. The character was known only by his last name, Rambo, which Morrell took from the breed of apple he was eating at the time, and based him on various real-life figures, including war hero and actor Audie Murphy, whose life was beset by traumatic fallout. Morrell also took inspiration from Geoffrey Household’s famous novel Rogue Male, filmed in 1943 by Fritz Lang as Man Hunt. Morrell published his book, First Blood, in 1972 to some acclaim, and quickly sold the film rights. The proposed adaptation kicked around Hollywood for nearly ten years with heavyweight directors including Richard Brooks, John Frankenheimer, and Sydney Pollack taking an interest. Eventually the project was taken in hand by Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, two film distributors itching to try producing.

Kassar and Vajna hired the Canadian filmmaker Ted Kotcheff, whose previous credits included helping the Australian film industry revive with 1971’s Wake In Fright (aka Outback), and a jewel of the similar Canadian revival of the 1970s, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974). Kotcheff in turn attracted Sylvester Stallone, who was hunting for a viable career alternative to his Rocky films after several coolly received attempts to expand his star persona. Stallone rewrote the best extant script, by William Sackheim and Michael Kozoll, with his canny eye for selling a story to a mass audience causing him to revise the story and make Rambo, now gifted a first name of John, more sympathetic and less heedlessly murderous, essentially refashioning him as an angrier, more damaged and antisocial version of the underdog hero Stallone played in Rocky (1976). First Blood the movie resituated the story to a town called Hope in Washington state, in part because this allowed the film to be filmed more cheaply in Canada. The movie, which still finished up costing some $15 million, became a major hit, cementing Stallone’s place as a major Hollywood star. But Rambo’s place as a byword in popular culture wouldn’t be sealed until a sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II, was released in 1984.

That film would transform Rambo, conceived as an avatar for the wounded and thwarted products of a bitter zeitgeist, into a figure many took to be the guns-blazing representative of the Reagan era’s renewed militarist swagger and sense of purpose, avenging old defeats and swashbuckling through new wars, driven on by the delight of movie audiences. A third entry, Peter MacDonald’s Rambo III (1989), would become the most expensive film ever produced for a brief reign. As embodied by Stallone, with fast and bulbous physique, penchant for wearing headbands but not shirts, and clutching huge weapons, the character Rambo became eventually birthed a popular caricature, eagerly satirised in movies like UHF (1989) and Hot Shots! Part Deux (1992). Quite the progression from the dark and sombre thriller Morrell wrote, which ended with the character being shot dead by his former Green Berets trainer, Colonel Samuel Trautman. For the adaptation, Kirk Douglas was hired to play Trautman, who was revised from a peripheral, resented figure in Rambo’s life to his former commanding officer, but Douglas dropped out early in filming when he disagreed with revising the story to let Rambo live. He was replaced, in another fortuitous accident, by Richard Crenna.

Douglas might have been artistically right, but Stallone knew his audience. First Blood works carefully to put the viewer entirely on Rambo’s side in its opening reels, as the soldier turned drifter seeking out the home of Delmore Barry, the last surviving other member of his old unit. Rambo soon learns from a neighbour that he’s died of cancer, which she believes was caused by exposure to Agent Orange. The forlorn figure that is Rambo, Medal of Honor winner and relentlessly honed, preternaturally gifted warrior turned ragged drifter, follows a highway into the mountains of Washington until he’s picked up on the fringes of the town of Hope by the Sheriff, Teasle (Brian Dennehy), who lets Rambo know he’s not going to be allowed to linger there, and deposits him on the far side of town. Rambo defiantly turns back towards the town and Teasle promptly arrests him. Rambo is placed in the police station lock-up where Teasle’s deputies, including the swaggering sadist Art Galt (Jack Starrett), beat him, forcibly strip him, and hose him down, experiences that remind Rambo of being tortured in a North Vietnamese POW camp.

Kotcheff makes use of flashbacks to reveal Rambo’s reawakened traumatic memory as he’s brutalised by Galt in a manner reminiscent of the stuttering, near-subliminal technique Sidney Lumet utilised in The Pawnbroker (1964). The likeness of his present situation to his time suffering in captivity is immediately and vividly illustrated and also the similarity of intent behind it, the pleasure of petty tyrants in humiliating and reducing people under their thumb. The sight of the scars that score Rambo’s naked torso, when he’s obliged to strip for a cleaning in the lockup, alarm the younger deputy on the Hope PD, Mitch Rogers (David Caruso), who suggests telling Teasle about it. But the sight only stirs Galt to more delighted viciousness, seeing the evidence of suffering and heroism only as a especially sweet spur to proving his own power. Finally, when the cops try to dry-shave the resisting Rambo, he unleashes his fighting prowess. In short order he decks the cops, flees the station, and steals a motorcycle. He rides the bike as far up a mountain trail as he can get before leaving it behind and fashioning himself rough clothing out of a bearskin rug he finds at a rubbish dump.

When Galt gleefully tries to shoot Rambo from a helicopter, Rambo retaliates by hurling a rock back, striking the chopper’s windscreen and causing Galt to fall to his death. Teasle immediately vows revenge for his old friend, but as he and his men venture deeper in the forest with tracker dogs, they soon find themselves completely thwarted by Rambo’s tactical smarts. He slays the dogs and lures the cops onto his ingenious and brutal traps. Teasle himself is finally ambushed, helpless under Rambo’s knife, only to be spared with the advice, “Let it go, or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe,” before vanishing into the underbrush Of course, Teasle can’t and won’t take that advice. He instead calls in the National Guard, who trap Rambo in a mine shaft he’s made his base, but Rambo, surviving an attempt to kill him with a rocket launcher, crawls through the mine until he breaks out to the surface at another locale. Stealing an National Guard truck and heavy machine gun, he returns to Hope, smashes through a blockade, and begins laying waste to the town with Teasle his ultimate target.

First Blood offered something like an upmarket version of ‘70s grindhouse thrillers that often thrust returned vets into bloody action, or a cheeralong extrapolation of the interior fantasies of Taxi Driver’s (1976) Travis Bickle. Rambo can also be seen as an extension of actor-turned-auteur Tom Laughlin’s hero Billy Jack, star of a series of popular movies in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Both characters were living lethal weapons who had served in ‘Nam, both part-Native American, both reluctant heroes who eventually cracked when confronted by thugs and redneck cops and start dealing out ass-kickings. Only Billy Jack had been a nominally countercultural hero, having thrown in his lot with young hippies, dropouts, and the oppressed, whilst Rambo doesn’t have that much community, and eventually became popularly associated with a revanchist right wing’s attitude to the peacenik crowd. First Blood is nonetheless entirely about an outsider battling representatives of authority. The cops are generally portrayed as smugly self-righteous, bullying, or weak, more concerned with the illusion of order rather than the reality of it, more obsessed with safeguarding its privilege as power than worried about justice, and in the case of Galt, essentially psychopathic.

Instead of developing more respect and solicitude the more Teasle and his people learn about Rambo, including eventually discovering his status as a war hero, they become all the more angrily determined to bring him down, because he taunts and undercuts their machismo. The essential, just about endlessly reloadable moment of crisis in every Rambo movie, awaited with eagerness by the viewer and built towards with varying levels of skill and intensity by its directors, is the scene where our hero’s blood finally boils over and he begins dealing out pain and calamity to tormentors and tyrants. The countdown to this inevitable eruption in First Blood begins in its earliest moments, as Rambo learns of Delmar’s passing and starts a lonely montage trek along the road to Hope, a place that describes itself via a sign over the road in as the “Gateway to Holidayland.” One powerfully lingering aspect of First Blood is Kotcheff’s use of British Columbian locations, which prove a perfect backdrop to communicate Rambo’s solitude and the pall of crisis that follows him like a raincloud from the bucolic setting that was Delmar’s home into the increasingly blue-soaked and dour atmosphere of the mountain forests.

The use of landscape maps out both essential dramatic venues, as Rambo escapes into the woods where he can turn the tables on the cops, and his mental landscape, leaving behind the last glimmer of hope for a familiar face and a toehold in society as represented by Delmar’s place, exchanged for the mockingly named town of Hope and finally a plunge into the primal landscape beyond where civilisation drops away and the best hunter and killer reclaims his place at the apex of existence. But the landscape also folds in upon Rambo until his empire is reduced to a hole in the ground with a flickering fire and a buzzing radio that announces the names of dead men. When he does break free and brings his wrath back to Hope, he has already lost, because he must again countenance civilisation to do so. Regardless of the specific cultural and political context the character was planted in, Rambo nonetheless became the essential modern movie depiction of a truly ancient cultural figure, the perfect warrior born purely for combat, an Achilles, a Hercules, or a modern day Viking berserker, a likeness that becomes inescapable in the maniacal last third of Rambo: First Blood Part II.

For Stallone, Rambo provided a second reliable and recognisable role as a star, a rare gift in the early days of cinematic franchising. Rambo was a counterpart to his lovably dim, gentle-‘til-roused Rocky Balboa, and the star continued this counterpoint when he revived both characters in the mid-2000s and again in the mid-2010s. Rocky was a hero deeply embedded in a sense of community and identity, pushed along by a hazily optimistic sensibility. Rambo, by contrast, is a perpetually clenched fist, his blazing, tragedy-telegraphing eyes perpetually seeing double in the world, the one that is and the one in his past, locked in a nihilistic place by his hard-won self-knowledge that the one thing he’s indisputably great at it is warfare. He comes equipped with his personal Excalibur, his ever-present hunting knife, with its wickedly curved point and serrated back edge, a weapon found on his person that the cops take to be a sign he’s a violent miscreant. The crucial similarity of Rocky and Rambo was that both had to be provoked to do what they do best, Rocky because of his general passivity, Rambo because of his grim knowledge that the kinds of situations that require his skills are already too nightmarish to contemplate. The role allowed Stallone to show off not just his musculature but his athleticism, always more convincing in that regard than the comparative ponderousness of his eventual rival and displacer in the pneumatic movie hero stakes, Arnold Schwarzenegger. “I’ve always believed the mind is the best weapon,” Rambo comments in the second, and Rambo’s cunning as a strategist is repeatedly emphasised as his real edge over variously arrogant and bullish foes.

Rambo is also inseparable from his enemies, the men who provoke his raging remonstrations. First Blood has the best and most dramatically intense of these, in the form of Teasle, who, in his way, is entirely justified in his attitude to Rambo. The film obliges the audience to identify with Rambo as the sad and simple man just trying and failing to get on with life finally pushed too far, with Teasle’s smiling but quietly assured and dictatorial attitude, followed soon by more bluntly thuggish treatment. Unlike most of his successors in the sequels, however, Teasle’s viewpoint is loaned a faint gleam of validity. The reek of danger and strangeness the sheriff gets from Rambo at first glance, and the sense of focused provocation when the drifter ignores his instructions and turns back towards Hope prove, ultimately, correct. Teasle has his own war medals on display in his office, and refuses to grant Rambo any special sympathy: “You think Rambo’s the only guy who had had a tough time in Vietnam?” Rambo nonetheless represents a revenge fantasy not just for disaffected servicemen, but for every wandering outcast bewildered and provoked by their lot in the American landscape, of which there were once many likenesses in Hollywood cinema. Rambo in his first outing belongs to a continuum linking Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad, William Wellman’s Wild Boys and Girls of the road, Raoul Walsh’s angry misfits, and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Riders. In a most specific likeness, Rambo, like Mad Dog Earle in Walsh’s High Sierra (1941), is driven into the mountains in a stand-off with authority, but where in the ironclad days of the studio system and Production Code such a figure had to eventually lose, Rambo was a product of a much more ornery time.

Kotcheff was a film and television jack-of-all-trades, gaining his career start in Canadian TV in the late 1950s before moving to the UK and making his feature film debut with 1962’s Tiara Tahiti, and his well-honed efficiency that made him an ideal figure to travel to Australia and then back to Canada to resuscitate their movie industries. It’s an odd career that encompasses the likes of First Blood, Fun with Dick and Jane (1977) and Weekend at Bernie’s (1989) alongside Wake In Fright, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and North Dallas Forty (1979). What’s most interesting in this regard is that First Blood plays as Kotcheff’s thematic sequel to Wake In Fright, depicting as it does an outsider arriving in a boondock town and being driven near-insanity by the behaviour of the locals, whose delight in tormenting and degrading a stranger reflects back out at the larger world a sense of resentment and fringe detachment. Whilst Kotcheff swapped the desolate alienation of an Aussie town on the edge of a desert for the tangled and looming reach of pine-thatched mountains, and the naïve intellectual for the hard and ingenious superwarrior, the palpable sense of danger and entrapment and depiction of regressive bullying has evident likeness.

First Blood has been criticised for abandoning its potential as a believable and down-to-earth kind of action movie by having Rambo perform some incredibly lucky pieces of physical action, like jumping off a cliff and crashing down through the nettled pine branches until he’s deposited relatively unscathed on the ground, and causing Galt’s death with a rock when the cop can’t nail him with a high-powered rifle. Those criticisms are entirely legitimate, although to Kotcheff’s credit he manages to invest them with a veneer of sense in his staging and cutting. Such shows of prowess also accrue into it’s plain that Rambo is a unique individual with levels of physical ability beyond the normal, and a degree of reflexive intelligence in the midst of battle, that gives him a radical edge over the blowhards. These touches also clearly signal that, despite its nominal roots in social issue melodrama reminiscent of the films Wellman and Walsh made once upon a time for Warner Bros., already First Blood is bending Rambo’s trajectory off into the zone of the matinee serial-style adventurer, at a time when Superman and Indiana Jones had recently revived the unbreakable brand of old-school pulp hero in movies, and the 1980s style of action movie was gaining definition.

So when Crenna’s Trautman does turn up, his presence is supposed be that of the wise elder who knows all the secret history denied to civilians like Teasle and perhaps even to Rambo himself, the man who knows what Rambo is capable of (“God didn’t make Rambo. I did.”) and also why he is the way he is, and provides a last bulwark between two factions. But his real function is essentially to act as Rambo’s hype man, promising Teasle, and the audience, what Rambo delivers. This quality manifests most memorably when Trautman, upon hearing Teasle’s declaration that two hundred cops and National Guards are being sent in to handle Rambo, retorts, “You send that many don’t forget one thing – a good supply of body bags.” Like a bard at a campfire telling stories of great heroes of old to thrill and excite the next prospectives, Trautman announces Rambo’s skills and qualities until he’s transformed from a surprisingly good fighter for a shaggy loser to a demigod only limited by his remnant human scruples: “Technically he slipped up,” Trautman says in noting Rambo’s failure to actually kill the men hunting him.

Crenna’s role at Trautman, which immediately became his most famous and recognisable, presented an inversion of his portrayal of the disintegrating commander in The Sand Pebbles (1966): where that film, made in the early days of the American Vietnam experience and presenting a parable critiquing it, disassembled the mythos of noble military machismo, Trautman reconstructs it rhetorically whilst Rambo does so physically. Rambo presents a fantasy vision of an American soldier who learned to fight like a Viet Cong guerrilla, with nods to Native American fighting styles. Rambo’s incredible physical fitness and toughness as well as honed skill gives him an edge over his enemies, able to dodge and weave and hide, seeming to become part of the forest itself, like the title alien of Predator (1987). His campaign against Teasle and the pursuing cops becomes an ironic inversion where Rambo does to his foes what the Vietnamese are often perceived as doing to the Americans in the war. He utilises the landscape and cunning, nasty traps to draw in and disassemble them, using their reactive vengefulness against them. One cop ends up tied to a tree as bait to draw in and unnerve his comrades. Another is impaled at crotch height upon a row of wicked stakes. The cops and National Guard are reduced to firing blind and shows of impotent firepower, as when the National Guardsmen shoot a rocket launcher after Rambo as he hides in the mine shaft.

When Rambo is hiding in that mine, Trautman contacts him on a CB radio taken from one of the cops, awakening Rambo from his sleep with his old service call-sign and a rollcall of his dead comrades, provoking the warrior with the perverse feeling of his dreams and waking life blurring incoherently until he realises the call is real. “There are no friendly civilians,” he tells Trautman with new-found conviction, and claims the cops “drew first blood,” justifying his retaliation, whilst Trautman retorts that “you did some pushing of your own,” and Teasle tries to trace the transmission. Kotcheff contrasts the different environs of the two men, Trautman broadcasting in lamplight as a beacon in an endless night whilst Rambo is curled up in a bole in the earth where the wind echoes hollow and his paltry fire flickers in a sea of dark. A haunting and impressive scene that perfectly evokes the mental and moral drama in play and provides a meditative interlude that’s unusual in an action movie. It also somewhat outclasses the more officially dramatic climactic moment where Stallone does some capital-A acting, as Rambo, on the verge of killing Teasle, is confronted by Trautman and has a breakdown. He recounts semi-coherently his feelings of outrage at being abused by antiwar protestors and how one of his friends died in a terrorist bombing in Saigon and he was reduced to trying to stuff his guts back inside his body, a vignette that tries so hard to be terribly cathartic it borders on camp.

Nonetheless First Blood holds together with admirable grit for the most part, in part because it resists deviating from its basic concerns. It matches the ideal of Rambo’s purposeful intensity with its own, wielding a sense of gamy, gruelling, intensely corporeal vitality that’s all but disappeared from contemporary cinema. Arguably the film’s most thrilling scene depicts Rambo’s journey through the depths of the mine in his attempt to escape with the entrance blocked by the explosion. This involves a phobic odyssey through a space of pressing walls, dripping, sloshing water, and teeming rats, a gritty, visceral, vividly claustrophobic sequence that doesn’t look like it was much fun to shoot. When he does finally reach a shaft leading out, Rambo pauses to catch his breath and offer a solemn, silent moment of gratitude before climbing back out to the world. There he finds everyone thinks he’s dead, everyone except Trautman, who muses on the scene outside the mine and knows well Rambo might still emerge but doesn’t tell Trautman. Soon enough Rambo leaps aboard a National Guard truck, forces its driver to jump out, and commandeers the M60 machine gun in the back. He arrives in Hope, blows up a gas station, and begins knocking out the power to the town’s centre. Teasle takes up station on the police station roof, only to be shot in the legs by Rambo from below, and he crashes through the skylight to the floor a bloody mess.

Before he kill the sheriff, Trautman manages to disarm Rambo and penetrate his glaze of wrath to reveal the desperately haunted and anguished man beneath. Trautman then leads him away to whatever fate the law demands, a softening of the novel’s end that also opened the door for a sequel. That Rambo is reduced to sobbing violently, whilst clinging to Trautman who plays his father and confessor, confirms a peculiar status Stallone managed to stake out in his stardom, able to play inarguably tough men who are nonetheless governed by powerful emotions, and his shows of rage and destruction throughout the film are finally revealed to be, essentially, displacement of his urgent need to grieve for himself and his former comrades. First Blood was released after The Deer Hunter and Coming Home (both 1978) had begun a rehabilitation of Vietnam as a movie subject, but before Platoon (1986) offered what many felt was official catharsis. First Blood and its follow-up were nonetheless the more populist version of the same thing, selling to the audience a new image of the ‘Nam vet as a tormented underdog deserving rehabilitation even if the war, as Trautman puts it, “was a bad time for everybody.” “Somebody wouldn’t let us win,” Rambo howls, a note taken up again at the start of the sequel, where Rambo questions, when asked to return to Vietnam, “Do we get to win this time?” “That’s up to you,” Trautman replies.

Rambo: First Blood Part II cunningly extends this Janus-faced attitude, angry anti-authoritarian outlook and revanchist reactionary passion, by portraying Rambo as next plunged into a situation where the representatives of the American government are corrupt and craven, whilst their enemies are even worse, and only Rambo, Trautman, and others like them retain something like honour. As with its precursor, Stallone applied his own polish to a script this time penned by James Cameron, at the same time he was developing his own The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986), and there’s a lot of overlap. Rambo is nearly as remorseless and irresistible as the cyborg in The Terminator once he gets going, and as with Ripley in Aliens he’s portrayed as a sorry survivor who welcomes a chance to go back to a scene of suffering to exorcise his traumatic demons and fully evolve into a hero, despite the connivance of suit-wearing creeps. Rambo: First Blood Part II opens with Trautman approaching Rambo where he’s stuck working in a prison quarry, a setting that cries out for Woody Allen singing “Gonna see Miss Liza!” The Colonel gives Rambo his apologies for failing to keep him out of jail, but then offers a chance for freedom, if he’ll volunteer for an extremely dangerous covert mission, to be airdropped into Vietnamese territory and determine whether rumours American POWs are still being held at a remote jungle base are correct. Rambo and Trautman fly to an black ops base near the border of Thailand with Vietnam, and Rambo is briefed by Roger Murdock (Charles Napier), the commander of the operation.

The unpleasant side of this plot keystone is that Stallone exploited another actual, lingering issue of the Vietnam War, the plight of missing American servicemen who were at the time believed to still be captives, to pump emotive adrenalin into his rah-rah action flick. On the other hand, the film is surprisingly direct and scathing about the US reneging on its peace pledges of reparations to Vietnam, a tussle in which the POWs are theoretical pawns: any diplomatic push to get any POWs back would certainly require paying up. The face of this deceit is Murdock, a man who may or may not have once been a soldier but now has certainly crossed over the dark side of bureaucracy, and will again readily and actively betray him and GIs still in Vietnamese hands for the sake of political equilibrium. Rambo catches him out in a lie over his alleged wartime service, which he tells Trautman about, before assuring his old Colonel, “You’re the only one I trust.” Rambo’s airdrop over the jungle from a Lear jet goes wrong when his copious equipment gets hung up on the plane, a thrilling action sequence that also contains symbolic meaning. Being forced to cut loose all the fancy gear he’s been encumbered with obliges Rambo to get back to basics, and keeps him from recommitting the assumed mistake of past American method.

Once he manages to free himself and successfully lands in the jungle, he encounters his local contact, Co Bao (Julia Nickson), after first sneaking up on her. Co Bao, the daughter of a former South Vietnamese officer, has elected to continue his fight, and she helps Rambo approach the camp by arranging passage with some smugglers who regularly traverse a nearby river. When he penetrates the camp, Rambo discovers a number of G.I. captives being kept in sadistically awful circumstances, and he frees one man POW (Don Collins, I think), who’s been left tied to a post. Rambo and Co Bao take him back to their rendezvous point as Trautman comes to the rescue in a chopper being flown by Murdock’s aides Ericson (Martin Kove) and Banks (Andy Wood), but when he’s told Rambo has a freed prisoner Murdock orders the chopper to return without him. Trautman is held at gunpoint whilst Rambo and the POW are taken by the Vietnamese, with Co Bao escaping as she split away from them. The trussed-up Rambo is immersed in a slop pit filled with leeches and then tortured with electricity by a Red Army envoy, Lt-Col Sergei Podovsky (Steven Berkoff), and his aide Sgt Yushin (Voyo Goric), who, along with a detachment of Soviet commandos, have come to the camp for shady reasons. Podovsky wants Rambo to hand him a propaganda victory by denouncing his government over the radio. But, unfortunately for him and all the other Commies, the countdown to Rambo’s next eruption has already begun.

Rambo has his one and only real encounter with a romantic interest in all his excursions to date, as he and Co Bao fall in love whilst adventuring in the wilds, and the girl convinces Rambo to take her with him back to the US. Of course, she’s necessarily doomed, and is gunned down by soldiers after helping him escape the camp. Rambo takes possession of her jade Buddha necklace and wears it at as a lucky totem and wears it through the rest of this film and on into Rambo III, finally giving it away at the end to a boy Afghan warrior he decides needs it more. Nickson’s performance doesn’t exactly help the credibility factor – she comes across exactly as what she is, a Canadian model trying very hard to look and sound like a halting-English-speaking guerrilla warrior – but Co Bao is nonetheless interesting and rather singular as a true human, romantic connection for Rambo. She has similar talents to him, accomplished with an AK-47 and skilled at war in her own way: she pretends to be one of the prostitutes who visit the camp in an attempt to extricate Rambo from their clutches, and saves his hide repeatedly in the ensuing battle. Co Bao’s presence also helped to dampen, at least to a degree, the otherwise blatantly sectarian world-view exhibited in the film holding the Communist Vietnamese as malignant scum who can be happily dispatched in all manner of creatively violent ways, as opposed to Rambo’s relatively soft touch with the police of Hope.

Even the smugglers prove to be treacherous dogs who sell Rambo and Co Bao out, forcing Rambo to slay them all and blow up a patrol boat with a Russian RPG the pirates keep around for such encounters. Of course, there’s also the Russians to add new ingredients to the vengeful mix, presenting the ultimate spectre of a renascent Domino Theory being driven by the masterminds of the Evil Empire, the real Cold War foe unmasked as puppet master. To a great extent all the historical and political issues raised and depicted here don’t matter – in practice Rambo: First Blood Part II is simply a slightly updated World War II movie, with the Vietnamese cast as proxy as Japanese and the Russians as Germans. Berkoff, who had cleverly walked a line between seriousness and absurdity as an Russian villain in the James Bond film Octopussy a year earlier, returned to play a different variation on the concept here – Podovsky is an ice-cold, iron-souled Cold Warrior who presents Rambo with the perfect incarnation of The Enemy, entirely antipathetic in values and methods but just as assured in his sense of patriotic mission as Rambo himself. Nonetheless Rambo’s truest foe is Murdock, who resembles Teasle as a smug-ugly representative of civilian authority but robbed of Teasle’s better qualities and comparable moral perspective, instead providing the incarnation of everything Rambo perceives as craven, manipulative, deceitful, and disdainful of actual fighting men in country’s official mindset.

Where First Blood had been handled in a relatively muted, textured fashion by Kotcheff, Rambo: First Blood Part II was helmed by George Pan Cosmatos. The Greek-Italian Cosmatos had been born in Florence, and worked his way up through the ranks of European film production including serving as an assistant director and bit player on Zorba The Greek (1964). Cosmatos began his directing career with serious films, like the 1973 wartime film Massacre In Rome, but, starting with the absurd but very entertaining blend of medical thriller and disaster movie The Cassandra Crossing (1977), he reinvented himself as a maker of hard-charging action flicks. After scoring another success with the Alistair MacLean-ish World II actioner Escape From Athena (1979). Cosmatos made the Canadian-produced, New York set Of Unknown Origin (1983), a peculiar blend of satire and monster movie depicting a corporate man battling a gigantic rat at loose in his apartment, before being offered Rambo: First Blood Part II. Later he would work again with Stallone on an even more hyperbolic star vehicle, Cobra (1986), the deep-sea Alien rip-off Leviathan (1989), and the popular Western Tombstone (1993). Cosmatos’ gift for pure, unadulterated, go-for-broke pulp cinema impact is rife in Rambo: First Blood Part II. Most particularly, in the pivotal scene of Rambo being tortured and forced by Podovsky to make his propaganda broadcast.

As so often in Stallone’s films the evocation of masculine physicality and suffering embraces what might be called martyr homoeroticism, not so much to invite a desiring gaze but to offer the perfected icon for the audience’s sadomasochistic identification, a mix of delight and distress in the sight of tormented masculine strength before it explodes in orgasmic carnage. What glee the film taps in the sight of the all-but-naked Stallone, covered in sewage, body infested with leeches, which Podovsky begins to methodically peel away with Rambo’s own knife. Rambo is electrocuted and threatened with having a glowing hot knife shoved into his eyes, until Podovsky realises it’s better to threaten the POW he tried to free. Finally Rambo seems to relent and settles down reluctantly before a radio microphone, calling up the American base over the border, and asking to speak to Murdock. Cosmatos moves through shots here in musical degrees of intensity – close-ups of Berkoff’s face with piercing blue eyes as he maintains ruthless pressure, of Stallone’s muscular arm as he grips the radio, of his sadly limpid gaze as he affects being driven to traitorousness – before delivering the killer blows, as Rambo growls out Murdock’s name, lightning flashing on his face, his grip on the microphone tightening with a click of knuckles. “I’m coming to get you,” he warns Murdock, whose aghast and terrified reaction on the other end is glimpsed in a near-subliminal but indelible cut, before Rambo lashes out, using the microphone as a weapon to wallop his torturers and make his break. He even gives Yushin a dose of his own medicine by thrusting him against his own electrical torture device and turning the dial to 11. Utterly ludicrous, of course, and the sort of action movie vignette that’s provided fodder for lampooners ever since. And also a kind of perfection for this kind of moviemaking, completely unabashed and unashamed in presenting the cinematic equivalent of an adrenalin hit.

Rambo: First Blood Part II can also be regarded as one of the many children of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) and Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western transcription A Fistful of Dollars (1964), films that pretty much made compulsory a scene depicting the hero’s capture and brutalisation, prefiguring his escape and rebirth as incarnate wrath. Rambo flees with Co Bao’s aid but her death provokes him to halt his flight and ready for apocalyptic battle, picking off Podovsky’s commandos one by one and decimating a unit of Vietnamese soldiers who hunt him through long reeds only to find he’s laid a trap. Rambo’s preparations for battle include strapping on a headband with a tug of pure manliness, and selecting a weapon of choice, explosive head-tipped arrows, the sort of touch that makes eight-year-old boys of all ages delight. During a gunfight with the Vietnamese commander who directed Co Bao’s death, he turns one of these on his foe and blows him to smithereens in one of those moments that breaks down what little barrier there is between violent melodrama and absurdist comedy. Meanwhile Yushin chases him down in a helicopter, only for Rambo to manage to scramble on board, kill Yushin, and commandeer the craft, which he then uses to annihilate the camp’s garrison and rescue the POWs. As they flee they’re chased down by Podovsky in a colossal Sikorsky helicopter gunship, but Rambo manages, by playing possum, to lure Podovsky in and blow him out of the sky with an RPG.

Here, again, Cosmatos’ gleeful lack of moderation or care for anything except the impression of hellfire fury blesses the film with a certain pathological perfection, as in the way he holds off Goldsmith’s pounding martial music until after Rambo screams in the deepest eye of his berserker rage, somehow finding a step beyond the zenith of bloodlust. Indeed, what distinguishes Rambo: First Blood Part II from its many forebears and imitators is precisely the way it enters entirely into the berserker mindset, and indulges it to the nth degree. The peculiar conviction of the Rambo films as a unit is their complete rejection of all modern moral sensibility, turning instead to the primeval conviction that sometimes the only solution is righteous bloodletting, and that once countenanced, after other avenues are exhausted that zone must be committed to, and can indeed be a place of virtually transcendental experience. Rambo has evolved into a holy warrior without a specific religion to espouse beyond aiding the weak against the strong, a note taken up in his three subsequent outings. In the meantime, Rambo: First Blood Part II concludes with Rambo only just manages to fly the damaged and failing chopper to the American base and land it safely. There he socks Ericson, shoots up the surveillance equipment in the American base, and terrorises Murdock, only sparing his life on pain of doing his best to bring home other POWs: “Find them, or I’ll find you.” What’s most notable here is that Rambo is essentially rendered impotent by his one great loyalty, his country, discharging his weapons and rage fruitlessly against inanimate objects.

The most invaluable connecting thread for the early Rambo films beyond Stallone himself was Jerry Goldsmith’s scoring. His theme for First Blood precisely evoked the state of haunted but dignified persistence that was the initial key to Rambo’s character, and became the leitmotif for his wanderings in subsequent movies. The soaring lushness and booming martial intensity of his orchestrations are perhaps what chiefly distinguished the series from its lower-budgeted precursors and imitators (along with peculiarly good technical collaborators, including Jack Cardiff who worked as director of photography on Rambo: First Blood Part II, and who might well have remembered his own Dark of the Sun, 1968, when he signed on). The colossal success of Rambo: First Blood Part II birthed a string of imitations, like the Chuck Norris star vehicle Missing In Action and its sequels, and left a permanent mark on the style and assumptions of Hollywood action films. Predator likely wouldn’t exist without it to riff on. It was made the subject of jest and then validation in Die Hard (1988). On through just about every movie since where an omnicompetent hero decimates hordes of baddies, like John Wick (2014) and Extraction (2020). As for the character himself, Rambo III rounded off his initial trilogy, just managing to scrape over the line as the end of the Cold War loomed and Rambo’s days as a relevant pop culture hero suddenly seemed numbered. The film’s choice of taking up the Soviet war in Afghanistan became a sorely ironic point as the film indicted the conflict as the Russians’ equivalent of Vietnam, more than a decade before the US would go into the country itself (indeed an odd piece of fake lore would be coined on the internet that the film’s postscript title tribute to the “gallant people of Afghanistan” had been altered from an original version dedicated to the Mujahidin).

Rambo III’s first director Russell Mulcahy was fired and British editor Peter MacDonald hired. MacDonald stated his chief desire was to make Rambo a more human, humorous figure, and the film had a strong essential proposition: Rambo, after refusing to join Trautman on a mission in Afghanistan supplying Stinger missiles to the Mujahidin, goes in to rescue him when he’s captured, and the two battle their way out of the country side by side. Rambo III’s then-astronomical budget registers in the demolition of expensive infrastructure, the tactile immediacy and ruggedness of the action, and the lustre of the landscapes. But it’s too much a scrappy retread of its precursor despite trying to shift into buddy movie territory: the film climaxes again in a battle between Rambo and a Russian enemy in a giant helicopter – this time with Rambo pitted against him, hilariously, in a tank – and pithy exchanges over the radio (“Who are you?” “Your worst nightmare!”). Stallone resisted bringing the character back until 2008, well into the renewed warlike moment of the War on Terror. Finally he directed and starred in a film variably called simply Rambo or John Rambo, depending on the market. I didn’t like this entry when it first came out, but on recent revisit found it surprisingly good. Rambo, now living a peaceful life as a snake trapper and riverboat skipper, is called upon by some American Christian medical personnel to ferry them into Myanmar where they plan to administer aid to victims of the ruling military dictatorship’s brutal repression. Rambo, after warning them against going, is convinced by their leader’s open-hearted fiancé Sarah (Julie Benz) to take them. When he later hears they’ve been captured by the truly evil local military commander during a massacre of a village, Rambo elects to accompany a team of mercenaries hired by their pastor to go in and rescue them.

The storyline this time around was almost too straightforward and executes a much slower burn than its precursors, holding off the requisite, purgative explosion of payback until the climax, and lacking a strongly developed antagonist, only sporting a particularly vicious army commander Major Tint (Maung Maung Khin), who likes doing things like feeding the missionaries to pigs and slaughtering entire communities. But Rambo did develop some substantial ideas in its juxtapositions, leaning heavily on echoes of High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953) in mooting tension between Rambo’s weary knowledge of humanity’s dark side and the humane, optimistic ideals of the missionaries, as well as probing the schism between Rambo and the cadre of mercenaries with their different generational and professional attitudes. When the action finally cuts loose in the climax, as Rambo unleashes a heavy machine gun on the Myanmar military, backed up by his newfound pals, with properly maniacal impact. By the film’s end the series circled back to where it nominally started, with Rambo returning to the US, but this time truly going home, to his father’s horse ranch in the Arizona heartland. Stallone has returned to the role once more, for 2019’s Rambo: Last Blood, which saw him battling a Mexican drug cartel. But it was a disappointingly generic coda that felt hurriedly repurposed to vaguely fit Rambo, with our hero acting in ways rather too naive for the character so familiar by this point, at least until the impressively bloodthirsty climax. Old soldiers never die, apparently – their box office takings simply fade away.

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1970s, 1980s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Drama, Sports, Uncategorized

Rocky (1976) / Rocky II (1979) / Rocky III (1982) / Rocky IV (1985)

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Directors: John G. Avildsen, Sylvester Stallone
Screenwriter: Sylvester Stallone

By Roderick Heath

Rocky’s genesis and success is deeply entwined with the story enacted in the movie series it birthed, and a fundamental aspect of its mystique and popularity. Sylvester Stallone, born in Hell’s Kitchen in 1946, had suffered from partial paralysis in his face from a difficult birth, a debilitation he patiently tried to entirely erase as he became an actor. Stallone’s peculiarly dichotomous image had roots in his background, with his mother founding a gym for women in the mid-1950s and powerfully influencing her son’s celebration of physical prowess, even as Stallone proved himself no dunce in attending the University of Miami. His early acting days were harsh, and raw desperation drove him to appear in the porn film The Party at Kitty and Stud’s (1970). Stallone recovered to find scattered but eye-catching jobs in films like Bananas (1970), The Prisoner of Second Avenue, Death Race 2000, and Farewell, My Lovely (all 1975), usually as tough guys and thugs. Tired of being relegated to such meathead roles, Stallone resolved to write himself a leading part. He found his theme when he watched heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali defend his title against the white journeyman Chuck Wepner, who surprised many by lasting 15 rounds against the great master.

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Inspired, Stallone wrote a script, taking the basic premise of an unrated contender taking on a terrifying champion, and cobbling together bits of popular boxing lore, encompassing figures like Jim Braddock, Rocky Marciano, and particularly Rocky Graziano, whose autobiography Somebody Up There Likes Me had provided Paul Newman with his own breakthrough starring vehicle in 1956. He also knew his old movies about boxers and fighters along the lines of The Champ, Flesh (both 1932), Kid Galahad (1937), Golden Boy (1939), and Gentleman Jim (1942). Stallone’s script was initially, relatively muted with the original ending having Rocky throw his fight after deciding he didn’t really like boxing. But as the production moved along, and Stallone’s do-or-die project became a more tangible proposition, it evolved into a hymn to the ideals of persistence and hardiness in the face of adversity. In the mid-1970s film milieu, that kind of old-fashioned sentiment was unfashionable, but Stallone proved he was in the same place as the mass audience. As the Bicentennial rolled around in the immediate post-Watergate hangover, the hunger for something thrilling and affirmatory proved rife. Stallone’s script was good enough to gain a lot of studio interest as a possible vehicle for an established star, but Stallone insisted he play the role. Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, producers attached to United Artists, were able to take risks on movies they made provided the costs were kept restrained, and they gave Stallone his shot on a $1 million budget.

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For a director, they turned to John G. Avildsen, who had served a sturdy apprenticeship as an assistant director before becoming a director in his own right and was best known up to that point for Joe (1970) and Save The Tiger (1973), quintessential works of the early decade as restrained and moody character portraits contending with the battered American psyche of the time. Save The Tiger had even netted a Best Actor Oscar for Jack Lemmon. Avildsen proved perfectly in tune with what Stallone’s script offered, able to apply a potent sense of verisimilitude and muted realism to a story that ultimately offered crowd-pleasing pleasures. Rewards were immediate: the film was a huge hit, and pitched against flagship works of the American New Wave’s height like Taxi Driver, All The President’s Men, and Network at the Oscars, Rocky emerged the victor. Stallone was vaulted to popular stardom. In the immediate wake he evinced warning signs of hubristic self-confidence in directing, writing, starring, and singing in the vanity vehicle Paradise Alley (1978), badly denting his standing even as he was just getting going. Stallone decided to make Rocky II, again directing as well as starring and writing. This proved another huge hit and cemented him as the biggest star of the next decade, particularly once he gained his other signature role as John Rambo. To date there have been eight films featuring Rocky Balboa as a character, and all of them are worthwhile to some degree, but it’s the first four films that constitute the most fiercely beloved portion of the series.

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Even in physical terms Stallone was a contradiction, his large limpid eyes and long, equine nose in his youth like an Italian princeling out of a renaissance portrait, jammed onto a stevedore’s frame. Rocky and Rambo became almost diametrically distinct yet closely joined concepts defining Stallone’s screen persona, the genial, covertly ferocious man rooted in community and the angry but stoic outsider, connected only by their gifts for mayhem, and embodying oddly complex and contradictory ways of conceiving patriotism. Rocky is carefully deployed as a figure out of a very specific enclave, the working-class Italian neighbourhoods of Philadelphia. Robert ‘Rocky’ Balboa is introduced on a telling note in the opening scene of his first film, fighting Spider Rico (Pedro Lovell), with Avildsen’s camera zooming back from a painted Jesus icon on the grimy venue wall to encompass the fighters in the ring below, immediately establishing a semi-ironic affinity: boxers bleed for the crowd’s sins, serving the function of sublimating and wielding the pent-up aggression of the fans and very occasionally rewarded by becoming a true faith. Rocky seems almost lackadaisical in the bout until Rico delivers a gash to his scalp that infuriates Rocky, and he pounds his opponent into the mat. From the start Rocky is characterised as a man whose real potency remains latent but impossible to repress once incited, an essentialised rendition of the self-image of a vast number of men.

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Pushing 30, Rocky’s problem isn’t that he lacked talent but seems to have missed the kind of kinetically exploited anger and will that fuels champions, as well as facing a general prejudice against left-handed “southpaw” boxers. Although he’s well-known and liked around town, Rocky has become a figure of familiarity to the point where his latest victory is met with the most casual interest. Even Rocky’s nominal trainer, gym owner and elderly former pug Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith), is so unenthused by him now that despite his victory he strips him of his locker, a humiliation Rocky can scarcely be bothered protesting, Rocky makes his living working as a standover man for loan shark Tony Gazzo (Joe Spinell), but is such a soft touch he lets men he’s supposed to rough up go with partial payments. Rocky maintains a shambolic friendship with the rotund and resentful meat packer Paulie Pennino (Burt Young), and tries to charm Paulie’s painfully shy younger sister Adrian (Talia Shire), who works in a pet store and sold Rocky his beloved turtles. As Rocky and Adrian stumble towards a relationship, Rocky receives a life-changing offer out of the blue, made by fight promoter Miles Jergens (Thayer David) on behalf of the heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Desperate for an opponent after other contenders scurry for the woodwork and seeing the chance for a great publicity coup, Creed wants to take on a Philadelphia fighter as an exercise in Bicentennial showmanship, and chooses Rocky strictly for his great nickname, “Italian Stallion.”

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“Sounds like a monster movie,” Creed chuckles as the sound of the match-up, and certainly by the time the fourth and fifth instalments in the franchise rolled around many a wag felt sooner or later Rocky would take on Godzilla. But Rocky’s largely low-key, even ambling pace in its first two-thirds is matched to a stringent realism, and even the finale’s note of triumph is restrained by technical failure. Part of Stallone’s cunning lay in how carefully he rooted the drama in a sense of characters who prove much larger than they seem, battling those who generally prove much less awesome than they appear. Avildsen’s camera, with the great Bill Butler as DP, surveys grimy surrounds in that classic blotchy, moody 1970s colour. Paulie is Rocky if he lacked even a singular talent, used to feeling his flesh and spirit sag amidst the hanging meat carcasses, just as childlike as Rocky in some ways but with barbs, often verbally abusive to Adrian and erupting in shows of frustrated aggression. Adrian is deeply repressed and makes a bond with Rocky, as she compares the advice he often received, to work on his body because his mind was no good, to the opposite advice her own mother gave to her. The characters are adrift in a blue-collar environment that’s portrayed both in a harshly gritty fashion, filled with litter and crumbling infrastructure and patches of snow on wasteground, replete with seedy arenas for building and wasting flesh, and also extremely romantic, where everyone knows everybody and close-harmony singers hang about on street corners.

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Much of Rocky feels in close accord with Avildsen’s work on Save The Tiger, following around a character in near-picaresque encounters as he faces with sullen apprehension a moment in his life he experiences as pivotal even as it just seems to involve more of the same, the stern spiritual economics of persistence and taking punishment. The only real signal we’re not just watching something along the lines of early ‘70s bummers like J.W. Coop (1972) is at the outset as the title sweeps across the screen, Gone with the Wind-style, with Bill Conti’s instantly rousing trumpet fanfare resounding, clearly declaring we’re not just watching some bum roaming around Philly but setting the scene for an Olympian contest. Part of what makes the film work is how carefully Avildsen mediates the transition from the passive to the active as embodied by Rocky. The Rocky films would become beloved and mocked equally for their training montages, but Avildsen builds very slowly to such a point, first portraying Rocky’s early exercise efforts in laborious detail, scoffing down a glass full of raw eggs and heading out for jogs on frigid mornings. When Paulie first ushers Rocky into the abattoir and the boxer realises the potential for training by punching the meat carcasses, it comes with a sense of ponderous, punishing violence, Rocky’s knuckles left bloody and raw even as he works up the force to crack the ribs of the carcasses. A TV news crew shoots Rocky doing this, and Apollo’s canny trainer ‘Duke’ Evers (Tony Burton) watches with some apprehensive attention, but can’t attract Apollo’s interest.

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The ingenuity of Rocky as a character was in fusing his raw corporeal strength and fighting grit to a personality that’s eternally innocent, a goombah who knows what he is and yet constantly struggles to transcend it. A memorable vignette early in the first film sees Rocky trying to give a straight talk to a neighbourhood girl, Marie (Jodi Letizia), who hangs out with the rough local urchins. Rocky tries to illustrate the way reputations supplant actual people, until Marie tells him, “Screw you, creepo!”, and Rocky wanders away laughingly accosting himself with the insult. His attempts to strike a spark with Adrian nonetheless revolve around his rambling persistence, leading to a first date Paulie manipulates them into making. Gentle character comedy – Rocky gently pleads at Adrian’s bedroom door for her to consider coming out with him after she retreats in shock when Paulie springs the date on her, only for her to emerge entirely prepped for a night out – blends with a portrayal of tentative connection and finally painfully revealed need as Rocky bribes a Zamboni driver to let Adrian skate in an empty rink, before inviting Adrian into his shabby apartment. Adrian hesitates at the threshold before entering and almost dashes again as Rocky desperately appeals for her to stay, before the final melting clinch. Gloriously well-observed and trenchant as a distinctly unidyllic romance that is of course actually ideal, Rocky and Adrian’s coming together is also the subtle cue for other transformations about to spur Rocky towards greater things.

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As a character and conception, Rocky is a brilliantly definite creation standing in contrast to an irritating tendency in more recent heroic tales to make protagonists as blank and broadly worthy as possible. He’s offered as an example of a truism, that truly physically strong and imposing men often project a gentle persona. Rocky swiftly becomes as familiar as a friend in his traits and actions and reactions, his background and situation tangible, his specific mannerisms, his habits of talking around challenges and provocations and deflating verbal aggression and projection of earnest geniality that so strikingly contrasts the pith he unleashes in the ring. And yet he easily becomes an emblematic archetype. He’s there on screen readily accepting identification with anyone, anyone who’s been bullied or outcast, down and out, felt their potential waste and their souls wrung out, knowing they have the stuff to go the distance and only requiring one true chance. Rocky is again close to a secular Jesus in that regard, taking all the pops on the chin for us. Even in the most recent series entries, Creed (2015) and Creed II (2018), revolving around Rocky’s acting as trainer to Apollo’s illegitimate son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), Rocky still dominates despite not being at the centre of the story because of what is by now the almost reflexive skill Stallone wields in inhabiting such a well-defined character, where the younger man is more defined by the things the filmmakers don’t want him to be.

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That’s especially frustrating as Apollo as inhabited by Weathers made for a surprisingly strong character too, one whose similarities to Rocky, and his differences, are totemic throughout the first four films. Many sports films negate opponents or present them as ripe assholes, and indeed that’s a direction the third and fourth episodes would readily turn in. Rocky’s grounding in the mid-‘70s zeitgeist also invoked some cultural animosities as well, with it all too easy to see Rocky as a great white hope thrown up against the juggernaut of black pride and power that Ali so forcefully identified with even whilst nimbly retaining his media star stature. Stallone quietly and cleverly deflates that sort of reading even if her perhaps still benefited from it, as he portrays Rocky watching Creed on TV in a bar. Apollo is gifted with a similar talent for media performance to Ali, and the bar owner grouchily and racially berates him as a clown, to Rocky’s offence: Rocky knows very well how good a boxer Apollo is, and offers him unqualified respect that’s oblivious to other issues. Clearly intended as an avatar for Ali, Apollo is nonetheless a rather different creature, apolitical and driven more by intense pride and ego and lacking any clear sense of communal grounding beyond his awareness that such clannishness can be financially exploited to make the match lucrative, envisioning himself as more an entrepreneur of sport than a rough-and-tumble warrior.

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One running theme of the series would become the problem of not simply achieving but avoiding the pitfalls of success. Apollo, as offered in the first two films, is not vilified but certainly embodies those pitfalls, stung to repeatedly try to swat the small Italian fly but failing to comprehend the danger lurking in a rival driven by naked hunger and spirit. Apollo’s fancy gyms and parade of sparring partners prove of less worth than the gritty, almost primal techniques Rocky and Mickey favour. Apollo’s great project in the first film is to exalt himself in the guise of patriotic celebration. He dresses up as George Washington crossing the Delaware as he enters the arena for the bout against Rocky. Apollo’s self-identification with America – he even wears stars-and-stripes shorts in the ring – carries schismatic import. His spectacle can be seen as black mockery of and subsuming of white patriotism in sectarian triumphalism, and at the same time a kind of democratic parable warning that the essence of American life is the underdog, not the fat-cat, and that regard the wheel’s always in spin as to who holds what role. Rocky IV would later signal that Apollo’s patriotic fervour isn’t facetious but rather entirely earnest, and his felling at the hands of the hulking Russian Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) is offered as a vivid metaphor for the bloodied American nose of Korea and Vietnam.

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It’s tempting to read the schism between Rocky and Apollo as Stallone wrestling with his own nature and contradictions, the canny, driven, conservative, self-made self-promoter and the struggling, belittled outsider, the arch professional and the man unsure of his place in the cultural firmament. Apollo’s slow transition from Rocky’s great foe to his pal and mentor and then finally as spurring martyr is an essential aspect of the classic quartet. The climactic bout of the first film sees Apollo shocked when Rocky knocks him down for the first time in his career, turning it from a lark to a proper fight, and soon the two men are delivering savage blows, Rocky cracking Apollo’s ribs and Apollo breaking Rocky’s proudly hawkish nose. The rematch, which sees Rocky finally, properly besting Apollo, still only comes by a thin margin after they knock each-other down and Rocky gets to his feet quicker. When Apollo steps up to train Rocky in Rocky III, he ushers Rocky out of the homey precincts of Philly to the even grittier climes of black Los Angeles, at last spotlighting the place Apollo clawed his way out of, and furthering a kind of cultural exchange in a tale of interracial cooperation, even as the uneasy Paulie makes such witticisms as, “You can’t train him liked a colored fighter, he ain’t got no rhythm.”

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The closeness of Rocky and Apollo in prowess and talent is underlined again at the end of Rocky II as Rocky wins by the narrowest of margins, as the two men knock each-other to the ground and Rocky is able to get to his feet. The motif of their close-matched machismo is finally brought to a comedic head at the very end of the third film as they arrange a secret bout far away from media purely to satisfy themselves as to who’s the best, the film fading out on a freeze-frame of the two launching mirroring punches at each-other. Rocky’s eventual amity with Apollo contrasts his fractious relationship with Paulie, who browbeats his sister and wields a baseball bat around the living room in unleashing his toxic mixture of rage and envy aimed at others but really conveying his own self-loathing. Mickey as a character, and Meredith’s scenery-chewing bravura in the part, was one of Stallone’s plainest attempts to recapture old Hollywood flavour: the gruff and grizzled old-timer played by one, armed with folkloric traditions and disdain for hype, resplendent in wool cap and coming armed with theatrically worn hearing aid.

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As with Rocky’s friendship with Paulie, sharp undercurrents of anger and frustration define Rocky’s ultimately paternal relationship with Mickey, who answers when Rocky finally snaps and demands to know why Mickey rides him so much, that Rocky had real promise but never capitalised on it. Mickey nonetheless tracks him down to his apartment after learning of the arranged fight and offering to share his wisdom, cueing a scene of pathos as Mickey digs out ancient, yellowed newspaper cuttings recounting his great bouts in a distant past, whilst Rocky, still smouldering in resentment for the old man, ignores him and then chases him out of the building with his bellows, his frustration finally released, before finally dashing out to catch Mickey and agreeing to the partnership. Mickey’s death in Rocky III comes shortly after he reveals to Rocky he’s tried to keep him away from truly dangerous opponents, an act blending aspects of care and treachery, as it only put off the moment when Rocky would have to truly test his champion standing and deepest resources of courage.

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Rocky’s shot at success is nonetheless closely entwined in narrative and character progression with his relationship with Adrian, one arming him and inspiring him with fresh potency for the other, and the first film’s iconic ending as Rocky and Adrian embrace in obliviousness to the bout’s technical outcome. Shire was perfectly cast as the apparently mousy woman who proves Rocky’s equal when she finally unleashes on Paulie and remains, despite interludes of fear, her mate’s rock-solid supporter. Another matchless aspect of the film’s power was Bill Conti’s score, with Rocky’s fanfare resembling Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” and the driving theme “Gonna Fly Now,” a rather oddball piece of film music in fusing big orchestral sweep matched to choral vocals and touches of pop, soul, and rock, a multigeneric stew that perfectly articulates the film’s celebration of American alchemy. As the moment of the fight approaches, Rocky’s renewed verve and fight-ready prowess breaks into clear ground, dynamically illustrated in one of the most famous, copied, and lampooned sequences in cinema, as Avildsen depicts Rocky pushing his body to new heights in a montage of exercises, climaxing in him running through the streets on a cold Philadelphia morning, past smoke-billowing factories and railway lines and along streets piled with garbage, the lean and fluid intensity of Rocky’s refashioned body contrasting the blight all about him.

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There’s a touch of genius in the way this sequence converts the film’s driving ideas into thrilling visual statements. Rocky jogging with bricks in hand with the rising sun behind as Bill Conti’s heroic fanfare rings out suggest the birth of new tidings. Avildsen films Stallone running along the waterfront, a sailing ship moored in the background as if mindful of an immigrant nation’s seaborne past, Rocky suddenly picking up speed as if the further he goes the more power he becomes, before making his iconic dash up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. Variations on this sequence would inevitably recur in most of the subsequent films. One difference between the first iteration of this scene and the later ones however is the aspect of sarcasm in Rocky’s postures of triumph as he reaches the summit and dances before the dawn, Stallone deftly showing even in such an unimpeachably inspiring moment that Rocky knows very well he’s still just one lone man play-acting his triumph. The most joyous and effective variation comes in Rocky II where Rocky this time is pursued through the streets by a horde of young fans cheering him as he makes his dash, the lone warrior now folk hero.

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The climactic bout of Rocky is no elegant ballet of technique but instead an intense slugfest Rocky forces Apollo to participate in, a dialogue not just of duelling personalities but ways of comprehending life through action, taking cues less from Ali’s match with Wepner or event the near-mystical artistry of the Rumble in the Jungle than his notoriously grim brawls with Ken Norton and Joe Frazier. Apollo still wins the first fight by a split decision, but it’s Rocky who emerges as the hero. Rocky II takes off immediately after the first film as Rocky and Apollo are both rushed to hospital to recover, where Rocky asks Apollo if he gave him his best and Apollo replies that he did. Rocky enjoys the fruits of his success but spends his purse quickly and unwisely, and because of damage to one of his eyes he doesn’t want to fight again. Rocky is soon reduced to working in the same meat plant as Paulie, whilst Adrian goes back to the pet shop despite being heavily pregnant. Paulie prospers in taking over Rocky’s old beat as Gazzo’s debt collector, and buys Rocky’s beloved sports car off him after Rocky gets sacked from the plant. Apollo, increasingly stung by a general belief Rocky really won the fight, decides to goad his foe back into the ring, provocations both Rocky and Mickey eventually feel are too cruel to ignore.

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Rocky II sees Stallone nudging the material into a zone where what was previously earnest, convincing, and low-key began to give way to shtick and formula, and trying many a broad ploy to make Rocky seem even more likeable and straightforwardly good. The former standover man is now playing with kids in the street and begging for blessings from the old Italian local priest. What would soon become the ritualised killing-off of familiar, beloved characters for the requisite emotional juice was presaged when Adrian falls into a coma when there are complications with her pregnancy, intensifying Rocky’s unease in returning to fighting. This climaxes in a happily corny hair-on-your-neck moment when, after awakening and with their son Robert Jnr safely born, Adrian asks one thing of Rocky: “Win.” The second match-up of Apollo and Rocky proves a radically different affair as Mickey has trained Rocky to fight in right-hand style in order to protect his eye, only to unleash his pulverising left hooks in the last round to finally claim victory. The climactic bouts in the first three sequels have a similar shape as Rocky absorbs intense punishment much as he and his loved-ones feared, only for Rocky to gain strength as his foes cannot keep him down, and soon he’s actively taunting them with their failure and luring them into self-destructive overreach.

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Rocky made Stallone but to a certain extent proved a millstone for Avildsen, who was changed forever from a maker of artful character studies to a director constantly tapped for his ability to make rah-rah narratives work, in subsequent efforts like three Karate Kid films, Lean on Me (1989), The Power of One (1992), and Eight Seconds (1994). Avildsen only returned to Rocky for 1990’s lumpy, if perhaps undervalued Rocky V, which more or less took the series full circle. Rocky II clearly saw Stallone claiming full auteur status in the series, and meditating on his breakthrough success and folk heroic standing, and the difficulties negotiating with it. Rocky’s fast ascent and equally quick descent mimic Stallone’s immediate experience, and the film sustains the honest emotional tone of the first film by feeling palpably rueful in this regard, as well as asking the right questions about how a guy like Rocky would sustain himself after such a life twist. Stallone portrays Rocky attempting to earn money through appearing in commercials but failing because he’s a poor reader and can’t work off cue cards, which feels like a pointed dramatic translation of Stallone’s own difficulties in being taken seriously as an actor after overcoming his facial tic. Despite being a relatively green director Stallone proved himself entirely capable of mimicking and augmenting Avildsen’s style, although the film has an odd, slouchy pace at points.

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Rocky III and IV are by contrast tighter, flashier bits of filmmaking, almost to a fault, with Stallone knowing well that the essentials of the characters are now so locked down he doesn’t need to waste too much time reiterating them. If the first Rocky is the “good” movie in terms of its modest and substantial intensity, then Rocky III is the highpoint of the series as pop entertainment, the most emblematic and purely enjoyable, for several reasons. Before he got a bit too montage-happy on Rocky IV, Stallone here grasped the way Avildsen’s montage work could condense story: like its heroes, once the breaks into clear ground, it can just get on with things in the most kinetic and visually fluid fashion. One vital new flourish was the Chicago rock band Survivor’s gleefully cheesy, thumping anthem “Eye of the Tiger,” played over an opening montage showing Rocky’s successful defences of his title, interspersed with vignettes showing Rocky evolving into a slick and confident media player, now even readily making credit card commercials. Another was casting former bodyguard Lawrence ‘Mr. T’ Tureaud as the fearsome new contender, ‘Clubber’ Lang, a verbally aggressive and ferociously physical boxer.

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If Apollo represented a depoliticised, well-scrubbed take on Ali’s popular image, Lang seems more like a compendium of the less charitable caricatures of Ali, actively contemptuous of opponents and wrapping his colossal ego and resentment in coded racial agitation: “This country wants to keep me down,” he declares in picking a fight with Rocky, “They don’t want a man like me to have the title!” He also sharply contrasts both Rocky and Apollo like the embodiment of their own dark sides. Where both of them have more or less defeated the aspects of their fighting drive, like anger over their roots and experiences of classism and racism, Lang weaponises both as part of his annihilating persona. Rocky is doubly spurred because Mickey keels over and dies from a heart attack amidst the convulsive tension and furore before Rocky takes on the feral contender, long in the offing but finally provoked by Lang’s behaviour, and he then loses his match-up with Lang partly because of his worry for Mickey as well as from losing his edge. Apollo steps into the breach to train Rocky, taking him to Los Angeles to learn in the environs that made Apollo. This time around, Stallone’s personal metaphors highlight his awareness that stretching out the series risked turning it cartoonish – not that that stopped him – as Rocky is first glimpsed battling giant wrestler Thunderlips (Terry ‘Hulk Hogan’ Bollea). The rest of the film’s angst over whether Rocky really still deserves champion presages Stallone’s efforts to try and prove himself a lasting star beyond the character, and his difficulty in finding good vehicles beyond Rocky and Rambo would dog him long after.

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Rocky III’s narrative proper opens with Stallone tracking a drunk and dispirited Paulie around the old neighbourhood, getting himself jailed for smashing a pinball machine with Rocky’s face on it. Rocky comes to bail him out and after insulting and trying to punch him Paulie finally asks him point-blank for a job, and Rocky readily agrees. This vignette has a box-ticking aspect to it but also carries a sharp sense of the way success radically changes relationships and also how it can make great life problems much less complex, and so even as the series becomes more crowd-pleasing and fantastical it retains a sense of how personality and sociology combine. Stallone’s wonderfully slick style on Rocky III verges occasionally on self-satire, particularly as Rocky and Apollo train together with lots of long, luscious close-ups of their heaving muscles and emphasis on their friendly rivalry that it borders on soft-core interracial homoeroticism, reaching an apogee when Rocky finally beats Apollo in a footrace and in celebration splash about together in the surf. Given that Rocky and Adrian’s relationship has by this time become fixed in stone, their relationship is much less vivid and central, although Adrian is given a crucial speech as she helps Rocky leave behind his lingering guilt and fear and again lends him new velocity.

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In Rocky III the climactic bout isn’t one about the fighting spirit of great boxers but a quest to slay a particularly vicious dragon. Rocky this time unwaveringly returns Lang’s gorgonizing stare, and after taking and shrugging off a few of Lang’s most lethal blows Rocky expertly turns his foe’s size and ferocity against him by revealing new staying power as well as refined strength and nimbleness, and then pounding him to pieces. In Rocky IV, Rocky’s resurgence and evolution are complete, now a rich and widely loved man, slicker in speech and confident in the world with Adrian and young Robert at his side. It’s Apollo who’s facing frustration in retirement that finds an outlet when Drago, visiting the US with his smug Soviet apparatchik manager Nicolai Koloff (Michael Pataki) and his wife Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen), provokes his patriotic pride. Apollo arranges a match-up against Drago, although the Soviets want to fight Rocky, only for Apollo to receive a fatal beating from the Russian hulk. Determined to avenge his friend and take up the symbolic contest, Rocky agrees to head to the USSR to fight Drago despite Adrian’s certainty he’ll end up like Apollo, taking Duke with him and this time training in the harsh Russian landscape.

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With Rocky IV Stallone leaned into the notion that his kind of resurgent Hollywood blockbuster was a weapon in endgame Cold War cultural contest, something many critics and commentators saw as inherent in the re-emergence of morally straightforward and expensive B movies as the Reagan era ascended. Rambo: First Blood Part II (1984) had already explicitly revised Stallone’s other alter ego from outcast warrior at odds with his own society, rooted in the waning Vietnam-age angst, to avenging angel settling old scores with arrogant external enemies, underlining and even perhaps helping to author a shifted zeitgeist. Rocky, as Stallone’s more conscientious persona, tackled the same idea more generously. Rocky IV is perhaps the film most emblematic of a popular concept of a 1980s movie, replete with music video-like montage inserts that provide visual emotional shorthand, complete with one in which Rocky drives his car at night whilst conjuring up demonic visions of a strobe-lit Drago. Rocky is reborn as a yuppie who buys a pet robot for Paulie, and now turns his attention from domestic struggle to geopolitical forums. Now Rocky’s fighting pith needs blood sacrifice to bring it to the boil.

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Drago is offered as the near-monstrous incarnation of a paranoid American concept of Soviet prowess, scrubbed of emotion and human frailty, trained with space-aged precision and liberal doses of steroids, his face festooned on huge Stalinesque propaganda banners: the übermensch as state project. Drago’s wife, with her hair short-cropped and blonde like his, suggests a slightly different model of cyborg. Clearly by this point the series had lost a great deal of touch with its initially earthy sensibility and had embraced a new, campy, high-style approach. And yet there’s still a strand of the old thoughtfulness, as Stallone alternates Drago and Rocky’s perspectives as fighters plunged into disorienting new arenas filled with dazzling lights and surrounded by forms of hoopla they don’t quite understand. Before his fight with Apollo, Drago is depicted as solitary and bewildered amidst the splashy pre-bout show featuring James Brown and Vegas showgirls, and Apollo prancing about dressed as Uncle Sam. Rocky by contrast stumbles out into an arena filled with booing Commies and the full spectacle of political import as a Gorbachev lookalike and other Presidium members settle to watch the presumed inevitable victory of their man. Stallone portrays the cold war antagonists as studies in clashing aesthetics, first signalled in the credits as two boxing bloes emblazoned with their national liveries collide and explode, and then reiterated, Americana seen as gaudy, flashy, vulgar, and lively, Soviet spirit as monumental, monolithic, and possibly more potent in its lack of such wooliness.

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The contrast is illustrated most vividly as Stallone returns to the classic training montage but this time intercutting Rocky’s exertions with Drago’s. The Soviet man is ensconced in futuristic gyms and tested with machines as well as injections of mad-scientist drug cocktails, whilst Rocky gets down and dirty in the world of a Russian peasant, running along frozen roads, hefting about farm equipment, and finally dashing up mountain flanks to bellow out his foe’s name in vengeful intent. Stallone’s showmanship is at a height of glorious absurdity here, inflating the notion of real manliness as the product of toil rather than calculation to the nth degree. There’s also a ghost of topical commentary on the general suspicion that Eastern Bloc countries had been using performance enhancing drugs on athletes for years before sports organisations began actively stamping it out. Ultimately, though, Rocky IV’s method keeps it from being as deft as the third film as the montages pile up and the dramatics prove largely supernal and rote. Adrian quickly makes up with Rocky and lets him get back to his push-ups, and the death of Apollo, a singular galvanic figure in the franchise, is quickly left behind. It’s also rather tempting to see Rocky IV’s subtext as less political parable and more a portrayal of Stallone’s amused anxiety at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent emergence as a rival bemuscled action star: Drago is essentially a stand-in for the Terminator and Lundgren’s mock-Slavic drawl evokes Schwarzenegger’s accent.

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Ironies abound around Rocky IV: as the shortest and most abidingly formulaic of the series, one that even commits the crime of omitting Conti’s key themes, it’s also perhaps the most fiercely loved for its hyperbolic purity. The basic notion driving the series, the relatively little guy taking on an intimidating enemy and finding it vulnerable, is pushed to its limit as Rocky gets into the ring with the towering Lundgren, who delivers his inimitable threat, “I must break you,” with haughty dispassion, and Rocky goes through his a-man’s-gotta-do paces with grim commitment. Rocky finally impresses the Russian audience so profoundly they start cheering for him, proving crowds everywhere love an underdog. This in turn so infuriates the frustrated Drago he finally exposes himself as a failure by both communist principles and sporting ones as he angrily tells the audience he fights for himself. Rocky finally flattens him and then delivers a conciliatory message, in his own inimitable fashion, based in the changes in his attitude to the crowd and vice versa mean that “everyone can change.”

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It’s both absurd and entirely fitting that Rocky turns his big lug charm and intrinsic humanism to defusing political tensions and forging national outreach, with the fadeout on the image of Rocky literally wrapped in the American flag. The next four films in the Rocky-Creed saga would commit to reining in the pop-movie excess of Rocky IV to a more quotidian frame again, eventually seeing Rocky resettled as a fairly average Joe back in his old neighbourhood, after being nearly bankrupted by a corrupt accountant in Rocky V. Turning to training, the fifth film sees Rocky foster a young fighter who then betrays him, leading to a literal street fight between the two men Rocky manage to win. The middle-aged and widowed Rocky returned for a surprisingly good show of battling a champion in a gimmick bout in Rocky Balboa (2006), and even revisited the Drago legacy in Creed II with a newly shaded sense of generational suffering and anger. As a series the films have half-accidentally become something unusual, a portrait of a character and the actor playing him marching through the stages of life, steadily losing his loved-ones but gaining new ones as well. This fits well with Rocky’s symbolic cachet. But it’s hard not to wish the series, and life, could’ve ended with Rocky at his peak, the guy who always has one last pile-driving punch to aim at fate’s chin.

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