August 28, 2019

'Rambo First Blood Part II': A Lesson in “Earning” the Action

Rambo 2 Action Writing
Sylvester Stallone showed us how to make the action count in Rambo 2.

While Sylvester Stallone might mostly be known for his action movie exploits (which I've personally well-documented in covering his films for the Ultimate Action Movie Club). He's actually one of the most brilliant action screenwriters of all time.

Seriously, he should teach his own Master Class on the subject. From penning the screenplays for his breakout role in Rocky to the original First Blood, Stallone has taken a hands-on approach to tailoring each of his projects. The result is well-crafted stories built around highly motivated and justified action narratives.

Perhaps nowhere is this more prevalent than in the script to Stallone's Rambo: First Blood Part II - the follow up to his first Rambo film First Blood.

Wait... who wrote Rambo: First Blood Part II?

Not everyone knows this, but Stallone wrote the script for the sequel along with... James Cameron. 

Yeah, that James Cameron. 

So it has not one, but TWO amazing action movie voices behind it. Cameron wrote the first draft for the script at the same time that he was writing Aliens. The legend is that he set up desks in two different rooms, one for each script and he moved between them. 

There is also some controversy over who was responsible for what in the script for First Blood Part II. Cameron's version had a sidekick (once supposed to be played by John Travolta), and a lot less of the somewhat controversial political messaging. Cameron said something to the effect of Stallone adding all that in later. 

Stallone meanwhile said this, according to IMDb trivia:

"I think that James Cameron is a brilliant talent, but I thought the politics were important, such as a right-wing stance coming from Trautman and his nemesis, Murdock, contrasted by Rambo's obvious neutrality, which I believe is explained in Rambo's final speech. I realize his speech at the end may have caused millions of viewers to burst veins in their eyeballs by rolling them excessively, but the sentiment stated was conveyed to me by many veterans.... [Also] in his original draft it took nearly 30-40 pages to have any action initiated and Rambo was partnered with a tech-y sidekick. So it was more than just politics that were put into the script. There was also a simpler story line. If James Cameron says anything more than that, then he realizes he's now doing the backstroke badly in a pool of lies"

If you want to know for yourself, you can check out Cameron's script here

The history of who wrote what aside, we want to focus on all the script has to offer burgeoning action writers. 

Here are five pieces of "earning" action insights from this ultimate classic!

Rambo and the action narrative

Don’t Rush it

Similar to the origins of the John Rambo character in First Blood, Rambo 2 is not a particularly violent or action-filled movie at the beginning. It wasn’t until the late 90s and early 00s that action movie producers would often force in big action set pieces in the films’ opening sequences.

Those can be fun, but they’re thematically difficult to “earn” as you don’t really have much exposition or information to go off of. 

First Blood Part II starts off innocuous enough, Stallone’s John Rambo has been serving out his hard labor sentence when he’s visited by his old commander Colonel Sam Trautam with a proposition. We then follow Rambo through the procedures of being briefed on a mission before he finally dives into a little bit of action.

Find the Injustices in the World

What Rambo: First Blood Part II really works on to develop early are the injustices of its world that John Rambo is struggling against. This is clear from the first shots of him behind bars (or, I guess... just a fence?)

The bureaucracy, the turncoat government that abandoned him, a military complex that puts politics above human lives... John Rambo is taking it all on. 

Rambo is already at a pretty simmering at the start. Remember he had quite an ordeal in First Blood, so to be immediately introduced to the pompous white collared official Marshall Murdock and hear his indignation, Rambo continues to broil hotter and hotter.

Villains Begat Villains

By the time Rambo is actually abandoned (not just metaphorically, as he had been before) by Murdock and left to be captured by the Vietnamese. We get a string of villains begetting more villains as evil Soviets are introduced, who in turn reveal that the real villains are of course... Murdock and the government that sent Rambo on the mission.

At this point, we’ve had a little action here and there. But we’ve reached the truly earned tipping point. After Rambo’s been thoroughly tortured and he gets on the radio with HQ, once Rambo utters his true mission statement, and one of the most fun action movie moments of all time:

From there, all hell is unleashed and FINALLY, the ultimate action can be doled out in full force.

Watch it all Burn

The rest of the movie is pretty much just one fantastic action sequence followed by another. Rambo’s young intelligence agent friend Co-Bao begins her assault from under the floorboards and once Rambo escapes, he’s not going to be stopped.

Yet, in Co-Bao’s death, we see the stakes rise even more as Rambo goes further into ultimate rage mode. We get some explosive sets with helicopters, rocket launchers and pretty much every other weapon Rambo can grab at his disposal.

All in for the Ending

However, the true brilliance of the First Blood Part II script is the ending. They say for an action movie’s final showdown to truly be complete (and the Hero’s Journey to be accurately fulfilled) we need to see the bad guy be defeated three times. 

But, in Rambo 2, we actually get this post-victory coda where Rambo confronts Murdock for his “mission accomplished” moment. A completely earned, and truly satisfying ending that gives Rambo the closure established from the beginning shots throughout the film in one flag-waving patriotic exit.

At least until we pick back up again in Rambo 3... and 4. And 5. And...      

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