You would not, to watch the 1982 thriller First Blood, expect it to birth the franchise it birthed. Though it's too much of an action movie to qualify in any other genre, it's a very brainy, sociologically alert action movie, in which the cultural stratification of the Vietnam War years is found to have echoes, and not always ones you'd anticipate, in the dawning years of the 1980s, right about exactly when America was officially acting like Vietnam was all behind us. And in Sylvester Stallone, a musclebound actor who has been a punchline for so long that it's next to impossible to recall that he has actually produced some acutely good performances all throughout his career, the film had a perfect embodiment of its portrayal of the Vietnam Vet as damaged goods, anxious to be a subdued and impersonal background figure in everyone else's life, but capable of great bouts of hurt, inarticulate rage when provoked. I do not claim that First Blood is a timelessly great motion picture, but it is awfully strong and unexpectedly fascinating if you only know it from its legacy, and absolutely worth grappling with.

There is absolutely nothing about it that would lead you to expect the sequels it ended up receiving. In the first film, Stallone's John Rambo was a disenfranchised loner who wanted to step outside of humanity; starting with 1985's Rambo: First Blood, Part II, he became a bipedal tank, gargantuan biceps and pecs with a tiny, oddly-shaped face in between that had ceased to be any kind of human whatsoever, least of all one who was marginalised and doubted and feared; he was a dehumanised superman embodiment of the most bloodily enthusiastic vision of A-Fucking-Murica that could be whipped up by the military-worshipping mainstream of 1980s culture.

Having said that, the beginning of Rambo (as I shall stubbornly call it and hope that nobody gets it confused with the 2008 sequel titled simply Rambo, because this series says "fuck you" to your bourgeois concern with naming conventions), I said, the beginning of Rambo really does imply for an entire scene that it's concerned with following the emotional terrain explored by First Blood in something like an orderly, contiguous fashion. Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna), the Special Forces officer who stopped Rambo's rampage and found himself learning to deeply respect the torn-up passion and suffering that man was feeling that led him to his violence, has come to visit his former quarry in the prison yard where he's doing hard labor. And not just to offer his heartfelt sympathy and a warm Richard Crenna smile. He has a job offer: as a kind of public relations gesture to the family of MIA Vietnam servicemen, the government wants to investigate a lead on a possible POW camp deep in the Southeast Asian jungle. Given its location, only a very, very tiny number of veterans have been identified as having the right combination of firsthand knowledge and survival skills to penetrate all the way to the camp, and John Rambo was the name at the top of that list. If he agrees to go in and do the job that should have been done in '74 and '75, and help to save those boys from their grisly fate, Rambo has a presidential pardon waiting. But that's not really why he says yes. His actual motives are revealed more subtly, accidentally even, when he asks Trautman the question that hangs over Rambo like a thick fog: "Sir? Do we get to win this time?" And Trautman's fatherly answer: "This time, it's up to you".

In the 1980s, the country - really, the whole of the English-speaking world - had taken an emphatic conservative swing, mostly on the back of the terrible economic downturn of the 1970s; and like most economics-driven social movements towards conservatism in the United States, this somehow involved a socially conservative turn as well. That meant a lot of things, and damn near all of them are beyond the purview of film criticism as a discipline, to say nothing of one review of one movie. But one thing that we can fit in right now is to note the spike in military adventuring and love of warfare. This was fed by President Ronald Reagan's openly antagonistic rhetoric towards a Soviet Union that was, in those days, trying to hide the enormously widespread and soon-to-be-fatal rot in its political and economic infrastructure by acting extra-belligerent and angry. Add in the military victory in Grenada, the first outright military victory by the U.S. since World War II, and you have the ingredients for Americans, as a people, to feel pretty lusty and potent on the subject of warfare. And one of the ways this played out was in the emergence, on a reasonably wide scale, of the idea that we could have - we fuckin' well should have - won Vietnam, if those goddamn hippie protesters hadn't traitored the country into pulling popular support.

I do not wish to get us all involved in a political argument over what is, by all means, a largely silly movie, so I will as delicately as I possibly can point out that this argument is a steaming mountain of horseshit. The array of reasons that American involvement in Vietnam was a terrible idea from before the Gulf of Tomkin and all the way up to 1974, and why it was virtually certain to be unwinnable at least from 1969 onwards if not from the first moment that the first U.S. soldier arrived in-country, that is truly beyond the scope of this review to discuss. But "the peace movement spooked the politicians into pulling out just when we could see victory on the horizon", that is not realistic in any way. But there have been people, ever since, who have wanted badly for it to be true, and sometimes there are very few of them, sometimes there are enough to make ripples in the culture at large, and sometimes there are so many of them that you could make a whole entire movie about it. Rambo is that movie.

I do not, despite all the evidence I've just provided, especially care to pick apart Rambo at the level of its politics. The great majority of all action films from the whole of the '80s, and probably most of the '90s as well, are basically conservative down to their boots, and some of them are timeless cinematic masterpieces whose skillful, perfect construction doesn't care in the slightest if I agree or disagree with their assumptions and implications. But Rambo is different. It's not assuming or implying any kind of background radiation of politics: it's an outright message movie, holding two themes aloft in its meaty hands. On the one side, it declares that the treatment of returning Vietnam vets, all but officially ignored by the government and actively derided by large portions of the civilian population, was disgraceful and beneath the dignity of America, and that's a pretty faultless thing to believe in, even if there had to be a classier way to express than by having Stallone bellow it out in his throaty shout all in one lumpy monologue near the end (it's very much in the same vein of warmhearted affection for blue-collar populism that led to Rocky and its sequels). On the other hand, it also declares, more by its actions than its words, that peace is for stupid assholes, and the right thing to do, the thing that the U.S. should have done in '74, was to kill the godalmighty shit out of every single brown person in Indochina, if that's what it took to eke out an American victory and bring every last American solider home, since we all know that individual American lives are of vastly higher value than Vietnamese or Cambodian lives. And to this theme I am… let's call it, "unsympathetic". Heck, I'm "hostile", even. And Rambo will not shut the fuck up about it.

The thing is - 1400 words later - Rambo isn't a bad movie because of its politics at all, no matter how epically distasteful I find them. Except insofar as that its passion about expressing its politics directly gets in the way of it building up momentum as an action narrative, but that's not the fault of conservatism, that's the fault of being an ideological blowhard, and liberal movies do it too. If anything, its uniquely forthright political conviction is the only thing that saves this one movie above all movies from fading indistinguishably into Stallone's career as an '80s action superstar. For can their be any doubt at all that Rambo: First Blood, Part II is the most iconic of Stallone's films of this period? It is to his '80s career as Rocky is to his '70s career, an enormous hit that defined everything about his subsequent persona for many years. But there's no good reason for that, as far as I can tell - it's simply not a very good movie, and Stallone isn't very good in it. This is in part because the film reduces John Rambo to a bland killbot: just one year prior, Stallone's chief rival for the hearts and minds of boys in every schoolyard throughout the land, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had played an actual, literal robot programmed to do murder, in The Terminator, and he managed to imbue that character with more personality than Stallone can smuggle into Rambo, and Stallone is supposed to be sympathetic. But there's nothing doing: the middle third of the film is eager to position the character as the patron saint of the POW and an emblem of Reagan-era moral values, and the final third thinks of him as absolutely nothing but muscles holding a gun, and there's no room for the troubled, broken human being of the first movie, or even this movie's very own opening 15 minutes, in all of that.

So much for being an interesting action film hung around a relatable character. The other, and bigger problem, is that Rambo isn't even a very good action film - in that final third, it rises up to the level of being about as good as any strong '80s action film, though I concede that in 1985, this would have all come across as much edgier and extreme than it does now, or even than it would have in '88 or '89. Rambo was, in this regard, a victim of its own success: its jungle setting and helicopter battle finale, its body count and Jerry Goldsmith's droning synth score with its dubious Orientalisms were all copied wholesale by dozens of movies over the next few years, and that does tend to make this film's legitimate achievements seem like smaller things than they are.

Still, give me Rambo or damn near any Schwarzenegger film of the same approximate vintage, and I would not pause in taking the Schwarzenegger. For Stallone's films, and this glum & angry message movie especially, are rather dour and sullen affairs, despite the reputation that '80s action films have for being jolly quip factories. Whatever things there are to admire in this film's action sequences, there's certainly not much fun going around; it is relentlessly serious, and it's big "fuck yeah!" action setpieces all come from a place of tangible frustration and anger, and not from a place of joyful destructive creativity.

And that, mind you, is in the better part of the movie. For the whole of its middle segment, Rambo is a drudge, dutifully staring at Rambo as he muddles through some barely-present cloak-and-dagger spying in the jungle, accompanied by the completely invisible Co (Julia Nickson), a Cambodian guerrilla present solely to imply the promise of a romantic interlude, except that Rambo is such a rugged man-slab, dedicated with single-minded intensity to his mission and his vengeance, that any such human relationship is laughably implausible from the start (and Nickson's stilted, expressionless performance would make it impossible to take seriously regardless). The B-plot is even worse, concerning Trautman's growing awareness the mission's commander, a cowardly bureaucrat named Marshall Murdock (Charles Napier), is far more concerned with selling out Rambo and any theoretical POWs than actually saving them. This realisation takes Trautman far too long, given that the first words out of Murdock's mouth are a craven hedge about not supporting the mission, and Napier plays him like he's looking for the very first possible second to betray everybody just for the fun of it.

It's an endless parade of people glowering, being pensive, skulking, but with all the sonic and visual trappings of a trashy action movie insisting that it's big noisy fun. And it's just not. It is much more often boring than anything else, with nobody involved, and Stallone least of all, in possession of the necessary chops to redeem the longueurs by making them explicitly about character and mood. Rambo is too grim and sullen to be a great stupid action movie, but much too stupid and cartoonish to be anything else. A quintessential, iconic film it may be, but not anywhere near good enough to round the corner and become a true classic.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1985
-Quintessential majoritarian Steven Spielberg adapts a book about African-American women in The Color Purple; opinions are mixed
-Many years later, The Wizard of Oz receives a freakishly dark sequel in the form of the magical and damned odd Return to Oz
-The road to modern filmmaking techniques continues on past the first all-CGI "character", a villain in one scene of Young Sherlock Holmes

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1985
-The effectively blind Kurosawa Akira, aided by his closest colleagues, makes the magnificent color-driven epic Ran
-Elim Klimov's punishingly brutal war film Come and See opens in the Soviet Union
-Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan makes Police Story, his biggest success to that point