Saturday, July 25, 2015

DUELING MOVIES: Rambo: First Blood II (1985) vs. Uncommon Valor (1982)


                In the 1980s, Hollywood went through a “rescue the Vietnam War POWs” phase.  Some outstanding cinema resulted – according to fourteen year old boys.  The standard bearers were “Rambo: First Blood II” and “Uncommon Valor”.  I was surprised to find that “Uncommon Valor” came out first.  In fact, we were also blessed with “Missing in Action” before “Rambo: First Blood”.  “Uncommon Valor” was directed by Ted Kotcheff (whose previous film was the original Rambo).  It was a box office hit, but got mixed reviews.  RFBII was a sequel to the movie where a PTSD-sodden vet destroys an entire city police department in anti-heroic righteousness.  The body count was deemed to be wimpy, so the sequel was demanded.  Plus it contributed greatly to the trope of the unstable Vietnam veteran, so that instability needed to be channeled into positive mission.  It was directed by the one and only George Cosmatos (who redeemed himself a bit with “Tombstone”).  Believe it or not, James Cameron wrote the first draft of the screenplay, but Stallone insisted on more politics and got co-writer credit.  Stallone wrote all the dialogue for his character, I assume.  He has about twenty lines.  Stallone nixed the addition of a side-kick to be played by John Travolta.  The movie was a humongous hit, making $300 million.
"Yo, Adrienne - I got another franchise!"

                RFBII begins with Rambo in prison (what lame-ass jury convicted him?).  Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna) proposes a pardon in exchange for a mission to see if there really are American POWs still being held in Vietnam after the war.  Rambo asks “Do we get to win the war this time?”  However, the mission is strictly recon.  A slimy politician named Murdock (Charles Napier) is using Rambo to prove there are no POWs being held.  Only a Neanderthal like Rambo would not be aware that he is being set up.  He is also not bothered by the fact that there is no training or preparation for the mission.  Not even a montage.  When Rambo parachutes in (losing all his high tech equipment and his shirt in the process), he hooks up with a female agent named Co-Bao (Julia Nickson) who speaks better English than Rambo, of course.  When Rambo observes the camp he finds that there are Americans being held and mistreated to boot.  The movie tells the ignorant American moviegoers that the Vietnamese held Americans because we reneged on reparations payments!  He defies his mission parameters to rescue one of them.  Let the killing begin.  In Stallonesque irony, Rambo ends up back in the camp so he can be tortured by Russians.  Oscar please!  (Razzie instead.)  Co-Bao helps him escape and then something happens to her that breaks Rambo’s usual self-composure.  He is so angry, ordinary arrows will not express his feelings.  He has to have explosive tipped arrows.  There is some chopper on chopper action and enough gratuitous violence to sate any middle school boy.  He rescues all the prisoners and then confronts Murdock on behalf of all the veterans who were dissed when they returned home.  And through the power of film, America was able to feel better about the Vietnam War.
don't they know you don't want to make him angry?

                “Uncommon Valor” deals with a father’s quest to rescue his missing in action son from a Laos prison camp.  Col. Rhodes (Gene Hackman), with bankrolling from a millionaire who also is searching for his son, assembles a motle crew of the assorted types.  They include a PTSD "tunnel rat" (Fred Willard), a mentally unstable hulk (Randall Cobb playing himself), and a black guy who is an explosives expert called "Dead Meat".  (Actually, "Blaster".)    Their trainer Scott (Patrick Swayze) has never been in the shit, but eventually is accepted by the grunts.  Unlike RFBII, they go through extensive training, including a dress rehearsal in a mock-up of the camp.  It goes swimmingly so Hollywood can once more put the FUBAR doctrine into effect.  The first example of this trope is when their weapons are confiscated by the CIA in Thailand.  It seems the government is in cover-up mode when it comes to MIAs in Laos.  Since these mercenaries are at heart cuddly, they pool their money to buy some WWII surplus weapons. At least it will now be a fair fight with the enemy.  General Mayhem takes command at the camp and let the whittling begin.  The good guy mortality rate ends up at 40%.  The rescued sons’ rate is 50%.
Stallone got a lot of acting tips by
watching Randall Cobb's performance

                Naturally there are some similarities between the two movies besides the obvious "going behind enemy lines to rescue prisoners" plot.  Both blame the continued captivity of the Americans on a cynical government and shame the American public for its treatment of Vietnam veterans.  Each believes we could have and should have won the war.   They both have a schmaltzy song over credits.  When will war movies learn to avoid original songs?  Both have a very implausible romance thrown in to placate the women being dragged to the theater.  “Valor” spends more time on character development since it is not a one man show.  It has some humor, whereas “Rambo” is bereft of it.  The parodies have made up for that.
totally natural group shot

  Surprisingly, “Rambo” has the better acting, which is pretty damning for “Valor”.  Stallone may not be much of a thespian, but he does have charisma.  Nickson is not bad as his girlfriend.  The villains do a good job not overshadowing Stallone’s acting.  Cartoonish would be the best description of their performances.  “Valor” has a better cast, but is a disappointment.  If it had not been for the casting of Hackman, the movie would be complete crap.  “Valor” does have the advantage in dialogue because it is painful to listen to what comes out of the mouths in “Rambo”.  Especially the closing speech by Rambo.
maybe I should be more selective and not make ten movies a year

Cutting to the chase, the big comparison has to be in quality and quantity of action.  “Rambo” wins on both counts.  Hell, it does not even bother with the usual training scene.  Nobody cares.  Let’s get to Rambo being Rambo as soon as possible.  Before he’s done, he has killed 57 bad guys.  This is done with a variety of weapons.  All of them cool.  There are also the requisite explosions that the audience demands.  “Valor” can’t match the body count but is competitive in explosions.  The unit even withstands real explosions during training!  It also has a blown up bridge.  Got to love that.  Literally, because it’s the law.
the last sight of many an extra
I had not seen RFBII since I was a young adult.  At the time I took umbrage at its ridiculous right wing propaganda and attempt to rewrite the ending of the war.  I was appalled at how the movie had given my students a false impression of the war.  When I rewatched it, I discovered that it is no longer provocative.  If you have the right frame of mind (and lots of alcohol), it can be seen for what it now is – macho bull shit as entertainment for the masses.  Even though it has no humor, it is still a deeply hilarious movie.  “Uncommon Valor” is not nearly as much fun.  It takes itself more seriously, but the implementation of the predictable plot is underwhelming.

Rambo =  B-
       Valor  =  D  


  1. Just watched Uncommon the other day, bought it bundled with (Oddly) Enemy at the gates and i somewhat enjoyed it, was just a bit

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  3. Uncommon Valor was on one of the movie channels a month or so ago. The criticism I recently made of Bridge on the River Kwai applies to Uncommon.

    In the final battle, there were eight people in the band taking on what looked like at least a battalion in two separate locations.

    Many years ago, Uncommon was featured on a History Channel show called History or Hollywood. A movie would be shown with the host and an "expert" discussing how the film compared (or didn't compare) to reality.

    The guest expert was a special forces veteran of some kind. He said you would need at least a company, maybe two, of men for such a mission.

    1. You're eliminating a lot of Hollywood movies if you are going to insist on realistic odds.

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