RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II – Jerry Goldsmith
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Following the massive success of the original First Blood movie in 1982, it was inevitable that a sequel would be forthcoming. Rambo: First Blood Part II once again saw Sylvester Stallone returning to one of his most iconic roles as former United States Special Forces commando John Rambo. Having spent a year in prison as punishment for his part in the events of the first film, Rambo is visited by his old commanding officer, Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), and offered a deal – in exchange for being pardoned by the government, Rambo must return to Vietnam and investigate reports of American soldiers still being held captive by the Viet Cong. However, as Rambo arrives in Southeast Asia, all hell breaks loose, and the one-man army finds himself waging war not only against the Vietnamese, but against a group of corrupt Soviets who are funding them. The film was directed by George P. Cosmatos from a screenplay by James Cameron, co-stars Charles Napier, Steven Berkoff, and Julia Nickson as a local intelligence agent, and was an even greater commercial success than the original, becoming one of the most iconic action movies of the 1980s.
Returning to score the film was veteran composer Jerry Goldsmith, who scored the original First Blood, and was in the middle of a very successful period in his career in terms of box-office grosses, having penned the scores for Gremlins, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alien, and Poltergeist, in the years immediately preceding Rambo. Although the original film was very much an action film, it still retained a semblance of realism and profound social commentary and, as such, Goldsmith’s score for it – while action packed – was still grounded and, at times, a little subdued. Rambo: First Blood Part II was a much more ‘typical’ 1980s action movie, and in response Goldsmith threw off all pretensions of restraint and wrote a balls-to-the-wall action score, taking the original thematic core of the original score, and punching it into overdrive. The score is rooted in Goldsmith’s prototypical 1980s action style – in fact, it may be the prototypical 1980s action score – blending a large and powerful orchestra with a mass of percussion and his familiar electronic palette, some of which was designed to mimic the regional instruments of Southeast Asia.
The new main theme is a variation on the iconic “It’s a Long Road” melody from the original First Blood, which takes the first four notes of the theme, and then sends it spinning off into a patriotic new direction. Whereas “It’s a Long Road” was a musical portrayal of a tortured man coming to terms with his post-war demons, the Rambo II variation is a full-on assault on the senses, a darkly heroic depiction of the same man, but with a new and honorable sense of purpose. The theme has an A-phrase and a B-phrase, which are performed separately as often as they are performed together, and it unites the score, underpinning the action sequences, and exploding into full-throated bombast during moments of bravado. The original “It’s a Long Road” theme does make a few guest appearances here and there, most often in scenes where Rambo stops obliterating Vietnamese soldiers for a few minutes and remembers he’s supposed to be a tortured anti-hero. There’s also a brief theme for Rambo’s Asian love interest Co-Bao, but unusually there is no real musical identity for either the Vietnamese or the despicable Colonel Podovsky, the boo-hiss Russian villain of the piece, a disappointing omission considering how good Goldsmith usually was at writing music for the bad guys.
The score opens with the “Main Title,” a dark and slightly unsettling piece for electronics and chattering percussion which presents the first statements of the Heroic Rambo theme, and Co-Bao’s theme, on watery, vaguely oriental-sounding synths. This main theme reappears frequently throughout the score, receiving full recapitulations in cues like “Preparations,” “River Crash,” “Betrayed,” and others. Cleverly, Goldsmith also deconstructs his theme further in some of the action cues, sometimes reducing it to a three-note fanfare (“The Jump”), and elsewhere running it underneath cues as a percussive ostinato, like in the sneaky, tension-filled “The Camp/Forced Entry”.
The action music in the score’s second half is absolutely superb, some of the best of his career. Cues like “Escape from Torture,” the fabulous “Revenge,” “Pilot Over,” and the heroic, conclusive “Village Raid/Helicopter Fight” simply throb with muscular testosterone, and Goldsmith spares no expense in applying lavish amounts of drive and energy to the proceedings. As is always the case, Goldsmith’s mastery of the orchestra is evident throughout the score. The menacing-sounding string runs in “Preparations” hint at the danger to come, and listen out for the cool xylophone element bubbling underneath “Betrayed”. The aforementioned “Revenge” is especially notable for the increased percussion section which keeps the cue moving along at a fast clip – some of the struck and tapped drums heard here are reminiscent of his work on Planet of the Apes – while the dancing string-and-woodwind line that appears in counterpoint to the bold performance of the main theme at 3:36 is fantastic, and can be seen as a precursor to the similar motif he used over a decade later in First Knight.
“Stories” contains the longest and most tender performance of “It’s a Long Road,” for intimate oboes, somber strings and haunted horns, but it also appears in fragmented form in “The Cage,” in soft counterpoint to the new Rambo theme at the beginning of “Ambush,” and as a triumphant fanfare at the end of “The Gunboat,” in “Pilot Over,” and in “Home Flight”. Co-Bao’s theme is less prominent, but does feature one more time in “Bring Him Up/The Eyes” as a counterpoint to Rambo’s theme.
All this orchestral mayhem is of course excellent, but the synths are likely to prove somewhat divisive. They feature strongly in cues like “The Map,” “Preparations,” ‘The Snake,” “Betrayed,” and in the majority of the score’s conclusive action material. They are very similar to the synths Goldsmith employed in other scores throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, in everything from Logan’s Run and Damien: Omen II, to Outland, Gremlins, Supergirl, and later scores like Legend, Hoosiers, and Innerspace. Goldsmith’s electronics have always sounded unique; some think they typify the worst music of his career, while others consider them to be creative and ahead of their time. It’s true that, on occasion, he manipulated them so much that they ended up sounding almost laughable, like the cat meows in Gremlins, and some may consider that to be the case here. Personally, I consider them simply to be a reflection of the time. Synth writing was still in its infancy in the 1980s, and the technology was limiting, but everyone was trying it to some degree, and Goldsmith had to go with the zeitgeist of the era.
Less successful, however, is the truly atrocious pop song “Peace In Our Life,” written by Goldsmith in collaboration with Sylvester’s less-famous brother Frank Stallone and lyricist Peter Schless, and performed by Frank in a vocal styling that clearly wants to sound like Michael McDonald from the Doobie Brothers, but comes off as a laughable parody. This is the type of oh-so-sincere song that Trey Parker and Matt Stone lampooned so successfully in Team America, but here it’s clearly meant to be straight-faced and un-ironic – the lyrics are meant to be inspiring and meaningful, but come across as trite and clichéd, while the cheesy soft rock arrangement dates the song horribly, although at least it does incorporate some of Goldsmith’s main theme into the mix. Skip it, unless you want a good chuckle.
The score for Rambo: First Blood Part II was one of the first scores released by Varese Sarabande, but that original edition quickly went out of print, and was a rare collectible for over a decade. The score was finally re-released, expanded with six additional cues, by producer Ford A. Thaxton for Silva Screen in 1999, and for me this is the preferred version: the expanded running time and digitally re-mastered sound is excellent. In many ways, Rambo: First Blood Part II is a prototypical 80s action score, the one from which all the others took their lead. Over the years the sound has fallen into self-parody somewhat, but to dismiss it as being all brawn and no brains would be doing it a disservice; as the originator of the sound, Goldsmith took his films seriously, and never indulged in self-aware satire. Similarly, whatever you may feel about the electronic element of the score, Goldsmith always employed genuine intellect and creativity with his orchestral forces, and this score is no exception.
Buy the Rambo: First Blood Part II soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Main Title (2:14)
- The Map (1:09)
- Preparations (1:18)
- The Jump (3:19)
- The Snake (1:49)
- The Pirates (1:29)
- Stories (3:27)
- The Camp/Forced Entry (2:24)
- The Cage (3:57)
- River Crash/The Gunboat (3:37)
- Betrayed (4:24)
- Bring Him Up/The Eyes (2:06)
- Escape From Torture (3:41)
- Ambush (2:47)
- Revenge (6:16)
- Bowed Down (1:06)
- Pilot Over (1:54)
- Village Raid/Helicopter Fight (4:55)
- Home Flight (3:02)
- Day By Day (2:08)
- Peace In Our Life (written by Frank Stallone, Peter Schless and Jerry Goldsmith, performed by Frank Stallone) (3:19)
Running Time: 60 minutes 21 seconds
Silva Screen FILMCD-307 (1985/1999)
Music composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith. Performed by The National Philharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by Arthur Morton. Recorded and mixed by Mike Ross. Edited by Ken Hall. Album produced byJerry Goldsmith, Bruce Botnick and Ford A. Thaxton.