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Rambo: First Blood Part II - Original Film Soundtrack Expanded Edition Soundtrack Review

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by Chris McEneany Feb 26, 2008

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    Rambo: First Blood Part II - Original Film Soundtrack Expanded Edition Soundtrack Review
    Recalled for duty right alongside Stallone's Rambo, Jerry Goldsmith approached his new scoring mission with the same vigour and aggression as he had for First Blood, only this time he had some rock-solid themes to use as his foundation. With a film and a star that were both bigger, bolder and more brazen, Goldsmith could only follow suit and compose music that would take the one-man-army concept to the next level of aural adrenaline. And, beyond any doubt whatsoever, he crafted one of the finest action soundtracks of all time in the process, building successfully upon the cues of the first movie, drafting in extraordinary new textures and suffusing the score with so much masculinity that it virtually takes you by the throat and punches you in the face.

    "Do we get to win this time?”

    “This time it's up to you.”

    The CD I'm reviewing here is the Expanded Edition of the score, with numerous new cues added and each track flowing in the film's chronological order. As the liner notes state, due to the age and condition of some of the re-found cues, some loss in clarity may be discerned on occasion. Though, to be perfectly honest, barring one pause that sounds slightly longer than necessary, there is nothing wrong with the presentation of the music here at all.

    It could be argued is that Rambo: First Blood Part II does away with the vulnerability of its hero, leading to a film and a score that, with this invincibility in mind from the start, jettisons much of the edgy suspense and menace from the man-hunt aspect of Rambo's first outing. This time around we know going in that Rambo will make it and this forces the score to take on a different tone to that we had heard previously. But this doesn't hamper Goldsmith's style at all. On the contrary, in fact, he takes up the new challenge of pumping-up the testosterone with absolutely riotous conviction. Always one to utilise not only the full range of the orchestra but to bring in ethnic instruments, electronica and avant-garde experimental sounds, Goldsmith nevertheless concocts a massively diverse and intriguing wall of sound that still sounds exhilarating, pulse-pounding and downright heroic. Emphasising Rambo's rousing main fanfare with even more strength than before, he hits the ground running with music that is deliberately forceful, bass-heavy and somehow anti-militaristic. When you listen to First Blood, you can hear the sound of Rambo's Special Forces past, you can hear the strident roar of the National Guard drum-roll. But, cannily, this time Goldsmith seems to create music that goes beyond the conventions of the war-movie, fashioning a genre that is consistently extroverted and far removed from the tactics of his contemporaries' scoring techniques. When Stallone took the action movie by the scruff of the neck and flung it aside to bring an inflated comic-book approach to such sky-high derring-do and machismo, Jerry Goldsmith had to find a voice that would match the on-screen excess without slipping into parody. And with a heroic fanfare - something that John Williams excelled at with Superman, Star Wars and Indiana Jones - the risk of doing just that is ever-present. But Goldsmith already knew this character well enough to be able to elevate his game without resorting to the campness that could have crippled it. Incisively, his fanfare for the beefed-up version of Johnny Rambo is actually the same portion of his instrumental “Long Road” theme, again with allowances for solo trumpeting but, this time, predominantly brash, overbearing and hyper-kinetic. Looking back on it, you simply can't imagine Rambo without this broad flourish, can you?

    With Rambo's mission returning him to Southeast Asia - “What most people call Hell, he calls home.” - Goldsmith elects to incorporate some exotic flavours to the pot, sprinkling oriental mystery across the canvas with “jungle-like” electronic samples (tying-in with the way he painted the musical atmosphere of the misty mountains and forests of First Blood) that swirl and hum away in the background, although often striking to the forefront, as in Track 5, The Snake. But his priority is to follow Rambo into enemy territory as quickly as possible, his music undeniably hauling us along for the ride. A deep bass clarion call wakes us up as Rambo sharpens his knife in Preparations - that irresistible 6-note repeating motif beautifully topped-off with a kind of metallic clip. The Jump begins in pensive mode, ticking away in earnest as Rambo makes ready for his perilous parachute drop, before screeching into brass and string-fed jeopardy when things go pear-shaped (if pears had muscles, that is) and Rambo gets snagged up in a mid-air crisis.

    “Expendable ... what mean expendable?”

    “It's like ... somebody invites you to a party and you don't show up ... doesn't really matter.”

    Ahhhh, bless.

    Meeting Julia Nickson's delectable field agent Co presents Goldsmith with the option of softening things a little bit. But our Jerry doesn't give a hoot about such jungle smooching and carries on with the relentless brass, strings and electro-fugue that he started out with, only slowing down a tad when Rambo, flirting more with his own knife than with Co, chills on the shady pirate boat and tells Stories (Track 7). Here Goldsmith finds the time to bring the core melody of Long Road into play to hearken back to Rambo's troubled past. Naturally, the theme will play out several more times - most notably when we find the dishevelled POWs in The Camp and The Cage and then at the end when Rambo informs Col. Troutman that he will live Day By Day.

    “He's dead ... now.”

    High tension is wrought about when Rambo frees one of the captives and proceeds to flee the prison camp during River Crash and The Gunboat, a combined track that reveals some effortlessly sly manipulation as the pirates display their true colours. Goldsmith makes space for the fanfare and some deep bass as Rambo is forced to evacuate the vessel in a hurry. In Betrayed, the action becomes painful as the odds stack up against Rambo, the music taking on a much more serious and deadly air. When he and his bedraggled chum get bogged down in mud and left behind by Martin Kove's rescue helicopter, the mood turns decidedly sour. The main theme itself is hauled threw the mire, slowing down and becoming heavier with each beat. It is surprising the amount of variety that Goldsmith can eke out of this singular motif - rousing, mournful, suspenseful or tragic, the piece, like the character it colours, seems able to handle any situation.

    In Track 12, Bring Him Up/The Eyes, we get to hear the fantastic first entry of the Russian theme that comes to personify Steven Berkoff's Lt. Col. Podovsky and his brutish cohort Yushin. Coupled with the squirrelly oriental licks of light timpani and chimes, a tricksy wall of sneering evil is created. The brief cue takes in the startling moment of eyeball-jeopardy and knife-roasting that Rambo undergoes and the nifty arrival of Co to help out in the nick of time, but the sense of a musical door opening in the score is prevalent, because Goldsmith is about to unleash the full orchestral arsenal.

    “Murdoch ... I'm coming to get you!”

    The celebrated track from Part II has always been Escape From Torture (Track 13), in which Goldsmith literally goes for broke in a whirlwind 3.39 minute-long cue that seems to bring in everything from Rambo's estimable musical canon together for one whiplash tour de force. The track hurtles through one dynamic set-piece after another, hardly pausing to draw breath - which is, of course, the whole point of the cue. Rambo and Co dart through the jungle, escaping from the camp amid grenades and machine-gunfire and evading the fat-bee Russian helicopter swooping over the treetops. It is vital and bursting with energy. The track was so successful, in fact, that director Peter McDonald would insert into Rambo III, even though Jerry Goldsmith had already composed fresh material for the film! The main theme kicks the cue into overdrive, the onscreen action possibly having trouble actually keeping up with it. We get the full gamut of Russian heavy, trembling bass booms, twanging oriental synth reverberating behind Rambo's theme and the striding swagger of drums and brass combined.

    “Dragonfly ... Wolf-den - colourful names.”

    After that musical onslaught, Ambush begins deceptively with a mournful and reflective rendition of the instrumental version of It's A Long Road as Rambo and Co kick back and catch their breath. But such a respite in this world won't last long and a synthesiser soon jabs out a warning that danger is fast approaching. The track ends with some soaring strings re-establishing the Long Road with a sweetly tragic send-off for Co as she dies in Rambo's arms. There's no such thing as love in a war zone, John.
    What follows in the second half of the album is, of course, legendary. If the first half was action-packed then this half just tumbles over itself to throw the listener about with a multitude of tempestuous set-pieces and surging blood-lust. Commencing with well-paced build-up, Revenge (Track 15) is Rambo's answer to First Blood's cat and mouse cue, Mountain Hunt. With the big guy stalking the Spetznatz through the monsoon-lashed jungle - who didn't cheer when his eye opened up in the mud-wall behind that Ruski commando? - Goldsmith supplies electrifying stingers for each kill and a determined, mission-in-progress double-beat in-between. Drums and horn highlight each kill with sudden, breath-snatching fury. Synthesised snares and rattles pitch in with omnipresent threat, only this time the threat is from the vengeance-fuelled Rambo, himself. The satisfyingly lengthy track climbs inexorably towards the main theme which begins to pound away at the slow-burn dramatics, urging Rambo to move on after incinerating an entire brigade of NVA.

    Goldsmith is now about to employ his brass and percussion sections in an almost exhausting marathon of blitzkrieg scoring that also sees the mesmerising use of electronica to pulverising effect as one of the best triumvirates of musical cues comes next - each track blending marvellously into the next with no drop in excitement levels and an intensity that seems to grow second by second. Bowed Down marks the moment when that sneering NVA commander proves just how bad a shot he really is by missing our hero with an AK-47 and then with his semi-automatic pistol, whilst John simply takes his time and notches one of those explosive-tipped arrows in his bow. Goldsmith delivers a fabulous succession of deep bass notes, emphasising Rambo's new theme, then serenades the exploding NVA with a glorious crescendo death-rattle. But the glorious follow-on is the awesome Pilot Over, as the vest-sporting Yushin comes over the crest of the ridge in a helicopter gunship to drop what looks like a beer-keg of high incendiary onto Rambo's head. Fierce Russian bombast heralds his arrival, and then whirlwind strings wrap around tight brass to catch up with Rambo's run-and-plunge into the lagoon, and subsequent scrap aboard the rolling chopper. The music for the cue is enormously powerful and sees that the brass veers in conjunction with the chopper as Rambo and Yushin tumble about the sky. Stabbing percussion raises the stakes and Goldsmith writes ferociously complex beats to help drive Rambo's elbows into the Russian's kidneys. Heavily pronounced percussive bursts - an element that would become the musical catch-phrase for this movie - hammer home Rambo's victory in the sky and subsequent airborne hijacking of the chopper.

    Village Raid and Helicopter Fight leap into action when one of Rambo's rockets obliterates an enemy jeep and vaporises the soldier standing next to it. The film has already seen a couple of minutes of carnage as Rambo decimates the prison compound - skilfully missing the cage holding the POWs, of course - with only the sound of explosions and gunfire for accompaniment. But once Rambo lets out a primal scream of rage, Goldsmith responds with those gloriously deep bass blasts of orchestral bombardment, giddily encouraging our hero to flatten everything in sight. It's a blistering show of force and Goldsmith has a wonderful time of firing off salvos of brass, counterpunched with horns and bass and chaotic string and piano chords that keep Rambo on his toes - unless you spot in the film the brief shot of Stallone stumbling into a hole, that is! The track also includes a wonderful build-up to the original fanfare from First Blood's Mountain Hunt cue, but deviates slyly at the crucial moment into Rambo's new theme as a wounded Russian stops playing dead and rises to strafe the escaping Americans and Rambo reels about and introduces him to full force of the M60 he wrenched off the side of the chopper. The Helicopter Fight segment of the track brings two main themes into direct conflict as Podovsky's huge Russian gunship dogfights with Rambo's flimsy little whirlybird. Once again, the cue is dominated by staccato blasts of brass and percussion that puncture the score like sonic bullets. You can only imagine the exhilaration that the orchestra must be feeling when playing such bombastic and exciting music, and the marriage between it and the visuals is absolutely spot-on with Cosmatos' movie definitely elevated by the up-front and aggressive placement of Goldsmith's compositions.

    “I want what they want - for our Country to love us, as much as we love it!”

    Goldsmith even manages tension and drama during the Home Flight (Track 19). After a weary but victorious fanfare flourish, his cue weaves more suspense as Rambo's battered helicopter limps back to the American base and the tragic interpretation of the main theme that featured on Betrayed reappears to herald his revenge upon Charles Napier's pen-pushing, double-crossing bureaucrat, Murdoch. Listening to that bass! Things turn inward with Day By Day as Johnny faces Troutman to vocalise his misgivings about being used yet again. The mournful playing out of It's A Long Road makes a fitting return and the film, and its score turn full circle, Goldsmith signing off another adventure in inimitable style. And, to be honest, this is precisely where the score should bow out.

    But ... sadly ending on a severely bum-note, Rambo: First Blood Part II actually closes with Stallone's brother Frank crooning the dreadful pop-dirge Peace In Our Life. Well, First Blood's seminal It's A Long Road may have split the camp with its soulful character bite, but there can be no mistaking the fact that this god-awful song simply doesn't belong in a Rambo film. What makes this even more unpalatable is that Jerry Goldsmith - whose original End Titles cue this replaces - actually co-wrote and composed this with Frank Stallone and Peter Schless. No matter how hard I try, I cannot think of a good word to say for this track, except that with a CD it is easily programmed out. Fans take note, even with this appalling finale, this score still gets thoroughly justified top marks.

    For Rambo III, Goldsmith produced possibly the best score of the series and certainly one of his most enjoyable and dazzlingly complex altogether. But, once again, the composer had worked his main motifs from First Blood into the relentless “attack” that is Part II's soundtrack, and the stepping stones that he crafted here would then be chiselled into Part III. As the middle instalment in Goldsmith's involvement in the series, this score marks the transition moment when he would begin to liberally incorporate synthesisers. The distinctive sound of his electronica would not date his material nearly so much as it would other composers during the eighties, however. Goldsmith was excellent in his arrangements and knew instinctively how to gel such modern effects into established formal instrumentation, and the resulting works (including Legend, Rambo III and Total Recall) would go on to become utterly unique in the field of film scoring. Rambo: First Blood Part II is the real genesis of that style. Needless to say, this expanded score comes very highly recommended indeed.

    The accompanying booklet contains brief notes for each track as well as some recording history.

    Full track listing is as follows-

    1. Main Title (2.12)

    2. Map* (1.07)

    3. Preparations (1.16)

    4. Jump (3.18)

    5. Snake (1.48)

    6. The Pirates* (1.27)

    7. Stories (3.26)

    8. The Camp*/Forced Entry* (2.23)

    9. Cage (3.55)

    10. River Crash*/The Gunboat* (3.26)

    11. Betrayed (4.22)

    12. Bring Him Up*/The Eyes* (2.04)

    13. Escape from Torture (3.39)

    14. Ambush (2.45)

    15. Revenge (6.14)

    16. Bowed Down (1.04)

    17. Pilot Over (1.52)

    18. Village Raid*/Helicopter Flight* (4.53)

    19. Home Flight (3.01)

    20. Day by Day (2.06)

    21. Peace In Our Life - sung by Frank Stallone (3.18)

    * Previously unreleased tracks.

    Verdict

    As far as action-scoring goes, First Blood was a decidedly tough act to follow. Yet Jerry Goldsmith was the only man for the job of re-tooling it to match the staggering visuals that Stallone and director George P. Cosmatos had in mind. You only have to hear the first couple of notes to know that you are in Rambo country, yet for all this familiarity, the score travels new roads and breaks dramatic new ground with bravura intensity. The oriental flavouring adds a hint of the exotic and the pounding brass and percussion mix supplies plenty of musical muscle.

    There are so many action cues contained on this album that you're guaranteed of a good work-out each and every time you play it - I mean it is impossible to simply sit and listen to it. So, grab some weights, crank up the sound and go on the offensive. Action-scoring just doesn't get any better and it is inspiring to think of the complicated writing and performing that went into producing such a headlong rush of acoustic adrenaline. And Goldsmith wasn't finished yet, as the awesome Rambo III score would go on to prove!

    The Rundown

    Movie

    10

    Overall

    10

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