Sunday, March 21, 2010

Alternative Draft Week - First Blood 2: The Mission

Welcome to Alternative Draft Week. Wahhhoooo! This week, we're going to be tackling different drafts of movies you know that, for one reason or another, weren't chosen as the coveted "Shooting Draft." Some might shock you. Some have great stories behind them. And there might be a surprise or two. Roger's going to get us started with a draft of First Blood 2 by...James Cameron??? Hell yes he is. In the meantime, if you haven't already, get your votes in for your Top Ten Favorite Scripts.

Genre: Action
Premise: Released from prison by Federal Order, John Rambo returns to Vietnam so he can document the possible existence of POWs for the CIA. Refusing to merely photograph the evidence and let the US Government sweep the issue under the rug, Rambo makes it his personal mission to free the POWs. By any means necessary.

About: One of James Cameron's first professional screenwriting jobs. The story goes is that Cameron had three desks set up in his house, where he was working on three different screenplays at once. At one desk, he was writing
The Terminator. On another, he was writing Aliens. And at the third desk, he was writing this, First Blood 2: The Mission.
Writer: James Cameron

"Rambo: First Blood Part 2" is the bloodstained crown jewel of my 80s Action DVD collection. The finale is like the third act of
Avatar in the Vietnamese jungle, but instead of Jake Sully and the thousands of Na'vi it's just the one man army himself, John Rambo, mass-murdering the VC and Soviets in increasingly entertaining ways. It's such a chaotic crescendo of violence it's hard to pull your eyes away the first time you're watching it (but why would you want to?).
But first, it's only appropriate we all thank a friend of the blog, a fellow screenwriter (who ain't too shabby himself) and cinephile so well-versed I'm convinced he's a film historian, a guy we all know from the comments section as JJ.1. He spent a considerable amount of time retyping the entirety of this script into his computer so he could create a PDF file for everyone to read and enjoy. Without his efforts we wouldn't have this James-Cameron-80s-Action-Script artifact to study and include in our collections.
Interesting side note: Gonzo Journalism figurehead Hunter S. Thompson retyped F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Hemingway's A Farewell To Arms in their entirety to get a worm's eye view of the style and the storytelling.
Which makes me think that picking a favorite script to retype is probably not a bad project to undertake if you're serious about learning your craft.
One thing I wish every novice screenwriter had was a mentor/veteran they could apprentice themselves to. If the master and apprentice relationship worked for Renaissance painters, why couldn't it work for modern day screenwriters? Perhaps the closest model we have is the showrunner-staff writer relationship for television shows.
Is Cameron's draft much different from Sly Stallone's draft?
It's the same dance, but the steps are a little different.
Cameron's draft has some extra characters we focus on: The pilot's crew, a POW named De Fravio, and most notably a sidekick named Brewer. The plot has some meatier details, bloodier action and more bombastic moments. Overall, Cameron is willing to let Rambo share the spotlight with Brewer and De Fravio, and I daresay the story is richer for it. The willingness to focus on De Fravio makes the theme shine.
Stallone took Cameron's detailed script and streamlined it. Vetoed the Brewer character (which was to be played by Travolta), made De Fravio nameless (taking away his lines of dialogue) and he also tweaked the kills so they were less complicated to film. He also gave Rambo his signature weapon, a bow, which made many of the kills more intimate, more personal (so we as an audience could connect with the war he was personally fighting inside himself).
Stallone boiled the elements down to make a simple concept, well, simpler. It's not a bad trade-off, persay. Just different.
I don't know anything about Rambo, Rog. Can you fill me in?
The original "First Blood" is more of a psychological thriller where a Vietnam vet is targeted by a paranoid sheriff in the town of Hope, Washington. He's arrested and mistreated, triggering some nasty flashbacks that culminates with Rambo escaping out of the jail. He wounds the deputies in the woods nearby, plots revenge against the cruel sheriff, but ultimately turns himself in to his former commander, Colonel Trautman.
It's kind of a sad tale, and makes you think twice about war veterans.
But no matter, "First Blood 2: The Mission" is a satisfying continuation of this vet's story. If the first film was about creating a tortured figure we can sympathize with, the second flick is all about letting this guy out of his cage so we can watch him kill shit. He's set loose in the same jungle where all his inner conflict was born, and he finally gets to exorcise some of these inner demons.
Through violence, of course.
What's the mission?
Colonel Trautman arrives at the Veterans Administration Hospital to discover that Rambo is being held in an isolation cell that hasn't been used since the Spanish Inquisition.
Rambo laments that back in 'Nam, he flew million dollar gunships but now no one trusts him to park cars. He's the last survivor of his Special Forces unit and he feels like he's coming out of his skin. Even though he's won a handful of medals, including five Purple Hearts, we learn that all he really wanted was one person to come up to him and say, "You did good, John."
And mean it.
To which Trautman says, "You just picked the wrong war to be a hero in."
It's tragic, but before we can dwell on that, Rambo is taken outside and introduced to Kirkhill (Murdoch in Stallone's draft), a CIA spook. He's part of the Special Operations Unit and he's authorized to free Rambo.
But only if Rambo is willing to take a job in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and find some POWs. Rambo's only scruple is that he doesn't like to work with spooks (not since Cambodia), but he can't resist rescuing fellow soldiers. He's in.
Where are the POWs?
An abandoned Vietnam army base in the highlands may have a compound that's being used as an internment camp.
It's a two phase operation: Recon and rescue.
But Rambo is part of the recon phase, not part of the assault team. He's only supposed to take photos to confirm the presence of POWs.
At this point, Rambo senses there's something fishy in Denmark.
And he's right.
There's a subcommittee leaning on Kirkhill's back. The League of Families is pressuring Congress so Congress is pressuring the CIA. The US government really doesn't want to find any POWs (who wants to spend billions of dollars in war reparations to get a few guys back whose brains are in a blender?), they just want the League off their backs.
But they have to make a good show of it. Uncle Sam's orders.
So Rambo has a sidekick in Cameron's draft, right?
Yeah, whom he meets in Bangkok when he cuts in front of Rambo whilst waiting in line for a taxi. Rambo overhears the guy giving his cover away to a prostitute, and he quickly yanks the guy out of the taxi and threatens to kill him.
This is Brewer.
A young buck Rambo is shackled to who blew up a Colonel's golf cart with his M-19. "He wasn't in it or was the symbolic value." He took the job to get out of the brig and sees the outing as a chance to "have a Jacuzzi and get laid in Bangkok".
At the operations base we meet the flight crew who are going to drop Rambo and Brewer into the jungle. They're ex-Marines now working as private contractors.
A Cameron backstabber is always going to be a company man or merc who is always more loyal to money than personal responsibility, morals and honor (well, except for Colonel Quaritch from Avatar, who is more of a direct antagonist).
So what happens in the jungle?
Sans the moment where Rambo has to cut himself loose from the copter, the structure used in the movie is the same.
Our guys land in the jungle, where they quickly meet Night Orchid at the ruins of a fifteenth century Buddhist temple. Co Phuong Bo is their contact on this side of the terrain.
Co earned a Masters Degree in Economics from the University of Saigon, where she was recruited by the ARVN, whom we aided during the war. Her brother was a Captain in the ARVN who fled to the United States with her son to escape execution. The only catch was that she had to stay in Vietnam and work for them.
Co arranges them transportation via river pirates, and they infiltrate the camp where they quickly discover the existence of POWs. Not one to just let a guy suffer in a cage, Rambo frees a man named De Fravio, an Air Force Lieutenant who is now a walking skeleton.
They try to escape via the river pirates again, but get sold out. Of course, they kill the river pirates.
While they are hauling ass to the extraction point, Kirkhill learns that they've found a POW and he orders the helicopter to turn around. Trautman is on board the helicopter and pulls a gun on the pilot, but the merc's pull their guns on him. They want their payday, so they're going by Kirkhill's orders.
So, our heroes are captured at the extraction point and this is where it really gets entertaining.
They're tortured right?
Yep, and not only that, but Soviet Lt. Commander Podovsk arrives with his Russian muscle, Palyushin, to interrogate Rambo. "I was sent here because of my command of your language. It will be frustrating if we cannot have a nice chat. Very frustrating."
They electrocute Rambo. It gets ugly when Podovsk reads a communications transcript to him, "It seems they intentionally abandoned you on direct orders."
Okay, so the odds are stacking up against Rambo.
He's got these fucking Russians, all the VC, and now Kirkhill has become an enemy.
How is Rambo going to get out of this mess, save the POWs, and get revenge?
Through a crescendoing series of escapes and kills that gives the 12 Trials of Hercules a run for its money.
So well in fact, that we can credit Cameron for creating yet another iconic character for our cultural story consciousness. The prototypical, modern day mythic action hero we know as Rambo.
Before Cameron's involvement, Rambo was just a sad drifter that got pushed around one too many times. But he changed that. He spun the character, resurrecting him into something that burned into the minds of the populace, recreating him as something bigger than life.
It starts with an escape out of the POW camp with the help of Co. It's pure mayhem and there's a combined VC/Soviet Army on the hunt for two people.
Rambo stealthily breaks some necks, first with his bare hands, then with some vines. A dude dies when the muddy wall behind him reveals that it has eyeballs; the guy is gutted like a pig. Soldiers succumb to crossbow bolts. Palyushin's helicopter arrives and kills Co with its minigun fire.
Co's death results in the mass murder of our enemies.
The army traps Rambo in a field of elephant grass, but Rambo sets everyone on fire with gasoline. Palyushin starts dropping canisters of napalm on Rambo, but Rambo somehow gets into the helicopter and fistfights the big Russian. Things end badly for Palyushin when Rambo kills him at point blank range, INSIDE OF THE HELICOPTER, with the minigun.
So, Rambo takes the helicopter and goes back to the internment camp. Killing everyone. He rescues Brewer and the POWs, but is then pursued by Podovsk in his higher tech Soviet copter.
"Hell, this is just like fucking Star Wars, man!"
De Fravio is puzzled. "Star Wars?"
Brewer grins. "You're gonna love it."
There's a minigun battle and Rambo manages to win. It's cool, but I do prefer Stallone's version where he feigns death, and suddenly pops up with a rocket launcher and takes out Podovsk.
Back at the operations base, Rambo has his moment with Kirkhill, scaring the shit out of him, "Mission accomplished."
Then Rambo finally gets to hear what he always wanted to hear when De Fravio is being carted off on a stretcher, "You did good, buddy. Real good."
So do you prefer one draft to another, Rog?
You know, I'm not sure. Stallone is using the structure and action beats Cameron laid out, sans some of the accoutrement. But I like many of Stallone's changes. Particularly this dialogue exchange between Rambo and Co:
"That why they pick you? Because you like to fight?"
"I'm expendable."
"Expendable. What mean expendable?"
"It's like...when someone invites you to a party and you don't show up. It doesn't really matter."
I think it's a case of successful collaboration, where the movie just wouldn't be the same without both of Cameron's and Stallone's involvement.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Planting and payoffs. There's a moment in this story where Co infiltrates the internment camp by pretending to be a prostitute. It's how she's able to aid Rambo in his escape. Sounds a bit outlandish right? Why does it work? Because earlier, when our heroes first make it to the camp, they see that there's a prostitute on bicycle propositioning the guards. They let her in. This is a case where a solution was planted in the plot early in the script. It lays the groundwork in the audience's mind for what's to come, and it pays off when Co uses it as a ruse. Do you have payoffs in your scripts without planting? Look through them. Without proper planting, those pay-off moments will come off as plot glitches.