Rambo. A name synonymous with non-stop over the top action, lunkheaded one-liners, and sweaty, dirty headbands. A moving and tense novel by David Morrell was turned into an equally moving and tense motion picture that set into play the seeds for one of the most deliriously over the top action hero franchises of the 1980s - a decade known for over the top action hero franchises. The original spawned two sequels, which in turn inspired a cartoon series, a Commodore 64 video game, comic books, a toy line, and started a combat knife craze that I'm sure got many a young man in trouble with his parents.
Rambo – First Blood:
Set amongst the beauty of the Pacific Northwestern United States, a transient named John Rambo searches out the surviving members of his former Vietnam unit, only to find that they are all dead. While Rambo may have earned a Medal of Honor in The 'Nam, he's now looked down upon by the local police (represented here by Brian Dennehy as Sheriff Teasle) who attempt to run him out of town but end up throwing him in jail. After suffering some abuse at the hands of the fuzz (which causes him to have a flashback), Rambo makes a daring escape and grabs a dirt bike to get the Hell out of town.
Sheriff Teasle and his men chase after him, and one of the cops tries to shoot Rambo down. Rambo responds in kind, and in defending himself inadvertently takes the officer's life. Teasle shoots Rambo once, but it isn't enough and he's off into the woods. Rambo's former commanding officer, Colonel Samuel Trautman (Richard Crenna), shows up on the scene to try and talk Teasle out of bringing Rambo back dead, but Teasle is out for blood and wants nothing more than Rambo's head. The National Guard are called in to help take him down, but will even their might prove to be enough to stop one of the country's finest trained killing machines?
Rambo – First Blood is a fine film. It's played perfectly straight and is a tense action thriller that makes great use of the forest and small town setting, allowing its central characters a great environment in which to chase each other around. Say what you will about the direction that Stallone's career has taken but he's great here in the title role and does a fine job as the tall, dark and silent misunderstood man who finds him self in a whole heap of trouble in spite of himself. Brian Dennehy is perfectly easy to hate as the Sheriff, which makes him a great choice for the part, and Richard Crenna brings a level headed coolness to Col. Trautman that balances out the protagonist and antagonist quite nicely.
While on top the film may seem like just another action movie, below the surface it does have a heart, playing Rambo as a rather sympathetic character who is paying the price for having the guts to serve his country in an unappreciated war. His flashbacks may make him mentally unstable in a sense, but it's because of his patriotism and his love of his country that he has them in the first place, and it's now that very same country chasing him through the forests of Washington State trying to kill him for something that he isn't wholly responsible for. It makes for an interesting paradox, and ranks this film up as a considerably more intelligent film than it's two mindless, though very entertaining sequels. Speaking of which…
Rambo – First Blood Part II:
Throwing all the seriousness of the first film out the window, Rambo – First Blood Part II finds out buddy John busted out of prison by his old pal, Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna again). Why on Earth would a respect military official bust a cop-killing veteran out of prison? Why, because the government needs his help again, this time for a top secret mission to bring back a handful of POWs that are still being held captive in the jungles of Vietnam, that's why.
The government wants Rambo to do nothing but take pictures of the location where the POWs have been locked up, but Rambo takes this mission a little more personally than he probably should and once he lands in the thick of it, old habits come roaring back fast and you just know he has to spring them – his conscience wouldn't let him do otherwise. He soon meets up with a gorgeous Vietnamese rebel named Co Bao (Julia Nickson who fought alongside the mighty Chuck Norris in Sidekicks) and the two freedom fighters set off to save the unfortunate prisoners of war from the evil Vietnamese Captain Vinh (William Ghent). Once Rambo starts poking around, he finds that Vinh is working alongside Lieutenant Colonel Padovsky (Steven Berkoff) and it seems that the Russians are in on all of this!
Soon, Rambo starts to fall in love with Co Bao, which inevitably leads to her being killed by Captain Vinh. Now Rambo has two missions – he not only intends to avenge his lovers death, but he needs to free the POWs as well and he goes on a one man rampage through the jungles of Vietnam, laying waste to every Russian and Vietnamese soldier in his path. But what Rambo doesn't know is there is more to this than first meets the eye, and there just might be some involvement from a third party that he doesn't know about just yet.
There's really no way to realistically defend this film – in a sense it trivializes the war that so many people died for, and at the same time it portrays the Vietnamese in such a stereotypical way that it borders on racist (just listen to Co Bao's dialogue!). That being said, it's insanely entertaining. The action scenes are way too over the top to be even anything remotely resembling realistic, and the character of Rambo in this film is far more of a superhero than he is an 'everyman.' Stallone gets into the role as best he can, howling his way through the final rampage with his jowl to the side and his eyes ablaze, while Crenna once again brings a sense of calm to the film that it very desperately needs.
It's hard to take it seriously, it's hard to justify or defend, but it isn't hard at all to enjoy if you're able to turn your brain off for ninety minutes and watch stuff blow up. Something I am personally quite capable of. Considering the huge box office this film did on its release, obviously I'm not the only one.
The final film in the Rambo Trilogy fines Colonel Samuel Trautman (Crenna again) with the unfortunate task of leading a secret mission into the remote deserts of Afghanistan. Here he and his team will aid the Mujahedeen rebels in their quest to overthrow the Soviets currently controlling their country. Trautman asks Rambo to help him out on this one, but Rambo declines, as it contradicts his new found Buddhist beliefs.
So, Trautman heads off to Afghanistan with his motley crew looking for trouble. As anyone could have guess, the mission quickly goes horribly wrong and Colonel Trautman finds himself kidnapped by Colonel Zaysen (Marc De Jonge), an evil Russian despot.
Of course, once John Rambo hears that his pal is in the clutches of a Russian Communist maniac, he takes it upon himself to wage a one man rescue mission and free his friend and return him safely to American soil. He trucks off to Afghanistan and meets up with the Mujahedeenians, who he convinces to help him in his quest. They agree, and soon it's all out war.
Rambo III starts off well enough. It sets up the story simply and matter of factly but the idea of sending Trautman in without Rambo shows that he is his own character and that there is a military outside of Rambo and his world. Current events haven't aged the film particularly well, but you can't fault the writers for that as they had no way of looking into the future and knowing how things would shape up in this post 9/11 world we all call home. What you can fault them for is putting Rambo and his rebel amigos up against some of the most ridiculous situations imaginable, and that's exactly what they're responsible of in this, the third and silliest of the three films.
Once Rambo is set loose to rescue Trautman, the films ends up more or less a retread of the same territory covered in the second film. Trautman may as well be interchangeable with the POW's Rambo saved previously and there isn't really anything interesting done with the situation or the two leads aside from the standard 'blow stuff up shoot Commies' formula that we'd all seen by this point in time. Like the second film though, if you're able to turn off your brain and enjoy the brainless action film for what it is, Rambo III is a decent time killer, even if it is far from a classic in any sense.
All three of the movies in the trilogy were shot at 2.35.1 and that is how they are presented here, all three enhanced for anamorphic sets. These transfers didn't look much different than the last releases to my eyes, though that isn't a bad thing as they looked great. Colors are nice and bright throughout, there aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts, and edge enhancement, though present and noticeable in a few scenes, isn't too over the top. There is some mild print damage, mostly on the first film but also noticeable in the second two as well, but it isn't distracting and neither is the fine coat of grain that graces the three transfers. Overall, these movies look just fine.
Each of the three films comes with two audio options – a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix, and the original Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks. The 5.1 mixes sound great – they're very aggressive and quite active making nice use of the surround channels and the subwoofer as well. When shoot-outs occur or helicopters fly by or something explodes, the surround mixes do a good job of putting you in the middle of it all. Thankfully, the dialogue comes though loud and clear, never once overshadowed by the sound effects, environmental effects or background music.
The DTS tracks that were on the last Artisan releases are not present in this set. All three films also feature an optional English closed captioning option.
The first film is treated to a full-length audio commentary with Sylvester Stallone. He talks at length about his involvement with the film from day one, as well as certain nuances that he tried to bring to his character (he didn't want Rambo to be an intimidating man and tried to play him as such). While there is the odd instance of dead air from time to time, Sly keeps things pretty interesting, touching on how it was to work with a few of his costars as well as his relationship with the film's director.
In addition to the commentary, the first disc also features the oft talked about but rarely seen 'alternate suicide ending' that was shot for the film but never used. I won't go into details on this for fear of spoiling it for those who haven't seen it, but it is certainly an interesting contrast to the ending that was used in the final theatrical release of the film, and is much closer in tone to the ending of the original novel on which the movie is based. There are two other deleted scenes on this disc as well, one of which is a quick little outtake from the alternate ending, and the other one is a flashback that Rambo has to his time in Vietnam where he has a one night stand with a local prostitute.
Aside from that, there is also a feature called 'Survival Mode' that works very similar to the way that the New Line Infinifilm features work. As you play the movie, you have the option to hit the enter key to go to a screen to learn more about a certain aspect of the film. For example, when John Rambo is walking down the path to the house to meet up with his old war buddy, you can hit the enter key to go to a character dossier on Rambo and learn a little bit about his background. A lot of this information is pretty fluffy but there are a few interesting tidbits hidden away in there, most of which cover the military history behind the film. The 'Survival Mode' option is available for all three films in the set – it always works the same way and in the sequels as well as the first film, meets with fair to middling results in that it isn't always an interesting fact that you're taken to – it can be quite hit or miss.
Rambo - First Blood Part II features a commentary from director George Cosmatos. Though it isn't indicated on the packaging, the track can be accessed from the special features menu as well as by changing the audio track with your remote. Cosmatos seems like a good natured guy, and he offers plenty of stories and background information on some of the problems that they ran into shooting in the forest, how it was to work with Stallone, and how some of the action scenes had to differ from how they were originally conceived of in storyboard form.
Rambo III gets more features than the two earlier (and better) films for some reason. Again, there's an unmarked commentary track on this disc, this time from director Peter MacDonald. Peter talks about how and where certain scenes were shot based on the time of year they were shooting versus how the weather was shaping up. Interestingly enough, a lot of the film was shot in Arizona. He also discusses his cast and crew, as well as how it was to work with the American helicopter pilots that were used a lot throughout the movie.
In addition to the 'Survival Mode' and the commentary, there are also eight deleted scenes on this disc as well – an alternate opening sequence, a scene where Rambo is getting his knife ready for action, a scene where we witness an Afghani wedding, a scene where Zayson is interrogated again, a scene where Rambo shoots some more Russians, a scene with a lost tourist, and then two alternate endings (one of which is a blooper).
While the commentaries are most welcome, as are the deleted scenes, it would have been nice if the extra features from the earlier Artisan releases had been carried over- at the very least they could have included the trailers. To not have those features here, on this so-called 'Ultimate Edition' is an upset.
The films look and sound great and it's very cool to finally see the alternate ending for the first film. If you don't already own the previously released Artisan special editions of the films, this set isn't a bad purchase at all but if you do already have them in your collection, the reasons for double dipping are negligible. Regardless, the first film is a classic and the two sequels are big dumb fun. With that in mind, the Rambo: Ultimate Collection comes recommended, even if it is far from 'ultimate.'
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.