Sylvester Stallone's career has seen a sharp upswing since the one-two punch of Rocky Balboa and Rambo. The latter in particular had fans chomping at the bit, as it heralded the return of the hard "R" action film, reminding everyone just how much fun there you could have while indulging in gratuitous, senseless violence. And more than that, it was just nice to see the beloved character return to the big screen for one last romp that satisfyingly wrapped up the loose ends of the character. Rambo put its predecessors in perspective, proving that one can stage gory action sequences without sacrificing character development and plot. It also tied back in to First Blood, a picture that that has only gotten better with age. To coincide with the release of Rambo on home video, Lionsgate has released the first three Rambo films on Blu-ray.
In the film that started it all, Sylvester Stallone plays the title character, a Vietnam War vet who is unable to find a place in the States after returning from duty. While hitching through a small town, he's harassed and eventually arrested by the local sheriff (Brian Dennehy). Falling into a Vietnam flashback, Rambo breaks free and escapes into the woods surrounding the town. The sheriff and his men follow, only to be beaten back by Rambo's survival instinct and guerilla warfare tactics. In desperation, the town turns to Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), Rambo's former commanding officer.
First Blood is one of the indisputable highlights of Stallone's career. It's a thinking man's action film, with intelligent direction and a fully realized character in John Rambo. The scenes in the woods are tense and thrilling and the investment you have in the characters pays those sequences off even more. The theme of loss of place and identity is surprisingly deep for this kind of flick. Once the explosions start, the audience has fully bought in to the characters and the scenario, making the finale poignant and touching. First Blood is, along with Rocky, the highlight of Stallone's career, and a film that only gets better with age.
Rambo - First Blood, Part II:
After the events in First Blood, John Rambo is in prison. He's released by Trautman, who recruits Rambo to locate several remaining Vietnam POWs. Rambo, seeing this as his chance to redeem himself, dives headlong into the mission. But when he actually does find prisoners, the mission's CO, Marshall Murdock (Charles Napier), leaves Rambo at the mercy of the Vietnamese, who are actually being funded by the Russians. But Rambo, being Rambo, isn't going to take things lying down, and soon he's off waging a one man war against anyone standing in his way.
As beloved as Rambo is, he's also one of the most parodied characters in popular culture. All of the most oft-ridiculed elements first appeared in First Blood, Part II (often referred to as Rambo II). Despite a script by future blockbuster director James Cameron, Rambo II cannot recapture the striking power of First Blood. And while the story does allow redemption for Rambo, it comes at the price of the authenticity of the piece. Rambo II is nothing but wish fulfillment of the basest kind. Rambo goes from a sensitive and tortured soul to an unstoppable killing machine. To its credit, the film offers up some of the best action the 80's had to offer. Throughout First Blood, Trautman talked about how Rambo was a master at guerilla warfare, and in Rambo II, we get to see what he's talking about. The film is frequently pulse pounding, with some of the best set pieces in the series. It's just a shame they had to come at the expense of the heart of the character.
Rambo, now living in a Buhddist monastery, is approached by Trautman and invited to partake in a mission to Afghanistan to aid the freedom fighters in their battle against the Soviet Union. Rambo declines, only to be informed several days later that Trautman has been kidnapped. Determined to rescue his mentor, Rambo joins with a band of Mujahedeen and once again proceeds to wage a war of vengeance.
If First Blood was the reality, and Rambo II the fantasy, then Rambo III is a cartoon. Aside from one scene of lip service at the beginning of the film, the idea that Rambo is at all bothered by the atrocities of war is long gone. In its place, we get the most ridiculous and over the top action in the series. The filmmakers softened Rambo's character, giving him a kid sidekick and throwing in several jokes that don't at all jive with the seriousness of the events being depicted. Even worse, the film is punctuated by useless sequences that don't move the film forward at all, including a stick fight at the beginning and Rambo engaging in a sports game involving a dead sheep (it doesn't make much more sense in context, either). Rambo II at least had some brilliant action to excuse its excesses. Rambo III has a few exciting moments (in particular a scene where Rambo cauterizes a particularly bad wound), but not enough to justify the absurdity. Thank goodness Stallone decided to revisit the character to give him an appropriate send off, because Rambo III is a sad way to end the series.
The Blu-ray Discs:
Lionsgate had previously released First Blood on Blu-ray, and released standalone versions of Rambo II and III simultaneously with this set. While the studio is releasing a box set with all four films on DVD, they're only offering the first three in this Blu-ray box. The fourth film can be purchased separately.
In many ways, Rambo is an 80's archetype, and that includes the shooting style of the three pictures. They're all soft and diffused. Rambo II is probably the worst offender in this department, with blurred edges in many of the shots, probably as a result of the anamorphic lenses used. So, that being said, all three of these 2.35:1 1080p transfers (AVC for First Blood, VC-1 for Rambo II and III) look pretty darn good. All three have good detail, shadows, and color balance. None look too faded. The greens of the forest in First Blood and the jungle in Rambo II really pop. II also offers some fantastic imagery in the forms of waterfalls and other scenic views. Rambo III, being the most recent, has the most clarity to it, but I noticed some slight print damage near the end of the film. Similarly, I saw what looked to be like an encoding error in II, although its so brief that most people would miss it. Given the soft nature of the original cinematography, these three films look pretty darned good.
Lionsgate has chosen to use DTS for all three Rambo pictures. First Blood gets a DTS-HD (lossy) 5.1 mix that is tinny and front heavy, due to the state of the original elements. Rambo II gets a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, but it's pretty much wasted, as the mix almost never uses the surrounds, except during the big fight sequences. Rambo III also gets a lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix, which is the only one in the set that lives up to the 5.1 part of its name. I noticed quite a few directional effects, although the track is practically embryonic compared to the dynamic and engrossing mixes we get today.
- Commentary by Sylvester Stallone: People always make fun of Stallone for mumbling his way through his movies, but he's highly listenable in this absolutely essential commentary. Stallone is warm and forthcoming, cracking jokes as easily as small remembrances. He even sings a personalized version of the "Addams Family" theme! A track very much worth hearing.
- Commentary with writer David Morrell: While not as much of a grand slam as Stallone's track, screenwriter David Morrell still has quite a lot to say about First Blood. His track complements Stallone's nicely, and he really is quite knowledgeable.
- Drawing First Blood: A 22-minute retrospective, with interviews from Stallone, the novel's author, director Ted Kothceff, and more. At 22 minutes, it's hardly comprehensive, but it gives you a good quick overview, and some perspectives aside from Sly and Morrell's.
- Deleted Scenes: Actually, two deleted scenes and an outtake. First is the infamous "Rambo dies" ending. The second is a nude-arific flashback to a Vietnamese whorehouse (a.k.a. best deleted scene ever). Finally, we get an entertaining outtake. Not a whole lot of footage, but it's all high quality.
- "Out of the Blu" Trivia Track: All three discs have a pop-up trivia track. Almost all of the info in these tracks can be found in the other special features, and it seems that for the second two, they simply pasted in facts from the commentaries...as they're being said. Lazy.
- Trailer: Not for the original film, but for the new Rambo, and in 1080p. Available on all three discs.
- Commentary by Director George P. Cosmatos: Cosmatos was responsible for the slick action in Rambo II, but his commentary is dry and his accent makes it hard to listen to.
- We Get To Win This Time: Another twenty minute documentary, this one with pretty much every major participant except for James Cameron. The tone is very celebratory, but everyone knew what kind of movie they were making. The best part are the interviews with the editors, who talk about some of the tricks they used and the notes from Stallone about "arrow travel time."
- "Out of the Blu" Trivia Track and Trailer.
- Commentary with Director Peter MacDonald: Director MacDonald talks about some of the hardships endured in shooting the third film, including how he took over directing duties when the film's original director, Highlander's Russell Mulcahy, quit. At times MacDonald finds himself narrating the onscreen action, but overall this is a better commentary than Cosmatos'.
- Afghanistan - Land In Crisis: A more socially aware documentary, this one running thirty minutes but feeling even longer. A large portion of it is devoted to the history of the Afghani/Soviet conflict, and how neglect on the part of the U.S. led to the country being infested by terrorists. Stallone shows his admiration for the Mujahedeen and several prominent Afghani rights' activists appear as well. Eventually the featurette winds its way back to the film, in time for Sly to talk about how poorly received it was, due to the end of the Cold War.
- "Out of the Blu" Trivia Track and Trailer.
John Rambo has become an inescapable part of our culture, and with the release of his latest and final adventure, Rambo, it was high time the rest of the series got released on Blu-ray. This box set contains the first three pictures, which go from great to good to not so good. But no matter how silly the movies may get, there's always some good action to pull the audience through. All three movies look pretty darn good in high def, and there's a decent set of extras spread across the discs. Combined with the fourth film, the material in this set offers some essential action viewing. Highly Recommended.
The images in this review do not reflect the image quality on the Blu-ray discs.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.