Sylvester Stallone's fortunes were looking decidedly down when he embarked upon a sixth Rocky picture. I remember the derision being heaped upon him as people considered the film to be the last cash in on his chips. After all, he hadn't made a movie worth seeing since arguably Copland in 1997, and even that wasn't a big hit. But then Sly proved everyone wrong by releasing a warm, touching, and uplifting film that recalled his glory days without ever losing sight of the man he was now. It was an inspirational effort and proved that Stallone had some creative juices left in him. Then came rumblings of a revival for his other trademark character, John Rambo. This time, the critics weren't so harsh, especially when it was revealed that Stallone would be directing, as he did on Rocky Balboa. But then, Rambo's adventures had become far more cartoonish and outlandish than Rocky's ever did, and the character was more of a joke in popular culture than anything else. Could Stallone capture lightning in a bottle twice?
It's been almost twenty years since John Rambo saved Colonel Trautman from Russian forces in Afghanistan, and in that time, he's moved across Southeast Asia, doing odd jobs. At the start of the film, Rambo is approached by a group of missionaries looking to charter his boat to help refugees in war-torn Burma. Rambo refuses, annoyed at the group's insistence that bringing in medical supplies and bibles will change anything in that part of the world. But he's persuaded by Sarah (Julie Benz), and against his better judgement, takes the group upriver. It's not long before the town they're aiding is attacked by the Burmese military, and the missionaries are taken hostage. When Rambo hears of the abduction, he takes a team of mercenaries into the jungle, prepared to do whatever it takes to save Sarah, even if it means losing his own life.
Rambo is proof that Sylvester Stallone, who has a had a hand in many of the screenplays for his films, has fully regained the storytelling powers he rediscovered on Rocky Balboa. Gone are the outrageous "one man war" antics of Rambo II and III. Instead, Stallone takes the series back to its roots. In Rambo III, Rambo had pretty much found peace with Buddhist monks. In Rambo, he's torn up inside again. The actions of his life have driven him away from everyone he's ever known or loved, and left him isolated and disconnected from the rest of humanity. Stallone plays the character stoically, building up reserves of energy to be unleashed upon those stupid enough to get in his way. It's a refreshing take on a character that had grown stale.
As a director, Stallone once again proves his mettle. Where Rocky Balboa was contemplative and mature, Rambo is unsettled. The camera is always subtly roving, keeping the audience on shaky ground. And the man knows how to ratchet up tension. There are several key sequences in the film which are absolutely spellbinding. But the real power is in the moments before the action begins, when the audience is holding their breath and you can hear a pin drop. The editing in those sequences is particularly strong.
But, of course, you're not going to watch a Rambo movie for the editing. You're there for the action. And this one delivers in spades. As high as the body counts were in the previous pictures, they're nothing compared to the symphony of death Stallone offers us in this film. In the special features, he said he wanted to portray the events in Burma as realistically as possible, which means we see graphic depictions of children being brutally murdered, men being maimed and killed, women being raped, and so on. For gore hounds, there's plenty of great stuff here, but it's not gratuitous. Stallone really wanted to bring attention to the situation in Burma, which gives the film a sense of purpose, something the previous two lacked.
Rambo II attempted to offer redemption to John Rambo by letting him indulge in his most violent tendencies, but in the service of saving Vietnamise prisoners of war. It was a hollow attempt, but Rambo gets it right. Here, the redemption comes from a true character arc, with Rambo going from tortured soul to a man who's willing to look past his own pain. It's a stunner of a comeback that can stand proudly next to First Blood, the only other film in the series to have such a deep emotional backdrop, while at the same time containing action that outdoes Rambo II and Rambo III. Turns out old Sly is still going strong.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Lionsgate presents Rambo in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 in this AVC-encoded 1080p transfer. Stylistically, Rambo is a gritty film, with blown out daytimes and dark, dark nights. It looks like the film went through some heavy digital processing, as fine detail is cut down at times. However, some of the daytime scenes on the river look nice and sharp, with the light reflecting the water beautifully. My biggest problem with the transfer is that the blacks almost universally are a muddy dark blue, which stood out to me, as I don't remember it being that way in the theaters. There's no blemishes on the print or compression artifacts, but I wasn't entirely impressed with the image here.
Lionsgate offers up a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track. The audio is at its best during the action sequences, which offer up an engaging and fully active track. The LFE will shake your seat when Rambo starts firing off those 50 caliber rounds, and the surrounds get a ton of use. I was a little surprised that the quieter scenes have much less surround activity than I expected, given that most of the film does take place in a jungle. Still, when this mix picks up, it really comes alive.
Lionsgate offers all the features from the two-disc DVD edition, plus more. All features are in high definition, except where noted.
- Commentary by Sylvester Stallone: Stallone gives another stellar commentary, talking candidly and openly about any and all aspects of the production. He's generous with his praise, but is more than willing to point out areas where the actors needed a little help. He's also very earnest about the situation in Burma and is clearly thankful that the film is helping to raise awareness.
- Bonus View Commentary: The same audio as the previous commentary, but now you get to see Sly watch the film and react to it, intercut with behind the scenes footage (no audio for the behind the scenes). Also, at certain points, the film pauses and goes into a featurette, with comments from many members of the cast and crew. None of these featurettes can be accessed from anywhere else on the disc. From what I can tell, they don't appear to be on the DVD, either, and are exclusive to the Blu-ray edition of the disc.
- It's A Long Road - The Resurrection of An Icon: An overview of the pre-production and actual shooting of the film. Interestingly, Stallone was signed to do Rambo before he got a deal for Rocky Balboa, and the producers agreed to bump the film so he could do Rocky when the opportunity came up. Also, even at his age, Stallone did his own stunts.
- A Score to Settle - The Music of Rambo: Jerry Goldsmith helped shape the series, doing three indelible scores, but his passing meant that the compositional duties had to be handed off to someone else. In this case, that someone else was Brian Tyler, who comments about how he's actually stood in for Goldsmith two times before. Stallone talks about what he wanted out of the score, and Tyler explains how he went about fulfilling Stallone's requests.
- The Art of War - Completing Rambo - Part I, Editing: Stallone shows off his sense of humor, claiming to have edited not only Rambo in his garage, but also Rocky Balboa, Black Hawk Down, and Gladiator, before introducing the film's actual editors. Stallone offered several hurdles for the editors, including the most footage the pair had ever received for a single film, and creating a hard R action flick.
- The Art of War - Completing Rambo - Part II, Sound: A much shorter featurette on the sound mix.
- The Weaponry of Rambo: The weapons of the mercenaries and the Burmese are looked at in a good amount of detail. Especially interesting are the higher caliber weapons.
- A Heroes Weclome - Release and Reaction: The least substantial of the featurettes, with the cast talking about how great the premiere was in Las Vegas. Of more interest is the reaction the film had in Burma, with the military regime being outraged, banning the picture and threatening anyone who watches it with a prison sentence.
- Legacy of Despair - The Struggle in Burma: Several human rights activists talk about the situation in Burma, and what they hope to achieve with their efforts. Towards the end they talk about the positive effect Rambo has had on their cause.
- Deleted Scenes: Mostly extra or extended scenes of dialogue between Rambo and Sarah. Some are superfluous, others less so.
- Molog: Lionsgate Blu-ray Profile 2.0 feature that has appeared now on a few of their discs, the Molog system seems a little strange to me. In this world of ubiquitous cell phones and other communication devices, do we really need to see other people's comments while a film is running? Surely it would be more fun to, I don't know, just sit down and watch the movie with your friends? Just seems like it wouldn't get much use.
- Rambo Series Trailers: Trailers for all four Rambo films in high definition.
- Digital Copy: A DVD is included in the set, which contains a digital copy of the film. I downloaded it and copied it to my iPhone without any problems. Now I walk around showing people the scene where Rambo rips out a guy's throat.
Rambo is another success for Stallone, and the first truly great entry in the series since First Blood. Stallone brings real pathos to the character, while also offering the best action of the four films, as well as some of the goriest and most brutal imagery seen in any film that isn't labeled torture porn. The Blu-ray set has great sound and an excellent set of high definition extras, some of which is not available at all on DVD. Sit back and prepare for some of the most visceral set pieces of 2008. Highly Recommended.
Note: The images in this review do not represent the image quality of the Blu-ray disc.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.