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. Lionsgate has released the four Rambo films on Blu-ray before, but now repackages them in one handy collector's edition. If you've got the previous releases, there's nothing new here at all, you can safely move on. While Lionsgate has dubbed this release Rambo: The Complete Collector's Set, it puzzlingly does not include the extended cut of the fourth film, available only as a single disc release. I guess calling it Rambo: The Incomplete Collector's Set would have been a bad business move, but regardless, this set contains only the theatrical edition of that most recent film.
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 himself 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 its 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.
The forth film in the ongoing saga of John Rambo, simply titled Rambo, successfully accomplishes the near impossible task of revitalizing a franchise that had, to be blunt, become a bit of a joke. While the first entry in the series, First Blood, was a nice blend of action, suspense and drama but the second and third entries were more than just a little bit silly, even if they were a fun time at the movie. Following the success of Rocky Balboa (which also successfully brought back a clichéd character), Stallone's wound up standing as one of the best action films of the last ten years.
When the picture begins, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is living the life of a recluse in Thailand where he makes a meager living catching and selling snakes and by bringing people up and down the nearby river in his antiquated wooden boat. Rambo enjoys the quiet life and minds his own business but when a group of American Christian missionaries, lead by Michael Burnett (Paul Schulze of The Sopranos), attempt to hire him to bring them upriver into war-torn Burma, he's eventually persuaded thanks to the sincerity of one of the missionaries, Sarah Miller (Julie Benz of TV's Angel).
After taking down a boatload of Burmese pirates, Rambo successfully drops the crew off in Burma and is told that they'll be leaving by ground and that his services are no longer needed. He heads back home but is soon notified by an American minister (Ken Howard) affiliated with the group that they've been abducted by a Major Tint (Maung Maung Khin). He persuades Rambo to bring a group of mercenaries to the spot where he last saw the missionaries so that they can bring them out of Burma alive. While the mercenaries, lead by a surly Englishman named Lewis (Graham McTavish), don't want Rambo's help, they soon find that they have no choice in the matter and he finds himself drawn back in to the life he thought he'd finally left behind.
Lean, mean, and astonishingly violent, Rambo builds to one of the most gratuitously blood soaked conclusions seen in a mainstream motion picture in a long, long time. Heads are blown off, torsos explore, throats are ripped out, landmines fling body parts into the air and machine guns turn men into goo and it's honestly surprising that this film passed with an R-rating. That said, there's more to Rambo than just carnage. The picture builds with a palpable intensity and it's interesting to see Stallone's character reluctantly work his way back into his former self and face the life he tried to leave behind head on. The picture also attempts to make some sort of social commentary by shedding some light on the realities of life in Burma, a country that's been suffering the effects of war for decades.
Stallone, who directed and co-wrote the film with Art Monterastelli, is as cold as ice as the man of few words who decides to die for something rather than live for nothing and he brings a delicious sense of menace to the part that has been lacking in past entries. Rambo is scary here, he's a powder keg waiting to explode and explode he does once the action moves to the internment camp where the missionaries are being held. The supporting cast members are all fine in their parts, but this really is Stallone's show all the way through and the cinematography really plays up his sour face and burly features. The film also takes a more realistic approach to war this time around, with Rambo working with a team rather than as the one man wrecking crew he'd become by the time that Rambo III hit theaters. This gives us a more believable film that uses violence as a ways of delivering its message rather than as the message itself. The end result is an interesting, tense, exciting and fairly bleak action film that doesn't let up and hits all the right notes.
The first three films in the set are all presented in 2.35.1 1080p high definition anamorphic widescreen and generally the transfers are pretty good. They do show their age in spots and so don't quite have the clarity of pop that more modern action films might have on Blu-ray, but they certainly offer significantly increased detail and color reproduction when compared to their standard definition counterparts. The first film looks fairly bright in the daytime scenes that take place outdoors and becomes increasingly dark as the film's tone shifts. The transfer replicates this well, from the scenes that take place in the woods to the shots that were done inside the cave. Detail is generally quite strong and skin tones lifelike and fairly natural. Print damage is surprisingly faint, and grain is never overabundant. The second film looks a little bit softer than the first one but still holds up well for a movie made roughly twenty-five years ago. Some filtering employed in the camera work seems to suck out a bit of fine detail but the picture looked like this one standard definition as well, so it's likely inherent in the cinematographer rather than a transfer flaw. Colors look good here, particularly once the action moves to the jungle, while black levels and shadow detail are strong. Skin tones are good, despite the aforementioned softness evident in some spots, and generally speaking this is a pretty strong effort. Rambo III is on par, visually speaking, with the first two films in the series in that it shows pretty decent detail and is an obvious improvement over the standard definition release. Again, colors are pretty nice looking, appearing realistic and not over saturated or blown out. The Afghani locations show fairly impressive background detail in spots while black levels remain pretty consistent. Overall, for a trio of slightly older action movies, the first three films in the series look just fine on Blu-ray. They may not be demo material, but the picture quality here is solid.
Lionsgate presents Rambo on Blu-ray in a nice 2.35.1 1080p AVC anamorphic widescreen transfer that does a very nice job of replicating how the film looked in theaters earlier this year, meaning that the colors are intentionally bleached a bit and that the picture is constantly gritty looking. That's how the film looked on the big screen, and that's just how it looks on Blu-ray as well. This results in some detail loss where the image should otherwise be crisp and sharp. That said, the transfer is quite well done and there's certainly no shortage of little details to pick out, particularly in facial close-ups and tighter interior shots. Color reproduction is solid (though again, flatter than you might expect) with whites and lighter colors looking hot. There aren't any problems with compression artifacts nor are there any issues with heavy edge enhancement or shimmering effects. Grain is moderate in some spots, intentionally so, but there isn't any actual print damage to complain about. The greens and browns of the jungle look nice and accurate though black levels could have been a touch inkier, at times showing a blue tint. The reds, important during the carnage of the last half hour of the movie, are nice and bright without looking oversaturated and there's more detail during the various gore scenes than was evident during the theatrical presentation this reviewer attended. This may not be a reference quality Blu-ray transfer, but it absolutely looks as good as it needs to, maybe even a little better.
The first three films receive English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio tracks with optional subtitles offered up in English and Spanish. Surround activity is limited at times but generally the mixes spread things out fairly well. Bass response is reliable enough if never quite bombastic while surround channels play well with the sound effects and the score. Dialogue is always easy to understand and follow and the levels are well balanced. Free of any hiss or distortion, these tracks may not offer the immersive experience that the fourth film brings to the table, but they do sound good for their age.
Rambo is the recipient of a spiffy 7.1 DTS HD Master Audio track in the film's native English language and a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix for the optional French dub that has been included. Removable subtitles are provided in English and Spanish. How does it all shape up? Quite nicely! This is a very aggressive and impressive sound mix that makes great use of the surround channels and the sub during the action sequencing. Bullets fly around during the shoot outs and the explosions used in the film pack a serious wallop. On the flip side, the quieter scenes are nice and clear with very distinct dialogue and some nice subtle background sound effects. The score has some nice bounce and punch to it and the levels are all very well balanced. Bass response is very strong and directional effects are well placed within the soundstage.
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. There's also a second commentary track included here with author David Morrell who wrote the novel that the film was based on. Morrell has a lot to say about the picture, including where some of his ideas and inspiration came from, how the movie differs from the book, what he appreciates about the film and how he feels about Stallone's performance. It's quite a good track, one well worth listening to.
In addition to the commentaries, 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.
A featurette entitled Drawing First Blood (22:33) is an interesting retrospective look at the making of the picture and its influence that discusses some ideas that were used and some that were not, including some alternate casting choices. The commentary covers a fair bit of the same ground but this is good stuff never the less. Rounding out the extras on the first disc are some trailers, menus, and an interactive trivia track.
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.
There's also a featurette here entitled This Time We Get To Win (20:02) which discusses alternate story ideas for the film, casting choices, locations, and more. It covers some very different ground from that covered in the commentary track, which makes it quite interesting to watch. Again, closing out the disc are trailers, menus, and an interactive trivia track.
Rambo III gets slightly more features than the two earlier (and better) films for some reason. There's a commentary track on this disc 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 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).
Like the two discs before it, this disc also includes a commentary. Afghanistan: A Country In Crisis (29:45) takes a look at the political spectrum behind the events portrayed in the movie. It manages to give an interesting, if relatively brief, history of the country and the problems that it faces by using some interesting archival clips and talking head points to explain why the film was set in this country. Menus and trailers round out the disc.
First up, concerning the supplemental material for Rambo, is an audio commentary track with co-writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone. There are two ways you can enjoy this track, the first of which is standard audio commentary mode where Stallone simply talks over the film. The second option is a Blu-ray exclusive picture-in-picture mode called Bonus View which embeds a bunch of interesting silent behind the scenes footage and periodically launches some exclusive featurettes into a window on top of the feature film itself. Seeing as this film was Stallone's baby through and through it would stand to reason that the man has a lot to say about the history of this production. He talks about the location shooting in Thailand and about some of the other ideas that almost turned into the movie we see before us. He gives some interesting insight into the character and the changes that Rambo goes through in this film and about many of the criticisms that have been levied against him and his films over the years. He talks about how he genuinely wanted to turn a light on in regards to what's happening in Burma and why, and he spends a fair bit of time discussing the reality and the politics that have made that unfortunate situation what it is. All in all, this is an excellent commentary that does a great job of enlightening us as to what went into making this picture but also giving us some insight into Stallone's creative process. The Bonus View option is incorporated well alongside the commentary and the transitions to and from the feature to the featurettes and behind the scenes footage is reasonably smooth and it also adds some visual evidence to a lot of what Stallone discusses on the track.
Up next is a series of six featurettes relating to the film (and all of which are presented in high definition):
It's A Long Road: The Resurrection Of An Icon (19:44) - This is a look at who did what on the movie as it includes interviews with most of the key cast and crewmembers all of whom have some interesting stories to share about their experiences on set. Mixed in with the interviews are some behind the scenes clips that give us a look at what life was like on set. Stallone begins the piece by talking about why it took him so long to want to make another Rambo movie as he really wanted it to be more than just a caper, he wanted it to have some significance. The producers talk about how the movie left the Caralco stable and wound up being produced as an independent film and there's some discussion here as to the 'almost' storyline about Rambo heading to Mexico to deal with a kidnapping (this is also discussed in the commentary) and they also talk about how some United Nations discussion lead to the switch to place the film in the Burmese conflict. This is an interesting look at the path this film took from idea to finished product.
A Score To Settle: The Music Of Rambo (6:31) - This is a peek at the work that composer Brian Tyler did for the film and how his score was used in the picture. He talks about the late, great Jerry Goldmsith and gives credit where credit is due in that department, as he scored the original film which influenced his work on this film and he also talks about what it was like working with Stallone on this project. Stallone, on the other hand, shows up to talk about how much he enjoyed working with Tyler and how much he liked the score.
The Art Of War: Completing Rambo - This featurette is produced in two parts. The first part, Editing (6:47), begins with Stallone talking about cutting the film in his garage but soon lets editor Sean Albertson discuss his work on the project and his relationship with Stallone (they first worked together on Rocky Balboa). The two discuss timelines and deadlines and some of the quirks involved in editing a film like this as well as the importance of the editing in this picture. The second part, Sound (3:15), covers the sound mix that Albertson helped create for the film. Albertson talks about what Stallone wanted for the film while the two sound editors who were brought on board to finish the project discuss Stallone's intuitive directing style. These two featurettes give us a look at the importance of some of the post-production work that is very important to the success of any film.
The Weaponry Of Rambo (14:23) - This documentary explores the various weapons that show up to different degrees in the film and how Stallone wanted things to be as authentic as possible in this department to further accentuate the realism he wanted in the film. The weapons supervisor, Ken Johnson, shows up and talks about his work on the picture, Stallone noting that he's been nicknamed 'eager beaver over achiever' due to his insane eye for detail. There's a fair bit of behind the scenes clips in here that show how literally thousands of items were picked to be used in the film. This, again, is something that we don't usually see covered in behind the scenes material and it's nice to be able to learn about what goes into this aspect of filmmaking, from the sniper rifles to the machine guns to the truck mounted machine gun that Rambo uses in the finale. Look for a brief alternate scene to show up in here.
A Hero's Welcome: Release And Reaction (9:31) - This featurette starts off with some footage from the film's opening night with many of the cast and crew in attendance. Interview segments let performers, producers and the like discuss the opening at the 1500 seat theater in Las Vegas where the film debuted. Who knew Arnold Schwarzenegger turned up? He's here, along with a few other interesting people. They also discuss the marketing for the film as well as the poster art and how the movie was really embraced by members of the U.S. military. Stallone talks about how many celebrities have taken it upon themselves to shed lead on atrocities around the world but how no one really seems to have done much about Burma, and about if you're caught with a copy of this film on DVD you can go to prison for ten years. The lovely Ms. Benz talks about how her work on this film lead her to help out in a diplomatic sense to shed light on the events and Stallone ends the piece by stating that he hopes this film will be a rallying point to have more attention paid to these problems. A perfect way to end this featurette, and into segue into the last (and most important) one...
Legacy Of Despair: The Struggle In Burma (10:42) - Here we learn how and why Stallone chose to set the film around Burma, which he found through some research to be considered by many to be one of the nastiest places on earth. Some people who grew up in Burma chime in to talk about how on the forties it was a nice place to live but once the country gained its independence from Great Britain, the civil war broke out and now the government controls everything. There are child soldiers, torture is used, soldiers will shoot to kill, and you can be held in prison for whatever reason the military regime wants to make up. The military regime in power really only uses their weapons against the rebels in the country. In 2007 a group of unarmed Buddhist monks marched and prayed for an end to the violence and the military opened fire on them and killed over two hundred people. Subsequently, monasteries were raided and destroyed and many monks had to go into hiding or leave and flee to Thailand. People from various political groups chime in and talk about how the Karen people have been targeted more than others and how the Burmese military are taking over their land. Lots of actual footage helps this piece really hit hard and as such, this featurette is a real eye opener in a lot of ways.
From there, be sure to check out the selection of Deleted Scenes that can be found on the disc. You can watch then via a 'play all' button or individually and the scenes are as follows: Do You Believe In Anything? (2:29, a discussion between Rambo and Sarah regarding Rambo's decision to help the missionaries),Who Are You Helping? (4:42, a discussion between Rambo and Sarah about the merits of the missionary work - this is an extended version of the same discussion we see in the film),Boat Ride (4:12, Sarah talks to Rambo as he pilots the boat upriver, extended from the same scene used in the feature allowing Rambo to elaborate on his past a little more), and Let's Keep Going! (2:21, Rambo helps Sarah with her wounded foot and he wraps her wound).These are all presented in 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen though the video quality isn't quite as sharp as that seen in the feature film. The audio is presented in English language only, Dolby Digital 48 kHz 224 kbps 2.0 Stereo.
Lionsgate has also included a Molog feature for profile 2.0 compatible Blu-ray players. When enabled, this interactive feature connects to the internet and allows viewers to engage in discussions with other viewers and to Blog about the film in real time. The initial download takes a few minutes but once the little yellow bar is done moving and the setup is complete you can monkey around with audio clips, make nifty little animations, modify groups and objects and create simple animations and talk about the movie as it plays out if that's your bag.
Rounding out the supplements is a Rambo Series Trailer Gallery where widescreen trailers for all four films in the series can be found. Some spiffy animated menus and chapter stops are included as is a bookmarking option and trailers for a few other, unrelated Lionsgate Blu-ray releases.
If you've got the previous Lionsgate Blu-ray releases of the four films contained in this collection, there's absolutely no reason at all to bother with this one as it brings nothing new to the game and really only exists to cash in on the (at the time of this writing) theatrical release of The Expendables and rather frustratingly omits the inclusion of the fourth film's extended cut. That said, if you didn't pick those up single discs and are a fan of Stallone or action films in general, this set is a pretty easy package to recommend. The audio and video quality don't rival the best out there, but the transfers and sound mixes are generally quite good as are the extra features.
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.