"We ain't huntin' him; he's huntin' us."
John Rambo would eventually cement himself as the action hero of the '80s, setting the template that...oh, pretty much every other action flick would rip off until Die Hard rolled around. Pop Culture Hero Rambo was still a few years off when First Blood made its bow in theaters, though. As this adaptation of David Morrell's novel opens, Rambo is a quiet drifter seeking out the last of his Green Beret buddies from a stint in 'Nam. When he finds out that his pal is dead -- killed not by guerilla soldiers but by cancerous chemicals the U.S. was slathering all over Vietnam -- Rambo realizes that everything he's known is gone.
Rambo can barely step foot in the sleepy Pacific Northwestern town of Hope before being carted off by the local sheriff. Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) doesn't want any drifters muddying up the place, and when Rambo doesn't march in lockstep with whatever it is Teasle's barking out, he's slapped in cuffs and practically tortured in jail. Rambo's still plagued by nightmares from his days in 'Nam, and all of this sends him off the deep end, carving a bloody path from the jail to a mountainous nearby forest. Teasle, shrugging off the fact that Rambo hadn't done anything to be dragged away in handcuffs in the first place, is hellbent on recapturing him. That's easier said than done, though: Rambo's fortified himself in the forest, and for a seasoned warrior trained to stay alive in a hellish jungle and an unrelentingly cruel war, he hardly breaks a sweat staving off Teasle and his hick posse. When an overzealous officer tumbles out of a helicopter and splatters himself across a bunch of rocks below, Teasle calls in the National Guard, and this gets the attention of the man who made Rambo the unstoppable force he is today: Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna). His warnings are ignored, though, and the small-scale war between Teasle and Rambo eventually spreads out of the forest and into the streets of downtown.
I'd watched First Blood over and over again growing up, and as much as I loved the movie as a wide-eyed kid, I have a much greater appreciation for it now. Only a tiny handful of action movies from the '80s have held up as well as First Blood has, and a lot of that's owed to the fact that Rambo's such an unconventional action hero. Hell, he's not even a hero, at least not anymore. He's a tortured vet still reeling from the Vietnam War -- a man who was built to destroy and no longer has any place in the world. There are no daring rescues or moustache-twirling enemy commanders to gun down: Rambo just wants to reclaim some of the dignity he thinks he's earned.
Its focus on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the shoddy treatment of Vietnam vets make First Blood a movie that's about more than just blowing shit up. There's a real David and Goliath feel to this miniature war; Teasle is flanked by a small army of gun-toting weekend warriors and his own yokel officers, but that advantage in artillery and manpower is trumped at every turn by just one well-trained man. Hell, Rambo has the restraint to not even kill anyone. First Blood is a hell of a violent movie, but even though it's drenched in blood and knee-deep in spent shells, the body count is surprisingly low.
First Blood is smarter than either of its sequels and the couple hundred knockoffs that'd be churned out over the years, but it's also a hell of an action movie. First Blood hardly ever stops to catch its breath, careening ahead at a breakneck pace for just about every last second of its hour and a half runtime. This is just a brutal, tense assault from start to finish. It's a movie that's really well-crafted in its own right but is defined by Stallone's leading turn. He easily sells the de-evolution of the quietly awkward but likeable vet we see in the movie's first few minutes to the snarling, deadly silent war machine that's singlehandledly ravaging an entire town. Few roles are as physically demanding as this one, and the fact that Rambo takes so much punishment -- he's a man, not some sort of indestructable golem -- makes his struggle particularly engaging. There's something about the fact that Rambo doesn't talk for the overwhelming majority of the movie that makes him that much more menacing, and an emotional speech about being spat on and discarded after the war carries a greater impact than it would have if Rambo had been spouting off one-liners the whole time. This is easily one of the best action movies of the entire decade.
Even with as many times as I've seen First Blood over the years, I don't think of a tortured vet struggling with his past when Rambo springs to mind. Nope, I think of a heavily-oiled Sly Stallone flinging arrows at helicopters or squaring off against an army of Russkies in the dead of the Middle East. That's all pretty much Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III bother with. No messages or social commentary. No subtext. Just a one-man wrecking crew blowing the holy hell outta half of Asia.
"You're not expendable, Rambo."
It's barely even worth running through the plots or trying to hammer out some sort of review for the sequels. First Blood Part II opens with Rambo yanked out of a chain gang to track down POWs in the Vietnamese prison camp he'd escaped from so many years earlier. Rambo's given direct orders not to engage the enemy, and the whole mission's a smokescreen anyway. Turns out that there are still soldiers being held hostage even in 1985, and Rambo can't just leave them to rot. But...yeah. Rambo is once again betrayed by his country. Everything he cares about is cruelly stripped away, and Rambo is once again trapped and tortured in a Vietnamese prison camp. ('Course, to make the flick more relevant, the badniks are led by Russians this time around.)
Director George P. Cosmatos brags in the extras that First Blood Part II was so wildly successful that it was ripped off by half the action flicks from the mid-'80s on. Maybe that's why this first sequel seems so faceless and generic. Swap out a couple of actors and I couldn't pick this out from 2/3rds of what Cannon Films was churning out back then. The only thing First Blood Part II has going for it is how deliriously ridiculous it is. I mean, one of the first scenes when the movie finally gets underway has Rambo flailing around in mid-air when a parachute jump goes wrong and snags on the side of a plane. It's the sort of low-rent effect MST3K would poke fun at, and that got a bigger laugh from me than pretty much any comedy I've watched this year. We're talking about a movie with an undercover hooker, exploding arrows blowing up Vietnamese soldiers who can't manage to hit Rambo even with a stream of 25,000 shells from thirtysomething feet away, Rambo leaping out of the water straight into a helicopter...
Sure, there are a couple of scattered parts that work, particularly a long, disturbing torture sequence. It's just that First Blood Part II nicks what few good ideas it has from the original -- like having a small army picked off in the jungle one by one -- and swaps out everything else with cartoonish, generic action and really clunky dialogue. Cosmatos lacks the directorial chops to pull any of it off, and Stallone just seems to be in it for a paycheck. Honestly, I'd rather just watch the spoof Weird Al put together in UHF, which takes just about every action sequence in First Blood Part II and crams it into three or four minutes. As goofy and off-the-wall as Al's spoof is, I'd forgotten just how dead-on a riff it really is, sometimes seeming like a shot-for-shot remake. Oh well. At least Julia Nickson's a knockout as Rambo's sidekick-slash-red shirt love interest, so that's something.
"God would have mercy. He won't."
After "creative differences" shoved Russell Mulcahy out from behind the camera, Peter MacDonald stepped in to helm Rambo III, which at the time held the record as the most expensive movie ever produced. Although earlier drafts were reportedly much more ambitious, the thin plot that wound up being splattered up on the screen is just an excuse to string together a bunch of action sequences. The Russians have tried their damndest to seize hold of Afghanistan, and although the rebels are holding their own in most of the country, there's one stretch that could use an extra leg up from the U.S. government. Rambo passes on joining up with Col. Trautman for this mission, content to beat the hell out of schlubs with wooden sticks and give his fight purses to a monastery that's taken him in. Whoops! The Rambo-less squad gets caught with their pants down by the Russkies, and Trautman's captured and...I guess brutally tortured. He's strung up in the middle of a room, at least. Rambo can't abide letting the Russians have their way with the only man he can trust, so across the border he goes. After hearing about the brutality of this war -- the systematic extermination of Afghani women and children so there won't be a next-generation for Russia's soldiers to fight -- Rambo grabs a couple of sidekicks and heads toward the Russian fortress.
Rambo III kinda-sorta wants to make a point, likening the Soviet's costly invasion of Afghanistan to America's role in Vietnam. Again, though, it's really all about muscles and things going boom. While most action sequels up the ante, Rambo III's the slowest burn of the series. Once Rambo polishes off his beatdown of some random fighter in an underground match, borderline-nothing happens for right at forty minutes, when a round of Dead Goat Polo is interrupted by a fleet of Russian choppers. Admittedly, it's pretty much balls-out, unrelenting action from that point on, but waiting for Rambo III to wake up is kinda tedious.
As flawed as Rambo III is, it's still a definite step up from First Blood Part II. I still prefer the quiet, more sullen Rambo of years gone by, but at least this sequel has a sharper sense of humor than the last go-around. There's a steady barrage of great action sequences -- the siege on the Afghan camp, a massively destructive prison break, and helicopters squaring off against tanks, a Russian battalion, and...oh, why not, an exploding arrow? The weird trajectory the series had followed up to this point keeps going. Rambo's packing a bigger knife. His hair blasts out to the point where he looks like he should be playing bass for Cinderella. Rambo and Trautman at one point decide to take on the entire Russian army singlehandedly, and although they do get a big climactic assist, this is the sort of movie where you kinda think they would've been able to pull it off anyway. It's a big, loud, dumb action movie, yeah, but at least it's a better big, loud, dumb action movie than First Blood Part II.
So, to recap: First Blood is the only legitimately good flick in this stack of movies, but at least Lionsgate has slapped such a reasonable sticker price on this set that it won't break the bank for Rambo fans seeking out a quick nostalgic blast, and these movies do look better than expected in high-def.
Video: I really wasn't expecting much out of this boxed set, but I have to admit that these three Rambo flicks turned out much slicker than I thought they would. Sure, they're softer than usual and have an unmistakably '80s look to them, but all in all...? Pretty decent.
First Blood almost looks fantastic in high-def, but this Blu-ray disc suffers from some of the most excessive video noise reduction I've caught on the format. Everything has an artificially smoothened...almost waxy...consistency. The DNR is so aggressive that detail is smeared away whenever there's any motion, even ghosting briefly during a couple of disappointing stretches. This is really a drag since the scope image is on the brink of perfection otherwise. First Blood's age does creep through at times, but there's a substantial boost in detail and clarity over what I'd expect out of a DVD. Contrast remains fairly solid, even in the underlit finale, and the gray, overcast palette is a perfect fit for the tone of the movie. The image is clean and clear, and I didn't spot any speckling or other wear anywhere throughout.
Lionsgate eases up on the noise reduction for the sequels, both of which boast more of a gritty texture. Both movies are fairly soft but are still instantly identifiable as high definition. Colors tend to be much more robust, from the lush jungles of First Blood Part II to the vivid orange of the explosions scattered throughout Rambo III. The quality is a bit erratic, although after diving through the extras and hearing how agonizing the shoots were, these sorts of inconsistencies sound like they might've been unavoidable. Even though both movies have been cleaned up nicely for these high-def releases, there's still room for improvement. First Blood Part II has a nasty tendency to jitter, and because the series is otherwise so crystal clear, the couple of blink-and-you'll-miss-'em print flaws that pop up in Rambo III really stand out.
None of these movies are going to hold up as demo material for some overpriced home theater rig, but Lionsgate definitely exceeded my expectations with this Blu-ray set. All three movies are presented in scope, and First Blood sports an AVC encode while the sequels have been encoded in VC-1.
Audio: Even though the trilogy is getting the DTS-HD treatment on Blu-ray -- a high-res mix on First Blood and lossless Master Audio soundtracks for the sequels -- they're disappointing across the board. First Blood's 5.1 remix sounds like a monaural track that half-heartedly bleeds into the other speakers. First Blood Part II and Rambo III more convincingly spread across the front channels, although Part II's surround use too often sounds gimmicky and awkward. All three tracks sound flat and don't bother with much in the way of dynamic range. Bass is anemic in both of the first two movies, despite the stacks of rocket launchers and parades of exploding helicopters. There's disappointingly little atmosphere, even when Rambo's skulking through the thick of a Vietnamese jungle. Rambo III does come through at least a little better, but even though the entire room rattles as tanks storm through the Russian camp, so much of the bass elsewhere in the movie sounds like a dull rumble that's been clumsily cranked up. The mixes just limp from the speakers and lack the full-bodied sound I'd hope for in even movies of this vintage.
First Blood also features a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track, while the sequels serve up six-channel French dubs. The "Out of the Blu" trivia tracks in the sequels are also backed by 5.1 audio. Subtitles have been provided in English and Spanish.
Extras: Each of the three movies in this Blu-ray set are anchored around pretty much the same set of extras: audio commentary, a meatier-than-average retrospective, and a trivia subtitle track. All of the featurettes and extras are presented in 4x3 (occasionally letterboxed) and in standard definition.
First Blood is the only movie in the set to feature any deleted scenes. Its five and a half minute reel includes the bleaker, franchise-killing original ending, a flashback in some dive in the Far East with the series' one and only love scene, and a kinda funny outtake.
It's also flanked by two audio commentaries: one with David Morrell, the author of the novel First Blood that sparked the franchise, and another with Sly Stallone himself. Both tracks are essential listens and easily rank among the best commentaries I've heard in months. Morrell spends a good bit of time detailing just how different the novel is from the finished film, particularly how Will Teasle was more of a driving force in the book, the movie's deliberately borderline-non-existent body count, and the novel's more destructive climax that spiraled into a far more devastating ending. There are too many highlights for me to really do this commentary justice by rattling them off here, but some of the standouts include a list of some of the A-list actors and directors First Blood had passed through over the years, a note about how First Blood redefined the stale, restrained action movie formula, the profitable upside of shooting an action flick with a practically mute lead, a small army of lab rats that had been drenched in Clairol #5, how these iconic characters' names had been nicked from fruit and even a French poet, and, touchingly, Morrell describing how Stallone reached out to his dying teenage son. It's just a great, great listen from start to finish.
I was also really impressed by how great Stallone's commentary turned out. Morrell quips in his track that Stallone is a bright, talkative guy, and the disc's second commentary is proof positive of that. Stallone lobs out a slew of great stories: the "...the hell?" surreal ending Kirk Douglas fought so hard for, the squabbles with unemployed locals in a mill town caught in its death throes, all the different critters the writers wanted Rambo to skewer before landing on a boar, and testing out one fishing line effects rig sopping with blood in an ER. This track isn't just Stallone coasting on his charisma, though. He offers very detailed insight into the character of John Rambo in these days before he settled into a cartoonish cariacture, and he deftly makes analogies that include Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and how the small-scale war in Hope mirrors the disparity between the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. I also dug hearing Stallone riff on the one and only sequence he hates in the movie and how he was certain First Blood would be a career killer.
The commentaries on the sequels are borderline-worthless, though, and they're easily missed since they're buried under the "Setup" menus. George P. Cosmatos spends most of his commentary narrating whatever's happening on-screen or describing how grueling the shoot was for Stallone, and even then he couldn't be bothered to do that all that much after First Blood Part II hits the halfway point. Peter MacDonald's commentary on Rambo III is dead air practically from start to finish. It's one of the most quiet, subdued tracks I've ever trudged through, riddled with long, awkward pauses where MacDonald seems to just be leaning back and politely watching the movie. There are a handful of interesting notes -- Stallone's fear of heights and drive to constantly rewrite, a detailed run through the Introvision process behind a couple of Rambo III's standout effects, unexpectedly replacing Russell Mulcahy as director early on, and the constant struggles with time and money -- but they're not worth suffering through the interminable chasms of silence to get there.
The three retrospectives are really well produced and hardly overlap with the audio commentaries at all. "Drawing First Blood" (22 min.) opens by delving into the writing of the novel and the decade of development hell that followed once Hollywood stepped in, churning through twentysomething scripts and a half-dozen different studios. The featurette runs through how Stallone first became attached, Kirk Douglas strolling in and quickly out as Col. Trautman, the grueling weather in British Columbia, a parade of astonishingly dangerous stunts, the controversy swirling around the ending that had originally been filmed, and First Blood's colossal success at the box office on these shores and off.
"We Get to Win This Time" (20 min.) makes First Blood Part II sound more interesting than it really is, from James Cameron's original concept of opening the movie with Rambo in a mental institution to the headaches of shooting in a waterlogged stretch of Mexico to an unintentionally hysterical "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!" followed by a goofy zoom out that had to be gutted from the movie. Even though I can't stand First Blood Part II, I did kinda dig this look back.
Bizarrely, Rambo III's retrospective -- "Afghanistan: Land in Crisis" (30 min.) -- barely touches on the movie, instead playing like more of a history lesson about Russian encroachment into this once-proud land. Notes about Rambo III itself are sparse but include how ironic it is that a movie set in a predominately Islamic country was actually shot in Israel and how the weather was so unrelenting that the film would actually melt in the camera.
Each movie also sports a trivia track, and it's punctuated by swooshes, stabbing sounds, and gunfire in the sequels. I admittedly only skimmed through the trivia, but in the two First Blood flicks, most of the notes I saw had already been tackled in the featurettes and commentaries. Because Rambo III's extras don't go in-depth into the movie at all, its trivia easily stands out as the best of the three, and it's a blast to follow its running tally of all the mayhem.
The sequels both throw in a high-def trailer for Rambo (2008), while First Blood drops in plugs for The Descent, Crank, and a generic Blu-ray promo reel.
This set does lose over an hour of featurettes from earlier DVD releases, for what that's worth. Ian Jane's review of the DVD set mentions a deleted scene reel for Rambo III that didn't make the cut on Blu-ray either.
Conclusion: First Blood is still a hell of a movie, careening ahead at a breakneck pace with searing action, a consistently bleak, tense atmosphere, and a primal force in the lead instead of the usual stock action hero. The other two sequels in this set, on the other hand, are practically cartoons and really don't hold up these days. Still, these Blu-ray discs should be a decent upgrade for Rambo fans, and the sticker price is right on target for a three movie set. I'd bet most people reading this could get by with just First Blood for eleven bucks and change from Amazon, but this Rambo boxed set has enough going for it to still come Recommended.
Other Reviews: Daniel Hirshleifer has also put together a review for this Blu-ray boxed set.
The usual image disclaimer: even though I have a Blu-ray drive on my PC, I don't seem to be able to grab any stills from it. The photos scattered around this review are random promotional stills and don't necessarily represent the presentation on this Blu-ray disc.