Rambo Trilogy: SE
Artisan // R // $59.98 // May 28, 2002
Review by Earl Cressey | posted June 3, 2002
Highly Recommended
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Rambo Trilogy: Special Edition

To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of First Blood, Artisan has remastered and remixed the Rambo Trilogy, releasing them both separately as special editions and packaged together as part of a special box set that includes a bonus fourth disc of extras.

First Blood, originally released in 1982, was based on the novel by David Morrell. Directed by Ted Kotcheff, the film stars Sylvester Stallone (John Rambo), Richard Crenna (Colonel Trautman), and Brian Dennehy (Sheriff Teasle), with David Caruso (Mitch) in a smaller role.

Drifting from place to place while looking for old 'Nam buddies, ex-Green Beret John Rambo runs afoul of the local law in a small town in Oregon. The sheriff frowns on drifters and escorts Rambo out of town. However, Rambo returns, seeking only some food. The sheriff catches him and runs him in for resisting arrest, carrying a concealed weapon, and vagrancy. While being "cleaned up" for his trial, the officers are very rough, triggering flashbacks to his being tortured in Vietnam. Rambo attacks the officers and escapes, fleeing into the forested mountains outside of town. Determined to catch him, the sheriff and his men pursue, but Rambo's survival instincts have already kicked in, and the hunted soon becomes the hunter.

After the success of First Blood, a sequel was inevitable and a franchise began. Hence, Rambo: First Blood Part II was released in 1985. Directed by George Cosmatos, the film stars Stallone (Rambo), Crenna (Trautman), Charles Napier (Marshall Murdock), and Julia Nickson (Co), with Martin Kove in a smaller role.

In prison for the events in Oregon, Colonel Trautman approaches Rambo with a special covert recon mission to find and photograph missing POWs in Vietnam. Rambo accepts, and with the help of Co, a Vietnamese woman, he finds a POW. Making it back to the extraction point under heavy fire, Murdock, a bureacrat, orders Rambo's mission aborted, as he doesn't want any POWs recovered. Now his mission truly begins, as Rambo sets out to free the rest of the POWs, escape Vietnam, and get revenge on Murdock.

Rambo III concluded the extremely successfully trilogy in 1988. Directed by Peter MacDonald, the film stars Stallone (Rambo), Crenna (Trautman), Kurtwood Smith (Griggs), and Marc de Jonge (Colonel Zaysen). Unfortunately, the film suffered from bad timing, as the Cold War was basically over, and Rambo was still fighting the Soviets.

Now living in Thailand, Rambo is offered a chance to assist Trautman in a special covert op to investigate Russian Colonel Zaysen's stranglehold in his Afghani sector. Rambo declines, as he believes his war is over. However, when Trautman is captured by Zaysen and the military refuses to rescue him, Rambo goes to Afghanistan to free him, aided only by the Mujahedeen rebels who oppose the Soviet invasion.

While First Blood is, in my mind, the best film in the series, both sequels are still entertaining. Each film follows the same formula: Rambo avoids conflict, but when the enemy backs him into a corner and draws first blood, he retaliates with a vengeance. First Blood is different than both sequels, in that there is more character development, an emotional journey of sorts that Rambo undertakes, and a body count of one. Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III really focus more on action and turn Rambo into a super-hero of sorts who is able to avoid most injuries and has impeccable aim. Both sequels also have huge body counts. Still, Rambo: First Blood Part II is a terrific action "popcorn" film, with mostly plausible action scenes, several of which were imitated by the action films that followed. The action scenes in Rambo III are quite good and many of them believable, though the climax, with Rambo and Trautman taking on an entire Russian army and avoiding injury, is quite laughable.

Note: Rambo III is missing the burned in subtitle translations for the Russian dialogue that the original DVD release contains.

Each film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and 1.33:1 full frame, each on opposite sides of the disc.

The transfer for First Blood is occasionally slightly soft and has a few specks and small marks. There is also some grain, most apparent and confined to a few shots in chapter thirteen. Colors do seem a bit faded or muted infrequently, though flesh tones are accurate, with solid blacks.

The transfer for Rambo: First Blood Part II is, for the most part, amazing, with nary a blemish. The print does seem a bit cloudy or hazy, especially in the scenes with Rambo and Co. Colors are vibrant and bold, flesh tones are accurate, though blacks do, at times, exhibit some poor shadow delineation.

The transfer for Rambo III is the best of the bunch, predictably so, as it is the most recent. It can, at times, appear to be a bit soft, however. The print is clean throughout, with only some minor specks, and no shimmering or artifacts. Colors are vibrant throughout, with accurate flesh tones and solid blacks.

Each film is presented in DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1, and Dolby 2.0 Surround. Previously, the three films were only available on DVD in Dolby 2.0 Surround, and as expected, the newly mixed DTS and DD5.1 tracks sound much more rich and full. The DTS and DD5.1 soundtracks for First Blood and Rambo: First Blood Part II are still mainly anchored in the front soundstage, with the rears employed for ambient effects and occasional surrounds. While this is fine for First Blood, Rambo: First Blood Part II could have really benefited from a more aggressive surround mix, as it is more action-oriented. Gunfire in both films lacks directionality as well. Thankfully, with the addition of the LFE channel, explosions sound much deeper. The DTS and DD5.1 soundtracks for Rambo III, on the other hand, sound fantastic and are incredibly dynamic. Surrounds are strong and aggressive throughout, with some great directionally in the gunfire. The explosions are terrific with the presence of the LFE channel. Dialogue in each of the three films is crisp and clean with no distortion that I detected. Optional subtitles are available in Spanish.

Each film includes a commentary, a new documentary, extensive cast and crew biographies and filmographies, informative production notes, and the film's trailer and teaser.

For First Blood, the commentary features writer David Morrell. Morrell offers an insightful and interesting commentary, covering everything from the differences between his novel and the film to the technical aspects of the film. The track has few slow moments, as Morrell is quite talkative. The documentary, Drawing First Blood, runs a tad over twenty-two minutes in length, and features new interviews with Morrell, Stallone, Crenna, Kotcheff, and executive producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna. Morrell starts with his inspirations for writing the novel and the participants discuss a wide variety of topics, such as developing the property from novel to script, different casting choices, and difficulties with filming. Most interesting are a few still frames from the alternate ending that was shot and later scrapped. Unfortunately, this footage is not available on the DVD.

For Rambo: First Blood Part II, the commentary features director George Cosmatos and is probably one of the more boring commentaries I've listened to. While the track is mainly focused on the technical aspects of the film, such as how certain action scenes were staged, Cosmatos does provide a few interesting anecdotes from filming. However, he does have several long pauses and his monotone voice does little to engage the viewer. The documentary, We Get to Win this Time, runs about twenty minutes in length, and features new interviews with Morrell, Stallone, Crenna, Cosmatos, Napier, Nickson, the film's editors, and executive producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna. The documentary begins with a discussion of the original script treatment by James Cameron, and while the script's main ideas were left mostly intact, a few, like Stallone and John Travolta teaming up and Stallone being in a mental hospital at the film's beginning instead of a prison, were scrapped. The participants also talk about the problems with shooting in Mexico and explore the Rambo phenomenon. There are also some brief interviews with the stars from filming and the editors discuss a few changes made to the film after early screenings.

For Rambo III, the commentary features director Peter MacDonald. While the commentary had quite a few pauses, MacDonald manages to share a lot of interesting information, mostly about the technical aspects of the film's numerous action sequences. Certainly not the best commentary, but worlds better than Cosmatos's on Rambo: First Blood Part II. The documentary, Afghanistan: Land in Crisis, runs about twenty nine minutes in length, and features interviews with Stallone and a few people familiar with Afghani history, such as professors. Interspersed with the interviews are clips from Rambo III and real life footage of day-to-day life in Afghanistan. The interviewees do a great job of communicating the struggle and conflicts of the Afghani people and touch on some of the events that lead up to 9/11/01 and how America is trying to ensure that, this time, Afghanistan is not a breeding ground for terrorists.

As for the rest of the extras, they are contained on the fourth disc, which is exclusive to the box set. These consist of six featurettes, three documentaries, a trivia game, and trailers for the upcoming special edition DVD of Reservoir Dogs, Dune, and National Lampoon's Van Wilder. For some reason, the box set lists an additional featurette, Those That Wanted More, though it doesn't appear to be included on this disc.

The Real Nam: Voices from Within is a twenty-nine minute documentary which presents a candid look at the Vietnam War from all sides through pictures, archived footage, and interviews. The documentary explains the beginnings of the war, bluntly discusses the politics involved with it, and exposes the viewer to the horrors of the war. I found this documentary a very compelling watch, and it is easily the best extra in the set.

Guts & Glory is a twenty-seven minute documentary that explores the Rambo phenomenon through interviews with Stallone, Kotcheff, and several authors, professors, educators, and a congressman. Reagan also has several clips, including one from his famous "We're going to win this time" speech. The documentary explores how Rambo became to symbolize America during the Reagan years and draws parallels between Reagan and Rambo.

The Forging of Heroes: America's Green Berets is a ten minute featurette that spotlights the history of the Special Forces starting with the O.S.S. New interviews of real Green Berets are interspersed with training and combat footage.

Rambo-Nomics is a three minute featurette that focuses on the financial success of the series both domestically and internationally. A list of countries that banned the films is also included.

Suiting Up: Rambo's Survival Hardware is an eight minute featurette focused on the weapons, aircrafts, and tanks that appeared throughout the three films. Each weapon or vehicle is accompanied by detailed specifications and a few clips of the item being used in scenes from the films. Several of the weapons include Rambo's bowie knife, the M60-E3 light machine gun, the AK-47 assault rifle, the M203 40MM grenade launcher, and the Hoyt/Easton bow.

Selling a Hero is a four and a half minute featurette focused on the numerous Rambo toys and vehicles to come out. Each toy is accompanied by original price information. Surprisingly, all this is quite fun, as the toys are engaged in war with each other, complete with cheesy sound effects.

First Blood: A Look Back is a four minute "featurette" that is just a montage of pan & scan clips from the film set to music. This originally appeared on the original First Blood DVD.

Rambo III: Full Circle is a six minute "featurette" that is just a montage of pan & scan clips from the film set to music. This originally appeared on the original Rambo III DVD.

An American Hero's Journey: The Rambo Trilogy is a twenty-five minute documentary that originally appeared on the original Rambo: First Blood Part II DVD. Basically, the documentary serves as a recap of the series, with numerous pan & scan clips. Morrell does share some interesting information, though it can all be found elsewhere.

The box set also comes in a cool embossed metal slipcover and contains a ten-page booklet that has chapter indexes for the films and a brief history of Rambo franchise by David Morrell.

Artisan has re-released the Rambo Trilogy with improved picture and sound quality in an attractive metal embossed case with quite a few informative documentaries and some entertaining featurettes. Fans of the series should certainly consider the box set, as it packs quite a punch for the asking price. Highly Recommended!

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