Rambo Trilogy Collection (US - BD RA)
Gabe revisits the escalating body counts of Ronny Reagan's favourite action hero
As was the case for the Indiana Jones trilogy, I don’t plan on putting too much intellectual effort into the film review part of this Blu-ray review, because the Rambo films have been analyzed to death by better writers than me. Even our own Scott McKenzie wrote up an editorial about the subject in celebration of the new film release this year. The Rambo series isn’t particularly high on my personal favourite list anyway, so those looking to hear about the Blu-ray’s A/V and extras can go ahead and skip this section.
What most people don’t know, or at least remember, about First Blood was it started its life as a positively renowned novel. The film version makes a lot of changes (apparently, I’m not going to pretend I’ve ever read it), but it holds pretty well to the novel’s basic themes, while still dispensing the original downer ending (John Rambo dies). Though overshadowed by its over-the-top and generally goofy sequels, First Blood was first and foremost a sort of post-war melodrama. The film’s basic themes and sentiments are surprisingly left-wing for the right-winged attachments of the sequels.
Poor, mentally and physically abused John Rambo is been wronged by his government, sent to merely survive an unwinable war, trained to be a killer, only to be dumped on by society when he was no longer needed. This is a liberal’s anti-war, post-war fantasy, pure and simple. How else would one prove that government subsidized war created monsters then to have an innocent monster unleashed on a small town? Society creates its criminals, and is thus responsible for them, and so on and so forth. The inherently evil authority figures are another fold in the bleeding heart quilt. Rambo even avoids killing people, contrary to the novel. This wouldn’t be a particularly interesting slant, however, had the sequels either never been made, or had they followed the same themes.
First Blood is a very well made film, with just enough grindhouse flare to flavour our bloodlust, but genuinely striking performances (save Stallone’s sometimes hard to understand vocal patterns), and expert pacing to ensure it earns its status in the lexicon. The whole film is tonally almost overwhelmingly melancholy, which is also diametrically opposed to the rah-rah sequels. This pervasive tone has a distinct effect to this day, and it’s really no wonder that the film had such a strong effect on real life vets across America. Italian exploitation filmmakers absorbed the themes into their repertoire, along with other Vietnam themed films like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, creating a sort of grindhouse subgenre that stuck for years after the original film's disappearance from theatres.
Rambo: First Blood Part II
First Blood Part II should hold an award for the sequel that most philosophically opposes the original film. Sending John Rambo back into Nam in 1985 as a government subsidized hero is hilariously backwards within the context of First Blood. Imagine how ridiculous it would’ve looked had Robert DeNiro bulked up to run around shirtless killing stereotypical, faceless Asians and Soviets for a film called Bickle: Taxi Driver II. This film can only be taken seriously one of two ways—it’s either a spoof or it takes place in an alternate dimension then First Blood. First Blood Part II is an ‘80s conservative’s fantasy. The famous line “Do we get to win this time?” says it all—the first film acknowledged our country’s failure, this time we’re going to set it right.
So does this mean I resent or dislike the film as a bleeding heart liberal? Hell no, vengeance and the concept of the take no prisoners one man army are sexy movie standbys, which only the most prudish of us cannot enjoy. Writer James Cameron knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote this blood-thirsty crowd pleaser. The audience may have missed the point, the director and producers may’ve missed the point, even Stallone may’ve missed the point (though I doubt it), but Cameron knew exactly what he was doing—he was warming up for Aliens. In the process John Rambo regrettably lost his humanity (though Cameron does claim in interviews that Stallone was responsible for the film’s politics, which is hard to believe). The hero of First Blood Part II has more in common with Dirty Harry Callahan and Paul Kersey then the shell shocked victims of The Deer Hunter.
I'll admit I’m being a little unfair, and that hindsight is always 20/20. About half way through the plot does thicken, the camera movement becomes braver, and the politics become more complicated. This is still simplified adventure action for the masses, but First Blood Part II earns its place among other mid-‘80s violent action films, specifically with that totally absurd shot of Rambo blowing a dude to smithereens with his grenade-tipped arrow.
If First Blood Part II was a Reganite’s fantasy, Rambo III a fevered, feral wet dream. Gone is all of the second film’s thin veneer of dignity, replaced with more guns, more blood, more explosions, more muscles, and less thought provocation. Most of the jokes about the Rambo character ended up coming out of this film, and the joke is well deserved. The film’s plot is a loosely knit contrivance through and through. It seems that Stallone had an idea for a plot, one that concerned itself with the important and overlooked history of the Mujahideen, but not the time or drive to develop it. Right off the bat we’re expected to believe ailing and nearly elderly Col. Sam Trautman has been selected for a covert operation. Things don’t get any better after that, and the film commits the ultimate sequel faux pas—a child side kick. For shame.
The pacing is ridiculously fast, cutting out every inch of development necessary to develop any means of disbelieve suspension. In the first seventeen minutes Rambo is found in Thailand, approached for the mission to Afghanistan, refuses the mission, Col. Trautman fails the mission and is captured, Rambo is informed by Kurtwood Smith (hey, Kurtwood Smith, I guess it can’t be all bad) that Trautman failed, decides to go rescue Trautman, and arrives in Afghanistan. It’s a farce, and almost impossible to digest without rolling one’s eyes right out of their sockets.
I have to admit, however, that Rambo III’s action scenes hold up a lot more favourably to modern action films (the horse vs. tank finale is pretty impressive), and the production does make a genuine attempt at giving life to the Afghani characters and meaning to their customs. The film’s severe political incorrectness in the post 9/11 era is actually more amusing then offensive, as there is a genuine innocence to the treatment of the Mujahideen, who should be remembered as US allies during the Cold War. It’s just too bad we forgot about them after the Berlin wall came down. Maybe Rambo should’ve stuck around after sticking it to the Ruskies, at least then we’d know where Bin Laden was, right? Seriously, why wasn’t this the plot of Rambo IV? Isn’t the point of the character post-second film to clean up the United State’s Cold War military mistakes?
The best part of the whole movie, possibly even the whole series? The scene during Rambo’s second attempt at saving Trautman, where Rambo sneaks up on Russian guard that isn’t paying attention to his post. The Russian sees Rambo too late, and instead of pulling a knife or sidearm, or even running away, he makes a b-line for the gigantic anti-aircraft machine gun he’s suppose to be manning, as if he could somehow turn the thing 180 degrees in time to shoot the attacker that’s already closer to him then the barrel’s length. Hilarious. Also, to anyone with video editing skills, please, please cut Rambo III together with Charlie Wilson’s War.
Made in 1982, and reasonably low budget, First Blood shouldn’t be expected to look perfect. This transfer is almost identical to the Ultimate Edition DVD release, minus all the noise and edge compression. Scenes of Rambo sitting in his mine shaft camping site only lit by campfire display a touch of low level blocking and loss of definition, though blacks are clean and rich. The whole film is pretty dark, visually speaking, and DVD image quality tended to lose quite a bit of detail in the shadows. This print is of the highest possible detail for the source, only losing the sharpness on a couple occasions. Colours are a little muted, but they don’t bleed, and film grain is only noticeable during daylight wide shots.
First Blood Part II looks even sharper, though not entirely without its problems. Edge enhancement is an issue here, but not in spades. Contrast takes a few strange turns, specifically on sweaty faces which really glisten. Fairly stated I never noticed all this sweat before I saw the film in high definition, so my finding it distracting isn’t necessarily a problem with the transfer. The film has a very dated look, and the 1080p doesn’t really help sell the clean and flat compositions as particularly interesting (which is a surprise given D.P. Jack Cardiff’s pedigree), but there is no doubting the clarity of the image, and the distinct lack of compression noise.
Not surprisingly Rambo III looks the best of all three discs. There’s a bit of telecine wobble during the opening titles, a smidgen of noise in some of the darker warm colours, and backgrounds lose a bit of detail, but overall things are pristine. Relatively unknown director of photography develops a nicely comic book inspired colour pallet, one that fits the cartoony film most effectively, and one that leads to some of the transfer’s more impressive moments.
First Blood features a new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, as well as a new Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track. The difference between the two tracks is negligible, though the DTS track is a might bit louder. The source material doesn’t lend itself to a super-advanced revamp, but the disc’s producers mostly avoid cheap surround gags or artificial sounding post-production effects. The basic track is pretty centred, very clear and very clean. The dialogue track is a tiny bit louder in the mix than the effects or music, but it’s surprisingly even overall. Jerry Goldsmith’s remarkable and memorable score fills out the stereo speakers warmly, and without tinny over production or noise. The surround channels are most alive during the early thunder storm sequence, and also house a realistic cricket chirps and windblown branches.
I’ve got to say that I’m not a fan of Goldsmith’s First Blood Part II score. The electronic stuff is kind of fun, but outside of the character, and the symphonic stuff is often mawkish. For the most part I’m actually more impressed with the first film’s DTS-HD track than the second film’s. First Blood Part II is a bigger budget movie, and a broader and more action packed adventure, but the majority of this track is centrally located. LFE is a bit soft and the surround channels are pretty quiet, but the middling music is fully realized, and the dialogue and sound effects are quite clear.
Rambo III has a few issues with the tinny nature of some of the on-set effects that surround dialogue heavy scenes in the centre channel, but the surround structure and fidelity of this DTS-HD track is pretty lively. Goldsmith’s increasingly silly score holds real punch and warmth, and it fills out the surround tracks much more naturally then it does on the other two discs. The big battle scenes are as big and bassy as can be, standing up to even new, CG enhanced action films, and the quieter scenes are teaming with subtle sound effects.
Have the wildly inappropriate end credit songs ever been explained beyond the fact that one was sung by Stallone’s brother?
This new Blu-ray collection represents different extras from various older DVD releases, and includes some new bits as well. First Blood features two commentary tracks, each of which was available on various older releases. Sylvester Stallone’s track is honest and articulate. Stallone knows so much about the making of the film one might be under the impression that he was actually the film’s ghost director (which isn’t a new theory). I don’t think I heard him refer to director Ted Kotchef as anything other than ‘the director’. It’s easy to forget how smart and well spoken Stallone is given his rather dim bulb output, but commentaries like this one stand as a good reminder.
Novel writer David Morrell’s track is also articulate and informative. Morrell points out several differences between his novel and the film, as well as filling in some pre-production facts that Stallone may not have remembered, such as Steve McQueen’s interest in the role (he was too old). Morrell’s quaint aversion to the violence and bad language gives the track a sweetness lacking on Stallone’s more mundane tone.
The director commentary with George P. Cosmatos on First Blood Part II isn’t very impressive, mostly covering only bare behind the scenes facts with quite a bit of space between words. Cosmatos’ thick accent makes for a bit of fun, but he isn’t particularly excitable, and just about every important fact he divulges is available in the trivia track.
Peter Macdonald gives an incredibly stilted director’s commentary for Rambo III, though in his defence he started the project as only a second unit director. The blanks spots in this track are huge, and the few times Macdonald remembers to speak he doesn’t have too much to say. Again, as in the Cosmatos track, the majority of the director’s rambling points are made during the trivia track.
‘Drawing First Blood’ is, I believe, a new documentary concerning the film, the third in the film’s US video release history, though it features a lot of footage from other docs. I never watched the docs on the previous releases, so I’m not able to directly compare. This new doc covers just about everything, featuring interviews with the producers, Stallone, Kotchef, and Morrell, without covering too much of the same ground already available in the feature commentaries. The DIY nature of the film is particularly impressive, given the large box office take and cultural standing. Though there’s likely more to say about the film’s impact, this is a decent doc for the twenty-two minute run time.
‘We Get to Win This Time’ is another solid retrospective documentary, featuring the major actors, director George P. Cosmatos, editors and producers. Noticeably missing from the featurette is James Cameron, but the other participants fill in a couple missing pieces about his original script (it’s no surprise that Stallone wrote the romantic stuff). The doc’s producers have the advantage of original behind the scenes footage and interviews to bulk up the run time, and the inclusion of the editor’s interviews is surprisingly effective, as they recall deleted scenes and alternate takes. The doc runs twenty minutes.
‘Afghanistan: Land in Crisis’ is overall the most impressive of the three documentary featurettes, mostly because it concerns itself with the history of the conflict then the making of the film, though that is covered as well. It’s a little strange to see the Mujahideen treated respectfully in an entertainment documentary treatment these days. The political intricacies of the ‘war’ aren’t glazed over, and the Reagan administration is called out for their underhanded treatment of the situation. The irony of a film about the Islamic Jihad being filmed in Israel isn’t glazed over either, and neither is the eventual fate of the Mujahideen or the rise of the Taliban. The brave little featurette even covers the film’s bad timing release, which was months before the Cold War came to an end, and its popularity in the Arab world. It runs about thirty minutes.
The collection of First Blood deleted scenes won’t be anything new to fans that own the Ultimate Edition release. These include the original ending, where Rambo commits suicide by firing Troutman’s gun at his own belly, a Saigon strip club flashback (including an obvious mimicking of Cream’s ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ rip off), and an outtake version of the ending that ends with a joke. The scenes are pretty rough, and not anamorphically or HD enhanced.
The Blu-ray exclusive ‘trivia tracks’ are all a pretty big surprise. Usually trivia tracks and pop-up information (especially those which come from Lionsgate studio) are stale, and often most of their info is already covered during the commentary tracks. This collection of factoids runs a broad range—from basic behind the scenes information (some of which is repeated from the commentary tracks), to descriptions of each injury acquired by First Blood’s characters, a body count for each film, and survival guide suggestions. A pleasant surprise.
The Rambo films are a series I particularly identify with. This marks the first time I’ve seen them in probably ten years, and I’m not finding anything new to like about them. I’m the type of ‘low-brow’ film fan that actually prefers the Rambo rip-offs to the real thing, so my opinion is to be taken with the appropriate grain of salt. This Blu-ray release is surely worth a purchase for series fans—it looks better, it sounds better, it has a few new extras, and it carries a really nice price tag.
First Blood: 7/10
Rambo: First Blood Part II: 5/10
Rambo III: 4/10
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 27th May 2006
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 English (Trivia Track), Dolby Digital 5.1 French
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Director Commentaries, Actor Commentary, Writer Commentary, Featurettes, Deleted Scenes, Trivia Track, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ted Kotcheff, George P. Cosmatos, Peter MacDonald
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Brian Dennehy, Charles Napier, Kurtwood Smith
Genre: Action and Adventure
Length: 239 minutes
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