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We’ve had a lot of Rambo-related articles on DVDActive in the last few months. First of all I looked back at the first three entries in the series in an Active Essentials article, then with the release and re-release of all four movies, Chris reviewed the UK release of Rambo and Gabe took a look at the US release, followed by the original trilogy. So what is there left to say about Stallone’s alter-ego that hasn’t been said before on this site, never mind anywhere else? I sat down on my sofa with a pile of Blu-ray discs and an increasingly weak bladder to find out…

 Rambo: Ultimate Collection

Feature


When the four discs that make up the Ultimate Collection fell through my letterbox, I was faced with two options. Option number one—dip into them across a number of days or weeks. Option two—sit down and watch the whole damn lot in one go. I opted for the latter. As a fan of movie marathons in the days when I was supposed to be studying at university, it’s been a while since I sat down to watch a whole series in one sitting. With memories of watching the first three Rambo movies one after another with my flat mate, complete with a bucket of KFC, I took the opportunity presented to me by an annual service for my car to book the day off work and give it a go again.

The first lesson of movie marathons is that they usually take a hell of a lot longer than the cumulative running time of the movies you’ve chosen. As a result, the six hours or so of Rambo ahead of me turned into nearly twelve hours of my life, peppered with dropping off and picking up my car, phoning round other garages to get repair quotes when I thought I was getting ripped off by the repairs that were needed and the frequent trips to the bathroom that come from sitting on my sofa, staring at a screen and filling myself with soft drinks. Oh well, at least it gave me three paragraphs of rambling to write up before I even get into the movies…

 Rambo: Ultimate Collection
As I made notes about each movie, it became clear that there were common themes across all the Rambo movies (aside from the obvious). I’m not just talking about big knives and explosive arrows. First of all, I noted that in a Samson-like way, as Rambo’s hair gets bigger in each subsequent movie so do his muscles with the end result that by the time we get to Rambo, other actors really have to fight for screen presence next to Sly in medium shots. Secondly, all of the movies have a ‘message’, which I’ll point out further down and the first three are cursed with a terrible song over the end credits.

Rambo makes a speech at the end of the first two movies but after that the difference between Rambo and Stallone's other 80s stalwart, Rocky Balboa, became clear to me. They may both be rock hard fighting machines, but whereas Rocky can’t keep his mouth shut, Rambo is the introverted polar opposite. In Rocky Balboa the titular hero spends his time regaling the customers of his restaurant with stories of his glorious past, whether they want to hear them or not. You can’t quite imagine Rambo wanting to do this. Mind you, even if he did it would probably put everyone off their dinner when he reminisces about that time in Afghanistan when he used gunpowder to seal his shrapnel wound.

 Rambo: Ultimate Collection

First Blood


Message: Be nice to war veterans, whether you believe in their war or not.

Those of you who have read my Active Essentials articles will already know that I’m a big fan of the Rambo movies and even made a point of visiting the set (or lack thereof) in Hope, British Columbia. However, I’m not blind to the fact that this isn’t a perfect set of movies. First Blood is generally regarded as the best of the bunch, but this is the first time I had watched it since experiencing the gorefest that is Rambo in the cinemas and I have to say it now looks very tame in comparison. I mean, hardly anyone dies—certainly no one that doesn’t deserve it.

The motifs of a big knife, even bigger weapons and a lone unhinged soldier using his surroundings against his enemies are all here but it isn’t until the first sequel that Stallone really gives us the Rambo that earned his place in the dictionary. Here we have the hardest-hitting story, more focused on his post-traumatic stress disorder than any other entry in the series and the clearest message that Vietnam veterans loved their country as much as anyone else. However, it is an action movie first and foremost and provided a template for modern action cinema. Just don’t watch Rambo first or it might leave you distinctly under whelmed in the body count stakes.

My rating: 7/10

 Rambo: Ultimate Collection

Rambo: First Blood Part II


Message: The Vietcong are bad. The Russians are badder. The US government is worse.

This is the movie where we finally get to see our hero despatch some proper bad guys. Not hicks from Jerkwater, USA, but he gets to take revenge on the Vietcong that made his life hell, then kick some Russkie ass 80s-style and finally sort out the state of the union by blasting holes in Charles Napier’s Commodore Vic 20s. I lost count of the number of times I’ve seen this movie a long time ago but it wasn’t until I read Gabe’s review that I realised that Jack Cardiff was the director of photography, who has worked on so many visually stunning films including Black Narcissus and The African Queen. I have no complaints about his work here, but hiring a professional like Jack Cardiff for a Rambo movie like asking Michaelangelo to paint the ceiling of your local takeaway.

I do have a real love of Rambo II though, and it’s the kind of love that can only come from growing up with the movie. Readers of a certain age from the UK may remember that a movie’s release was often accompanied by a tape and read-along book that cut the story of each movie down to about twenty pages. I had dozens of them, including the strange non-movie Star Wars books like Droid World. In an odd move, the producers of these child-targeted books thought it was a good idea to put out a few to support 15-rated movies, and Rambo II was one of them. Therefore, until I was ‘old enough’ (i.e. eleven) to be allowed to rent the movie on video, I had to make do with imagining the visual carnage just from the description of the man who was reading out the simplified story, with none of the political posturing.

When I finally slipped the VHS into the player, I wasn’t disappointed. My love of this movie isn’t blind, but I find that the plus points far outweigh the problems. Most of all, it’s a full-blooded 80s action movie. Roll out three different types of bad guy and let Rambo kill them all in very cool ways (explosive arrows!), and if that’s not enough, chuck in a half-hearted romantic angle to give our hero a need for revenge as well. It’s clear from the beginning that he’s not going to follow his orders to not engage the enemy. It may be completely over-the-top and clichéd but it contains some of the best action sequences not only of the series but of all action movies from the 80s.

My rating: 7/10

 Rambo: Ultimate Collection

Rambo III


Message: The USA has learned from its mistakes in Vietnam and would never think of invading Afghanistan. Hang on a minute…

This is the pumped-up character of Rambo taken to its logical conclusion. As the tagline stated, ‘The first was for himself, the second was for his country, this time is for his friend’, which means that when Colonel Trautman (who is surely far too old to see any action) is captured by those damn Russkies, Rambo wades in with all guns blazing like a big homoerotic one-man-army. The structure of this movie is very similar to that of the first sequel (and the latest movie):

1. Find out what the mission is
2. Rambo goes to the camp
3. Rescue/escape attempt doesn’t go to plan
4. Go back to the camp or to another camp
5. Kill everyone and escape

The movie moves at breakneck speed, but that just serves to get us into the action as quickly as possible. Plot and character development are pretty much thrown out of the window in favour of blowing things up but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you can buy into a helicopter taking a swan-dive off a cliff qualifying as an ‘escape’. Yes, it’s overblown and stupid but put this next to recent dumb action movies like The Marine and it feels like Citizen Kane. There are some nice touches, like the reappearance of the scar on Rambo’s face from the previous movie, but the broad humour is unwelcome and at this point in my marathon I was beginning to question my strategy for ploughing through the series.

My rating: 5/10

 Rambo: Ultimate Collection

Rambo


Message: Killing is sometimes the right thing to do.

That was until I popped Rambo into the player. At that point, all became right in the world again. This is the first movie I’ve seen in a long time that has made me blurt out ‘Whoah, Jesus!’ in the cinema. I’ve seen plenty of violent movies in my time but Rambo takes the biscuit. Obviously taking inspiration from Saving Private Ryan, Sylvester Stallone (directing a Rambo movie for the first time) takes R-rated action as far as he can. It was obvious to me that even in supposedly adult action movies, we’re used to seeing explosions accompanied by people trampolining across the screen, but Rambo throws a heft dose of gore into the action, with explosions accompanied by body parts and buckets of blood.

John Rambo himself never really gets into much danger as he finds himself with a team of mercenaries to help him rescue the religious do-gooders who didn’t take his advice not to venture into war-torn Burma. What’s most interesting is that the central message in this movie is that killing is sometimes a good thing. The journey of the man who leads the missionaries is one of a pacifist turning into someone who will kill his enemy when pushed into a corner. Straw Dogs it isn’t, but the moral of this story won’t sit well with some viewers, so be warned.

The action peaks when Rambo gets his hands on a massive jeep-mounted cannon and lets rip on the bad guys. It’s an incredible scene—the physical and emotional climax of a journey that began when he returned from the Vietnam war. The closing scene may set it up for a fifth part but I can’t help thinking our hero will be less rather than more angry by the time we meet him again. What I was thinking while watching Rambo at the end of my marathon session was that this is a franchise that might benefit from prequels rather than more sequels. With Sly ready to pick up his bus pass, it might be time to hang up the bandana after leaving us on a high. Does anyone else want to see Jason Statham as Young Rambo back in his Vietnam years? I know I do.

My rating: 7/10

 Rambo: Ultimate Collection

Video


All four movies are presented in 1080p and it’s fair to say that the first three movies haven’t looked this good for a long time. First Blood has a different look when compared with the rest. The muted colours and use of shadow are appropriate to the movie’s setting in a town where the sky is permanently overcast and bad weather is always just around the corner. Predictably, the quality is probably the lowest of the bunch, with patches of grain quite obvious in the darker scenes. On the other hand, the detail is just as impressive here as it is across the rest, with wide landscape shots looking particularly good on a big screen.

First Blood aside, I hadn’t realised just how sweaty the Rambo movies were. With jungle and desert settings, the high definition picture really gives you a sense of the heat, with the increased detail allowing the viewer to pick out each bead of sweat on everyone’s foreheads. Rambo II in particular uses soft focus, especially in the supposedly romantic scenes, and this makes the background look hazy and therefore more humid. Rambo II and Rambo III are colourful movies, but a long section in part two takes place at night. I remember that when I used to own this movie on VHS that it was incredibly difficult to tell what was going on but this improved with the DVD release and even more so now on Blu-ray.

 Rambo: Ultimate Collection
There is a surprising but pleasing lack of dirt and scratches on the picture of the first three movies, given their age. There is a little wobble from time to time, most of all during the credits but certainly nothing to detract from the viewing experience. With its debut on Blu-ray, Rambo is expected to look pretty much perfect and as Chris stated in detail in his review, the movie looks very good, if not quite worthy of a full ten out of ten. The colour palette changes, with scenes tinted with blue, green and brown depending on the setting and the weather. The only real issue I had was that it was quite obvious at times when CGI blood sprays have been added into explosions, which I don’t remember noticing in the cinema. Maybe I wasn’t wincing quite so much this time when revisiting the movie at home.

Audio


The first three movies all come with DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio tracks. The scores across the movies complement the action well, with the tone and cues changing according to the events on screen and the motivation of our hero. It may be a simple attempt to direct the audience in the filmmakers’ chosen direction but in reality they are simple movies and it works. Following Jerry Goldsmith’s passing, Brian Tyler’s music in Rambo utilises the distinctive original beats in a new score that sits well with what came before.

As with the video quality, the audio standard of First Blood is lower than that of the other movies in the set. The dialogue is a little muffled and there is not great use of directional sound, with most of the effects seeming to come through the front speakers, although decent weather effects can be found in the rear channels. Rambo II has a more detailed audio track, with more action in the surround channels. The sequence in the rain was particularly impressive and when the action kicks in, you’ll have bullets whistling around you from one speaker to another. The quality of Rambo III is similar, with more helicopter sequences allowing your 5.1 system to get a decent workout. There were touches that I hadn’t noticed before on DVD, like the drumming during the opening stick fight that gets louder as the fight goes on and adds to the tension of the scene.

 Ultimate Rambo Collection
Rambo comes with a 5.1 TrueHD option, along with an audio descriptive track. The soundtrack is detailed, with as much detail as you could hope for in a movie that takes place in a jungle inhabited by noisy insects and rustling trees. During the action sequences there’s plenty going on, with explosions and bullet sounds hitting the viewer from all angles. However, the track isn’t quite as powerful as you might expect from the best high definition releases. There are no problems with dialogue, effects or the quality of the music but the bass in the explosions won’t quite knock the picture hooks out of your living room walls.

Extras


Unfortunately the discs for the first three movies come with just one extra feature, which is replicated on all discs and is a bit of a gyp considering the extras that can be found on the various DVD releases that the original trilogy has had down the years. It’s an interview with Sylvester Stallone where he discusses the Rambo movies (and is pretty candid when discussing number three) and his place in the making of them. It turns out he was the last choice for the role, with every big name at the time having turned down the role and it wasn’t until he came on board that the character became the Rambo we know and love.

 Ultimate Rambo Collection
Rambo comes with a few more extras though. To kick off we get a commentary track supplied by Rambo himself. It’s a shame the track he recorded for First Blood isn’t included in the set as well because he clearly knows the ins and outs about movie-making and talks candidly about his motivations. He states that he wanted the movie to educate people about the situation in Burma, something he intended to do with Rambo III but failed to achieve. The disc also comes with a picture-in-picture commentary for those of you who are blessed with a higher profile Blu-ray player than I have.

However, there is an alternative option that automatically branches the movie out of Stallone’s commentary and into the featurettes, which pads the total running time out to two hours. This does mean that you’ll be treated to some key scenes as part of the featurettes before they appear in the movie, but it’s good that the producers realised that most people won’t be able to view the PiP commentary. There is a BD-Live option but that’s also beyond my technological capabilities.

The six featurettes clock in at about an hour in total and look at different aspects of the movie. ‘It’s A Long Road’ is the longest of the bunch and focuses on the work Stallone put in with the producers to get Rambo back on the big screen. Most interesting of all is the screenplay he wrote based in Mexico that sounds like it could form the basis for the fifth movie. ‘A Score to Settle’ looks at the work Brian Tyler did to adapt Jerry Goldsmith’s original score and how he wrote musical cues to link his own music into the saga.

 Ultimate Rambo Collection
‘The Art of War: Completing Rambo’ is split into two parts. The first part looks at the editing and the relationship between Stallone and Sean Albertson, who first worked together on Rocky Balboa. The second part focuses on the sound editing and the work that went into putting as much detail as they could into the mix. ‘Weaponry of Rambo’ shows us Kent Johnson, who was the weapons supervisor and has worked with Stallone on many movies down the years. In addition to weapons, he was in charge of all the props and it’s clear that a lot of work went into picking the right equipment for each character.

‘A Hero’s Welcome’ takes us behind the scenes at the premiere in Las Vegas, at Planet Hollywood, including an appearance from a certain Mr Schwarzenegger. ‘Legacy of Despair’ is the only featurette that doesn’t look at the making of Rambo, instead focusing on the real plight in Burma. We also get four deleted (or extended) scenes that generally show us more of the relationship between Rambo and Sarah but they would have slowed down the action and were probably left out for good reason. Finally we get trailers for Hancock, Vantage Point and a promo for Blu-ray.

 Ultimate Rambo Collection

Overall


I’m not sure what took longer—watching the Rambo movies or writing up this epic review. There will always be a place in my heart for these movies, even the third one, and I’m sure anyone who picks up this set will know exactly what they’re letting themselves in for. The movies look good on this high definition release and while the sound quality of the first three doesn’t match that of the Blu-ray discs of recent movies, a bit more leniency is needed for movies this old. It’s a shame we didn’t get any extras apart from those relating to Rambo so fans of John J Rambo might like to consider the US release of the original trilogy, which comes loaded with extras about the original movies.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page.


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