Rambo (US - BD RA)
Gabe cheers Rambo's return, and has a strange craving for chunky tomato soup.
I’m going to make a lot of statements in this review that will sound invariably negative. I want to be clear here and now that I genuinely liked Rambo, probably more then any other movie in the series. The twist is that I may like it for reasons I’m not sure were entirely intended by director, writer and star Sylvester Stallone. Rambo isn’t exactly a ‘so bad it’s good’ feature—Stallone has crafted his action tightly, and despite his simplified logic and plot the film elicits an emotional response—but the lumps must be noted.
My enjoyment here is simple and visceral—I like graphic movie violence, and I like unvarnished movie vengeance—but my respect goes somewhat deeper. Rambo is effectively an independent film, and the closest we’ve gotten to a real deal ‘70s exploitation in a long time. The classic grindhouse has found its way into the modern public’s pop knowledge and lexicon in the last ten years, but most of the new films derived from the original films are homage rather then genuine. Films like Kill Bill, Grindhouse, The Devil’s Rejects, and Haute Tension are call backs and send-ups, which quote and respect the grindhouse, but are so distinct in their homage and subversion that they don’t generate the same effect. The ‘torture porn’ subgenre, specifically the Saw films ( Hostel, is too steeped in homage), kind of cover things for horror, but action films have sort of defaulted into a mess of CG spectacle (a different kind of exploitation film), and have generally lacked that punch drunk grit since the end of the 1980s.
Rambo is basically the same movie as Rambo III (the order of these films is something I hope to never explain to my grandmother). Stallone has taken the old genocide America was ignoring, that of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and replaced it with a new and more relevant genocide America is ignoring, that of Burma, which surprisingly enough has become more relevant since the film was released in theatres this past January. If there had been call for a Rambo film in the Clinton era my guess is that he would’ve taken a trip to Mogadishu. John Rambo is in the exact same place he was in Rambo III, Thailand, avoiding America, and he’s given another chance to make a difference, which he really doesn’t want to take. This time he doesn’t entirely avoid responsibility, he takes the missionaries where they want to go, but he finds himself in the same situation in the end where he has to run into a war zone and save some people. He’s even given a trinket by a pretty girl.
Stallone isn’t subtle about anything this time around. There’s no room for gray shades in this film, there’s simply no time for them. The whole thing is streamlined to the point of sprinting (the entire film, minus credits, is about an hour twenty), and the dialogue is the first thing to go. In the grindhouse tradition we’re told as much as we can be through simple and relatively wordless scenes that speak their volumes as plainly as possible. Sometimes Stallone oversteps his glorious simplicity by not knowing when enough is enough, especially when jack hammering the point on his villains. We get that these guys are bad from the first scene, and we’re clear on their intentions from their second scene, adding a short sequence that makes the lead baddie’s sexual tastes clear (little boys) is unnecessary, and ends up straining the suspension of disbelief because of its cartoony nature.
However, the cartoony nature is what makes this decent action thriller with oversimplified morals and narration a memorable romp into grindhouse, the likes of which we really haven’t seen since Italians like Antonio Margheriti and Umberto Lenzi tried to mimic the success of the original Rambo movie, First Blood. Rambo is the bloodiest action film I’ve seen in a long time, and its R-rated achievement is pretty shocking. Stallone has obviously been watching a lot of movies since 1988, specifically successful war films like Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Scott’s [/i]Black Hawk Down[/i], and he’s remembered his lessons well. The director runs into some problems with the tone of his graphic bloodshed, which is occasionally genuinely impactive, but more often mawkishly sentimental or really, really funny. This marks a problem for Stallone’s intended tone (I’m assuming), but it actually makes for a more entertaining film.
There are some bits that just don’t work, and stand out as simply bad filmmaking, like the factoid spewing merc trip up the river where Stallone tries to fill in the characters and historical facts of the area is a brief jumble of words and images (did you know that Burma’s chief exports were genocide and hard drugs?). I could take out my bleeding heart liberal card and complain about the simplified storytelling and politics toll on the film’s race relations (the Virgin Mary treatment of the film’s sole white woman is a teeny tiny bit suspect), but that’s besides the point in a film like this (lord knows the Italians were racist as all hell when they made movies like this), and even the most overly sensitive among us have to admit that telling the story through Western eyes makes the streamlined pacing work. This is a vanity project, made by a man in his 60s (Rambo doesn’t take off his shirt in this one) who’s once illustrious career has been on the outs for decades, and that has to be taken into account when dealing with the film critically. It comes down to the audacity and the independent nature, and really we have to respect this guy for getting things done this efficiently. If there were a real Rambo he’d be proud.
There isn’t much I can say about this transfer other then it’s very, very good. The only shortcomings derive from the filmmaker’s budgetary constraints. Glen MacPherson’s slim and effective cinematography deals in a lot of handheld shots and quick cuts, and large sections of the film take place under cover of night and in torrential downpour, so some scenes lack the kind of sharp definition 1080p can show off so effectively. However, the daylight scenes, facial close-ups, and nature soaked wide shots looks as tight, bright, and lifelike as possible. The consistent smoky nature (apparently the Thai’s have a ‘burning season’) could’ve led to a loss of detail and general noise doesn’t actually hurt the print at all, instead creating texturally pleasing fine grain, that actually makes the transfer appear sharper. There are a few wide shots that don’t quite meld with the rest of the film (perhaps stock footage?), but the overall colour is vibrant, and the blacks are the deepest available.
There are a few occurrences of strange jitter to the image, which I’m not sure were done on purpose or not because I’ve not seen the film in any other form. The obviously purposeful lacking frame rate and strange sync seems to be in minor homage to the now standard war look of Saving Private Ryan, but these few shots look slightly sped up and generally wrong.
Lionsgate takes no chances with this disc’s audio, offering a 7.1 DTS HD Master Audio track that will probably blow up your viewing room. I don’t have the extra two channels to experience the full seven, but I never found myself at a loss for noise. Each gun has its own distinct sound and punctuation, each explosion rocks the channels to its own specific tune, and Brian Tyler’s score (somewhat derived from Jerry Goldsmith’s scores) is virtual wall of sound. There is effective emersion in every aspect of this track, without sacrificing the subtly of the environment or some of the vocal performances (not that there’s anything particularly subtle about these performances).
Things begin with Sylvester Stallone’s intelligent, insightful, and well-spoken commentary track. Stallone is honest and sometimes self-effacing, which is refreshing considering the fact that this is a vanity project. The tracks most interesting aspects are Stallone’s acknowledgement of the consistent on set changes, and the little stories of filming in the real jungle. The dude might be getting up there in years, and he may not hold the same sway he did twenty years ago, but Sly’s knowledge and wit never fails to impress, and the whole thing really comes down to the classic quote of “if we can’t be great, let’s be truthful”.
My Profile 1.0 player sometimes manages to work out a few of these Lionsgate Profile 1.1 features, but in this case I was entirely unable to view the Blu-ray exclusive PiP behind the scenes explorations. Those with newer players or PS3s will have to let me know if it’s worth it in the comments section.
The disc’s featurettes begin with ‘It’s a Long Road: The Resurrection of an Icon’, a general look at the film’s pre-production. In the featurette Stallone and the other producers cover the sale of the film, the goods and bads of filming in South East Asia, and the basic ‘whys’ of the production. Apparently things began with a script set in Mexico, which was soon displaced by the more politically centred Burma script, and apparently Rocky Balboa was actually green lit after Rambo. The twenty-minute featurette later moves on to actor interviews and behind the scenes filming footage.
Shorter featurettes follow. ‘A Score to Settle’ covers the scoring of this new Rambo, which picks up directly after the old Rambo’s musically. Composer Brian Tyler talks about his constant Goldsmith footstep following ( Rambo, AVP 2, the Star Trek TV series), his love of the character and Stallone, and we get to hear some of his score without sound effects. ‘The Art of War’ covers the film and sound editing process effectively. Apparently the filmmakers were just as surprised as I am that the film got an R-rating instead of an NC-17. ‘The Weaponry of Rambo’ sort of speaks for itself—it’s a pretty detailed look at the weaponry used by the characters in the film, and the actor training. Surprisingly this is one of the only sections of the featurettes that repeats a lot of Stallone’s commentary. ‘A Hero’s Welcome’ is a cute look at the film’s Las Vegas premier, including a surprise appearance by Governor Arnold Swartzeneggar, which ends with a pointed look at the film’s effect in the real Burma.
The last featurette is called ‘Legacy of Despair: The Real Struggle of Burma’, is a real life look at the terrible problems in the troubled and forgotten nation. The interviewees are historical experts, and the documentary is filled with real newsreel footage of the atrocities, including the late September slaughtering of Buddhist monks. The pace of the doc is a bit too fast to fully absorb, and the tone is a little late night advertisement, but the history and facts of the case are clear and terrifying. The fact that the film has inspired the Burmese people and world wide interest in the plight is actually inspiring in itself, and this featurette is a classy addition to a generally unclassy film. The featurettes are all presented in high definition and run about and hour and ten minutes top to bottom.
The disc also houses four deleted scenes, presented in high definition, but at the differing aspect ratio of 1.78:1, and seemingly temporary 2.0 sound. Stallone talks about a lot more than four scenes in the commentary, but these seem to be his favourites. The first scene is a different and longer confrontation between Rambo and Sarah, where she’s given more time to convince him to help the missionaries. The second scene is a longer version of the film’s second Rambo and Sarah confrontation (though according to the deleted scenes their third), where Sarah basically yells at Rambo and Rambo calmly tells Sarah that things will always suck. The third scene is another Rambo and Sarah scene, a longer version of their little talk on the boat, where we find out that Rambo actually didn’t take any money for the trip. The last scene is, wait for it, another Rambo Sarah chat, where Rambo wraps Sarah’s bare feet while they run away towards the end of the film. In all the scenes run about fourteen minutes.
The MoLog feature works only with 2.0 players, and the screen told me that after a few minutes of attempting to get it started. The Digital Copy version of the film worked fine, though I am curious as to the reason for including this, which effectively seems to make the digital download bootlegging process easier. Things finish up with trailers for all the Rambo films and other Lionsgate Blu-ray releases.
Rambo has a case of the dumbs, and a case of the inappropriates, but it’s unstoppably entertaining, and actually carries a dose of pathos. First Blood is still the ‘best’ Rambo movie, but this one may be the most fun, despite some rough and depressing visuals. Passing fans of hard core violence and gore aren’t going to enjoy themselves, but those of us that weren’t born early enough to actually enjoy the grindhouse heyday will eat up this chunky tomato soup with a rusty and bent spoon. The last thirty minutes are such a sumptuous dish of testosterone and brutality that accurate criticism proves impossible for this movie fan.
A note to Lionsgate: watch those security stickers, they pull the silver paint off the Blu-Ray logo.
* 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 2008
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, Dolby Digital EX 5.1 French
Subtitles: English HoH, French, and Spanish
Extras: Director Commentary, PiP Behind the Scenes, Featurettes, Deleted Scenes, MoLog, Digital Copy, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Sylvester Stallone
Cast: Julie Benz, Ken Howard, Sylvester Stallone, Graham McTavish, Paul Schulze
Genre: Action, Adventure and War
Length: 92 minutes