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Let me start out by saying I'm not the world's biggest Rambo aficionado. I've seen the previous films at one time or another, but I never took to the 'trilogy' in the same way as many other 80s film series. That's probably because I grew up with Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Back to the Future, whereas Rambo was something I saw at a much later age. Still, I had the chance to watch the previous films recently (courtesy of Optimum's forthcoming boxed set), which helped greatly with getting into the spirit of things for this review.

 Rambo

Feature


As the film opens we catch up with John Rambo in Thailand, where he has been living in relative isolation for the past nineteen years. He makes his living as a boatman ferrying people up and down the river (and by catching the occasional venomous snake), wanting nothing to do with his former life or America. When he is approached by a group of Christian missionaries seeking passage to war-torn Burma, Rambo initially refuses to help. However, after an impassioned plea from one of the group, Sarah, he relents and agrees to make the perilous journey.

At the end of the dangerous trip, Rambo and his passengers part company and he returns to his solitary existence. However, days later he is informed that the missionaries have been captured by the military and imprisoned, or possibly worse. He is asked to take a team of mercenaries up river to the point where he dropped off the missionaries, where they will effect an extraction. Again he reluctantly agrees, but when the mercenaries are compromised it falls to Rambo to intervene do what he does best—kill.

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Let me just say that Rambo is possibly the most violent film I’ve ever seen. It’s not ‘nasty’ in the way that some of the so-called ‘torture porn’ films are, but the sheer volume of violence takes some beating. From the outset we are shown fairly graphic images of real-life atrocities, followed by harrowing scenes in which people are forced to run a minefield for the enjoyment of their tormentors (with predictably grisly results). From then on it’s pretty relentless, as entire villages are razed and their inhabitants brutally murdered. People are raped, tortured, mutilated and fed to pigs. All of this comes before a final act that simply has to take the award for ‘most people liquidised by a .50 calibre machine gun’.

It’s pretty gruesome stuff, but it’s not gratuitous. Writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone wants to show us the ugly side of war; the inhumanity, the brutality. In most action films people are shot and they fall down, but here you see the terrible effects the weapons have on the human body in horrifying detail. At first this has the desired effect of shocking the viewer, but by the second or third scene of ultra-violence I started to get desensitised to it. By the end I was cheering as Rambo cut the bad guys in half, but maybe that’s what Stallone wanted. Personally I think there’s something quite perverse about a film encouraging us to derive satisfaction from the kind of deplorable violence that we were supposed to find abhorrent only a short time before, but hey.

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Speaking of the bad guys, the villains are completely one-dimensional. There’s no exploration of their motives or explanation for their actions. There are no shades of grey here—they’re just bastards. The Burmese major, Tint, is pretty much the personification of evil, staring on impassively as his troops carry out unspeakable acts of violence on his orders. Unfortunately Stallone also overeggs things in this department, as just when we think he can’t get any worse the commander is shown to be a paedophile with a penchant for young boys. I’m not saying that we should sympathise with the antagonist, but I almost expected him to grow horns at the end. By contrast, the white characters are shown to be universally good, particularly the blonde-haired female.

Still, when all is said and done I actually enjoyed Rambo quite a bit. Clocking in at just over ninety minutes, the film moves at breakneck pace and doesn’t outstay its welcome. The editing is purposefully twitchy, emulating Rambo’s own paranoia, and much of the emotion is conveyed through expression or score. This keeps dialogue down to the bare minimum, telling us only what we need to know (or what Stallone wants us to know), which actually works in the film’s favour. It’s not as rounded a film as First Blood, but it’s a lot more exciting and more realistic than the sequels that saw Rambo taking on entire armies almost single-handedly.

 Rambo

Video


Rambo arrives with a 2.40:1 (1080p/AVC) transfer that looks very nice indeed. I managed to catch the film at the cinema and from what I remember this is very close approximation of the experience. Colour rendition remains faithful to the film’s stylised palette, in which many of the exterior daytime shots are bathed in a warm, yellow glow. The cinematography also showcases the beautiful Thai countryside wonderfully, with the lush greens of the jungles being particularly noteworthy. Skin tones are natural within the confines of the stylised palette and that all-important colour, red, is bright and vibrant. Contrast appears to have been artificially enhanced in post-production, giving the image a ‘blown-out’ appearance that intensifies the hazy atmosphere. Black levels are consistent throughout, although they often appear more blue than black. However, they would appear to be a fair representation of the source material so I can’t complain too much.

You’d have every right to expect such a new film to be furnished with a pristine transfer, and you won’t be disappointed. As previously stated, I had the opportunity to view the older films in the series, complete with their ‘charming’ film artefacts and telecine wobble, but from my normal seating position I couldn’t detect any appreciable flaws in Rambo’s image, save for one or two very minor white speckles. There is some mild film grain, which lends the film a ‘gritty’ look, but Rambo was shot in Super 35 so it’s not unexpected or unwanted. However, sharpness is slightly lacking when compared to the very best Blu-ray transfers. In fact, from the screen shots I’ve seen, Lionsgate’s release appears to be a tad sharper than Sony’s effort, which is odd (and a little annoying).

 Rambo
I should mention that I noticed a couple of momentary stutters at around the forty-three/forty-four minute mark. At first I thought this could be an issue with my standalone player, but I saw the same thing when watching on my PC. The scene in question is when the mercenaries are being led through a cave filled with Karen refugees. After checking with colleagues I can confirm that these 'frame jumps' are present on the DVD and Lionsgate Blu-ray, so it’s either an error on all releases or it was present theatrically.

Audio


The US release of Rambo features 7.1 channel DTS-HD Master Audio, but Sony's UK effort 'only' has a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track. The first thing that struck me was how quiet it was in comparison to most of the discs I've reviewed. In fact, I had to crank the volume up a fair way before things started to sound as expected. It seems TrueHD is just that little bit quieter than PCM or DTS-HD, apparently according to dialogue normalisation (or so I've read).

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The track is a lively one, with near constant use of ambient effects and some neat use of the discrete surrounds, particularly as the film progresses. The gentle sounds of the Thai countryside, particularly the chirping crickets and the soothing rainfall, are in stark contrast the cacophony of noise that accompanies the more action-packed scenes. The viewer is literally assaulted from every angle by machine gun fire, .50 calibre rifles, grenades, mines, rocket launchers and every other weapon of war you care to think of. Each explosion produces a fairly satisfying rumble from the subwoofer, particularly the massive detonation of a WWII bomb towards the end. Dialogue is also relatively well-balanced in the mix, although I did struggle to hear it on one occasion. The score sits nicely alongside the rest of the track and thankfully steers clear of the cheese that marred the earlier sequels—there’s no Frank Stallone song at the end of this one!

With all of that said, I wasn't as impressed with the track as I expected to be, especially compared to the very best I’ve heard on the format. After reading great things about the Lionsgate audio I was expecting to be totally blown away, but I found some of the effects just a tad anaemic. Don’t get me wrong, Rambo has an excellent, aggressive sound mix, it just isn’t quite up there with the very best for me. Perhaps that's because the majority of the titles I own feature PCM or DTS-HD tracks, both of which seem to pack more 'punch' on my system.

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I did notice several audio drop-outs when watching the film, but as I couldn’t replicate them I concluded that they had to be down to my player. This is entirely possible, as it had major problems with TrueHD drop-outs on the Spider-Man films before I upgraded the firmware. As Rambo has yet to be released there’s always the chance that a future upgrade will remedy things, but rest assured this had no bearing on my audio score.

Extras


First up is an audio commentary by writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone, which pretty much blew away all of my preconceptions about the man. As I've already stated, I’m not the biggest Rambo fan, and while I enjoyed some of the Rocky films and a few of his other 80s action movies, I've never really paid much attention to him. For that reason, my impression of Stallone has always been one of a slurring, slightly dim-witted meathead, but nothing could be further from the truth. Stallone delivers an eloquent and entertaining commentary track that deals with all aspects of the filmmaking process, along with further highlighting the situation in Burma. It's actually one of the most engaging tracks I've heard in quite a while.

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This disc is also BonusView (profile 1.1) enabled, which is just a fancy way of saying it has a picture in picture commentary. At times a small window will pop up in which Stallone can be seen commentating on the film. At other times, behind the scenes footage relevant to the current scene will play, and occasionally the windows will switch so that the bonus content is more prominent while the movie runs in the window. In my experience, PiP features can be a bit gimmicky, usually recycling material found elsewhere on the disc. This one largely avoids that and manages to deliver some interesting content. Because of the additional footage, the PiP track actually adds over twenty five minutes to the total runtime of the film.

In a move that both surprised and pleased me, those of you without profile 1.1 machines will have access to a different commentary option in the menu. When activated, it plays Stallone's commentary track with the various BonusView featurettes integrated into the film. It’s nice that Sony took the time to address one of the early failings of the BD format—the lack of standardisation—so that owners of older players can view more of the material on offer.

 Rambo
A series of featurettes (all presented in 1080i) come next, the first of which is entitled ‘It’s a Long Road: The Resurrection of an Icon'. This is the longest featurette (running for just under twenty minutes) and features Stallone and a bunch of producers talking about how the film came into being. Interestingly, we learn that the powers that be green-lit Rambo long before Rocky Balboa. However, most surprising of all is the revelation that the films major bad guy (no pun intended), Tint, is actually an ex-Karen rebel. As the featurette progresses we get interviews with the principal cast and behind the scenes footage.

A shorter featurette entitled ‘A Score to Settle: The Music of Rambo’ deals with the scoring of the film after Jerry Goldsmith’s passing. Composer Brian Tyler’s career overlaps Goldsmiths with stints on Star Trek: Enterprise and AvP:R, and he talks about following in the legendary composers footsteps, his love of the Rambo films and his working relationship with Stallone (who is also on hand).

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‘The Art of War: Completing Rambo’ is a two-part featurette that deals with the editing and sound design. It gets off to an odd start when Sly claims that he edited the film himself because he’d ‘heard bad things’ about Sean Albertson. Obviously this is a joke and the rest of the featurette is spent examining the editing process with Stallone, Albertson and his co-editor Paul Harb. The trio briefly touch on the graphic violence, which they were certain was going to earn them an NC-17 rating. For the second part of the featurette, Albertson is joined by various individuals involved in creating the film’s audio mix. Together they discuss various aspects of the creative process, mentioning Stallone’s insistence that the effects sound as true to life as possible.

‘The Weaponry of Rambo’ is pretty self-explanatory—it’s a very detailed look at the weaponry used in the film. Introduced by Stallone and featuring a lot of on-set footage, the featurette takes us through the process of selecting the right weapons to reflect the characters’ personalities, actor training, and more. Property Master Kent Johnson is on-hand to tell us all about the weapons, including the fearsome .50 calibre variants.

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‘A Hero’s Welcome: Release and Reaction’ takes a look at the film’s Las Vegas premier. There’s plenty of camera footage from the premier itself, along with talking head interviews with the principal cast (including a brunette Julie Benz—yes please). There’s even a surprise appearance by Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger! It gets a little bit sentimental towards the end, but on the whole it manages to avoid the sickening love-fests you often get with these pieces. Stallone winds things up by reminding us just how bad things are in Burma, where just watching the film can earn you a ten-year prison sentence, but points out that the film has helped to raise awareness on a global scale.

Four deleted scenes come next, all of which focus on the relationship between Rambo and Sarah. The first scene is a longer (and slightly different) version of the scene where Sarah tries to convince Rambo to help the missionaries. The second scene is a longer version of the night-time confrontation between Rambo and Sarah , where he basically tells her life sucks and she should just accept it. The third scene is just a longer version of Rambo and Sarah’s conversation during the boat trip, while the fourth scene shows Rambo tending to Sarah’s wounds as they flee the Burmese military camp. To be honest I’m glad the scenes were trimmed, because they would have severely hampered the film’s pacing. In total the scenes run for around fourteen minutes and are presented at 1.78:1 (1080p) with Dolby Digital audio.

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The disc also has a BD-Live (profile 2.0) feature, but my standalone machine can only dream of profile 1.1 support, let alone 2.0, so I was force to rely on the two 'supposedly' BD-Live software players on my PC. Neither worked, claiming that I had no Internet connection (which I most certainly did), so I was unable to check it out. Perhaps this is simply because the disc has yet to be released at the time of writing.

A series of trailers complete the line-up. First up we get the usual Sony pimping their own format affair with 'Blu-ray is High-Definition', but of more interest is the HD trailer for the forthcoming Will Smith superhero film, Hancock. Unfortunately it's a rather short trailer that doesn't really impress as much as the longer, more action-packed one, but I'm still quite interested in the flick. The final trailer is for the forthcoming Vantage Point, which gets its UK Blu-ray release in August.

 Rambo

Overall


Rambo is a solid action film that strives to be more, but doesn’t quite pull it off. The attempts to open people’s eyes to the atrocities occurring in Burma are admirable, but the execution doesn’t quite live up to the idealism. With that said, I enjoyed this film as much as the original First Blood, but for entirely different reasons and on a far more visceral level. In fact, looking back over the year so far, Rambo stands as one of the better mainstream films I’ve seen, which isn’t bad for an action star pushing sixty two.

A couple of minor audio-visual niggles aside, Sony’s Blu-ray release is a resounding triumph, particularly the extras, which are for once interesting and informative rather than gimmicky filler. However, from the evidence I’ve seen Lionsgate's Blu-ray might just have the edge in the AV department and it is coded for all regions, which presents potential buyers with a bit of a dilemma. I had hoped the dawn of hi-def would mark the end of these silly regional variances, but I guess not. Still, one thing's for sure, whichever release you go for you’re not going to be disappointed.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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