Rambo - The Ultimate Blu-Ray Collection Review
There are those who believe that the last eight years have proved that Rambo's keen insight into foreign policy has been the biggest single influence on the world's remaining superpower. Not only was he born on the same day as Stallone but George W Bush has shared many a characteristic with one of the actor's most famous creations. We have had a president of few words, other than incoherent moralising and ill founded justifications for excessive actions, who has left behind him a pile of bodies to pay testament to his determination to punish evil doers. Given Rambo's popularity and the fact that simple folksy politics have become all the rage, these parallels go some way to explaining how such a dumb bell as Dubya got re-elected and why. Perhaps people, voters and viewers, are attracted to firm and decisive actions that portray ourselves as the good guys and the people we fight as devils. Perhaps we don't like detail, contradiction or paradox, and when we ask to be told the unvarnished truth we don't want it to take longer than the ad break between programs.
It wasn't always like this because the first Rambo film was not about those who threaten the American way of life, unless that threat was the unassimilated warrior played by Stallone. Rambo: First Blood was actually an interesting piece about a country that had turned its back on those who went to fight for it, a situation that many an ex-soldier knows only too well. Perhaps in its desire for a lack of complication, our civilised society tries to disown those parts of ourselves that we need to use in order to survive, and the character of the inarticulate scruffy and physical John Rambo sums up that threat to the good people of the small town of Hope.
From the moment that John Rambo turns up at the outskirts of Hope, directly after discovering that he is the sole survivor of his Vietnam unit, he is made unwelcome. The sheriff drives him out of the town and when he refuses to leave, he arrests him and subjects him to the rough stuff, which sets the traumatised soldier off on a survivalist rampage. It is the authorities of the town that try to hunt down this threat to their perceived status quo, and despite the politics of the films that followed this is for bone-headed conservative reasons not liberal war hating ones.
Some have taken the example of John Rambo as justification for their extreme tactics and isolation within the body politic, but what is noticeable about the first film is that Rambo never kills anyone, he only immobilises his enemies. He is no zealot or humble hero, he is driven by trauma and the horrifying death of a friend, and, when he breaks down at the end of the film, it is not to lecture but to offload the terror that has scarred his soul. His survival eventually comes, not as the toughest man around, but as a broken man rescued by a father figure, who in his own words takes pity when he may have preferred to put a bullet through this human wreckage's skull.
The first film has moments of silliness and machismo but it is well cast, benefiting from the wonderful Brian Dennehy and Richard Crenna to make up for Stallone's lack of acting chops. It has great pacing and sensible direction that always brings the film back to the human drama after indulging in the action, this means that as a a standalone piece of cinema this proves a welcome change from the more obvious war is bad viewpoint that Hollywood had favoured in the years before its release. Rambo: First Blood is a good drama, an interesting action flick and happily devoid of the nonsensical patriotism that scarred the following films in the series.
All the credit for the direction of the Rambo sequels should not be reserved for Sylvester Stallone, as his writing partner on the second film was none other than James Cameron. Cameron's own franchise involving a monosyllabic morally obtuse hero was yet to come, but here he ensures that the strengths of Rambo: First Blood are soon forgotten for juvenile wish fulfillment and empty boasts. If the first film had a couple of adolescent moments in the guise of wheelies, here the second film is chock full of a cross between comic book adventure and history written by idiots. Above all though, this is a film where no word or phrase is stupid enough to not be said and the somewhat limited Stallone is given dialogue to suggest he is a soulful intellectual where the original film relied on his inarticulacy as indicative of his emotional mess. Rambo moves from being a victim of changing times to the vanguard of the future.
The chief characteristic of the sequels is their unwillingness and inability to understand the world outside of the US of A. Rambo's Vietnam is a place filled with venomous Asians, incited by evil Russians with Polish names, and where anyone who speaks English has never mastered verbs. To celebrate this facet of the dialogue, for this part of my review I will write it in the style of Rambo's girl friday, an unfathomably gorgeous guerilla with ready access to salon quality haircare in the midst of the Vietnamese civil war:
Rambo in prison. Trautman come and take Rambo to Vietnam to rescue Americans. But Trautman's boss bad man and Rambo no escape. Rambo caught and bad man hurt Rambo. Girl help Rambo escape, girl like Rambo, soldiers shoot girl. Rambo angry, Rambo kill bad men and Rambo save good men. Rambo no kill Trautman boss but break his computer instead.
I'll stop that before I annoy myself but I hope you can get how patronising this character is. Rambo: First Blood Part 2 forsakes any semblance of the real world for rampant xenophobia where foreigners are out to get you and deserve to be killed willy nilly. Where Rambo avoided killing in the first film, here he just wants to kill as many Vietnamese and Russians as he can, but still strangely turns his nose up at killing a man who sent him there to die. Throughout his grunting and exhalations of lead, we are told clear nonsense and asked to believe that if only men like Rambo had been given the right support they would have won the war in Vietnam, destroyed the evil empire, and preserved the reputation of the greatest nation on Earth.
This is all very attractive to those who want simplicity, and what the film really represents is a video game where right thinking white men get to vent their frustration at never being recognised as the superior beings they really are. The point of view is that if only we could all blunder out into the world with the best weapons money could buy, then any problem would be sorted and we wouldn't have to keep feeling like losers. Rather than accept that we've behaved rather badly, had some awful friends and left them in charge, it's far simpler to call the bad guys evil, shoot them, and let God sort them out. This we know He'll do because He is on our side.
Still, if you don't mind the caveman philosophy and want a video game movie this is potentially the prototype for all the ones we have now. There is no real script, nothing approaching dialogue and the chief reason for enjoying the movie is the endless explosions and set-pieces of revenge visited as bloodily as possible. The action has been parodied to hell now, but it is effectively executed and located within the simplistic morals of evil villains, pathetic victims, and one true hero. If you can try to forget the real world, an awful script, and the supernatural ability of Rambo to avoid bullets whilst having a 100% hit rate himself then you'll enjoy a big silly adventure.
To describe the third installment in the series as an improvement on its predecessor is faint praise. Sure it's better made on a dramatic level, but this makes the dodgy politics rather more palatable than they should be. We join Rambo as he is off to help the valiant Mujahideen in Afghanistan and free his mentor Trautman, and this is a film which through its competent writing and direction throws up many ironic parallels with the current state of that occupied country. At one point, Trautman lectures his Russian captors on the history of a country which has refused to give in to the English and many other imperialist aggressors, and describes it as "your Vietnam", and at another point we learn that "these people" will never be defeated - too true! The highest point of unfortunate historical echo comes when Rambo faced with his pursuers closing in with their superior firepower makes his escape using the caves of the Afghani-Pakistani border, now I wonder if Osama is a fan?
The racial stereotyping of the second film is replaced by a better and broader range of character here. Rather than have uniform baddies who must be killed because of their nationality or race, we have some counterweight thrown in with a good Russian and even a single bad Afghani. This leaves a less foul taste in the mouth when the fighting begins and assists the viewer to detach themselves from the polemic of a film which is "dedicated to the valiant people of Afghanistan". Of course, twenty years later we have discovered that these freedom fighters are really religious zealots determined to destroy Americans, yet in Rambo 3 the poor countrymen are actually ultra democratic, pluralist lovers of Apple Pie.
If you find what I am writing unpleasant given the loss of life over there, then I would say that kinda is my point. The attempts to invade Afghanistan by both Russian and Western forces have proved unsuccessful because of the country's diverse terrain and diverse peoples, Afghanistan is never simple from a political or military point of view. In the world of John Rambo though it could never be anything approaching complex and if it tries to tire his brain with complication, he'll devastate it until it gives in. The same logic of if our weapons are big enough and our will strong enough then we will win permeates this third film as it did the second. It's a less objectionable comic book approach to world politics than before, but it suggests that the world can be made very simple if we all just commit like Rambo does to punishing the evil-doers. That Afghanistan is complex and that this nation is still proving virtually ungovernable, is made very clear when we hear the evil Russian baddie refer to the Mujahideen as "terrorists" much as Dubya has described them since.
Putting this to one side, this is a far better film than the second movie as the drama works in the rather partial world that is created. The violence is built up to, and hyperbolic deaths are left to those who richly deserve them, and the action choreography is cutting edge brilliant with explosions dangerously close and Stallone doing a lot of his own work such as in the supposedly traditional sheep game. Stallone is also much better as an actor here, with a little more humour allowed and a deeper relationship and rapport with Crenna, who gets much more to do as a captive and becomes a proper soldier at last in the audience's eyes. Kurtwood Smith turns up as a decent diplomat, and even the broken English of the actors playing Afghans seems much more authentic. History has caught up with this film's politics with a vengeance, but as a piece of action film making this is certainly of a higher order than the second part of the series.
So twenty years later, John Rambo returns. With Stallone in his sixties and thankfully a far better writer and film-maker, this return to the series does prove a little more thoughtful if bloodier than these films have ever been. He's got older, and it is encouraging to hear Rambo admit now that he didn't "kill for my country, I killed for myself", and his character is presented initially as embittered, cynical and hiding from the world. The "retired" Rambo finds his peace ruined when American missionaries ask for his help in taking medicines to the Burmese people maimed and oppressed by their ruling junta.
Of course, these well meaning spiritual types are idiots and destined from moment one to find themselves in a whole heap of trouble. Rambo even tells them that, but rather likes the fragrant Sarah and agrees to be their tour guide as they head down river. Job done, and the bible bashing liberals are caught by the evil junta, and Rambo is again called into action to help mercenaries free them. Will he be content to be the boatman or will he get stuck in with the potential carnage - and is that the most stupid question ever?
The same tricks and staples of the earlier films are present here as complex political situations are reduced to those nice American do-gooders and those awful evil soldiers. The politics may be much more palatable to a pinko like myself but the dogmatic presentation of the truth according to Stallone and the rather icky efforts to tie a perfectly reasonable cause to a war and splatter film can't be left without comment. The rationale for the Burmese soldiers is that they are sadists and drug pushers delighting in their own brutality of torture, infanticide and rape, and the do-gooders are simply too nice for their own good rather than possessing an eloquent faith or an articulated mission. Rambo is, of course, above the wickedness and naivety, accepting that it's a terrible world that you have to survive and choose your battles in.
Still if you are taking this film seriously as geo-politics, then you are rather far gone. Instead treat it as a hyper tense thrill ride of extreme violence where Rambo is the protector of the innocent. It is the best film in the series since the original movie, because Stallone has simply got a lot better at acting, writing and, now, directing. He now knows how to write the short staccato lines that suit his delivery and has picked up the Clint Eastwood trick of saying everything by saying nothing. Stallone will never be Alec Guinness, now there's a thought, but in this incarnation of his character there is a more convincing person underneath his portrayal.
This is a film edited to perfection in terms of pacing and rhythm, and possessing some genuinely impressive technical moments. There is one superb long take that introduces us to the missionaries' village by following Sarah around as she gives out medicine to her chums with the camera in tow. Supremely, this bravura long take is then followed by an all out onslaught of choppy editing, huge explosions and aural violence which is a perfect counterpoint to the peacefulness of the earlier shot. The tempo of the film never drags and the emotional roller-coaster is always going in another direction so that boredom or dull drama are never options.
The film is, with all due deference to Jack Cardiff who shot Rambo: First Blood part 2, the best photographed film in the series with the hot arid aspect of the middle two films replaced here by an earthy and verdant aesthetic. There are few shots of the location used for atmosphere but the few rare examples of vistas are stunning. The film also extensively uses CGI for the scenes of extreme violence and bodily mutilation, and the work is integrated brilliantly within the action direction.
Rambo will always win out, but the script does not ignore Stallone's age and the action takes the limitations of a 62 year old seriously. There is more gun work, less hand to hand combat, shorter running sequences and explicit nods to Rambo no longer being a one man army. Age has thrust humility on the character and this is very welcome. Another film is on the way, and I hope it picks up in the USA as this film finishes, but above all it should embrace the approach of a man steeped in violence getting older and more tired. For now though, the return of John Rambo has provided one of this years most bloody and entertaining films.
Optimum present the Rambo films in their original 2.35:1 ratio with the first three films coming on A+B region single layer BD25s. The latest Rambo film is presented as region B, and with all its extra content it is presented on a BD50. The first three discs come with an interview with Stallone, and A/V configuration tools as their sole extras, but the latest disc is tooled up with extras, featurettes, branching content, deleted scenes and a director commentary. I am unable to comment on the packaging for the cases and discs as the discs on review were provided without them.
Each of the first three transfers uses the VC-1 codec and are encoded at 1080p, and the best quality is saved for the last two films in the series. The first three films in the set have been sourced from the same source as the previous HD-DVD releases and owners of those discs may not want to upgrade. It looks to my eye that Rambo: First Blood has been DNR'd as grain is almost negligible and this does not always look very film-like. Edges in the transfer are slightly enhanced, and the black levels are a shade too uniform with minor compression artifacts occasionally noticeable, but the film does look strong, managing the greens, browns and dull skies well and keeping flesh tones natural. The first film does seem a little soft and lacking in detail at times. The second transfer does exhibit more grain and seems a little more untouched, but the softer sequences in the film with the romantic subplot, which seem to be shot through gauze originally, are just too soft and lacking in detail. I don't know if this is a fault of SD transfers of the film as well or the base materials, but I found myself squinting through these couple of sequences. Colours are warmer and sweatier as befits the location and the contrast is superior to the first film in the set. Rambo 3 looks magnificent with the baking hot visuals represented by good management of light and shade, with very true strong colours throughout. It is the sharpest of the three earlier films and the one that impresses most with its level of definition across the whole image. A nice amount of grain is present and edges are naturally treated. It looks to me that the first three transfers may have been colour and contrast boosted slightly. The final transfer in the set is terrific, phenomenally detailed, sympathetic to the cooler more verdant aesthetic of this new film, and with perfect handling of the contrast in the night time assault on the military camp. I noticed no attempts at edge enhancement and this looks exactly as good as such a new movie should. Others feel that the Lionsgate disc of Rambo has an even better transfer, but I was very pleased with what was on offer here.
Rambo 4 comes with a True HD track which has an enviable level of clarity whilst combining powerful dimension and depth. The sub-woofer channel rocks during the battles and creates powerful atmosphere when needed as well, voices can come from anywhere in the mix and surround effects are perfectly placed across the channels. The other discs are less impressive with the DTS HD tracks on each film sounding very artificial in the creation of the surround effect, and especially the first film sounding rather better when downmixed. The older films do sound clear in terms of dialogue and music and mastering or source imperfections didn't stand out to me.
The single layer discs for the early films are 80-90% used but some will be disappointed that the extras from previous standard definition releases are not included, the commentaries and making of documentaries you will see mentioned in Mike's reviews in the sidebar are not part of the package. The interviews with Stallone are actually the same interview repeated on each of the opening three discs. He talks for about five minutes about the problems the original film had in getting off the ground and describes the second film as about "America's vanity". He is clearly promoting the most recent installment and the short interview is padded out by 4 minutes of clips.
The extras on the disc of the new film are generous and probably the most interesting is the "Bonusview" feature which allows the film to be watched with the audio commentary and interrupted by footage showing on set shooting, interviews and technical explanation. This extends the length of the film through to two hours and also uses video of Stallone doing his commentary, which means that the inserted footage comes to about 25 minutes. Stallone's commentary is thorough and he seems genuine in his claims for researching the politics and action effects, he throws light on how certain sections were filmed and the problems in production. Listening to him talk should correct the view of many who see the creator of Rocky and Rambo as being a bonehead, he comes over as an able and professional film-maker with a wealth of experience. I didn't expect to, but I ended up liking him and enjoying him talk. The disc also comes with numerous featurettes on subjects like editing, sound, the music the Burmese situation and the film's reception when it was released. Deleted scenes and trailers for Hancock and Vantage Pointcomplete the goodies. All of the extras are 1080p or 1080i, and for a more detailed list of the actual extras try the standalone Blu-ray review of Rambo which you can link to from the side panel.
I have had a quick peruse of the BBFC site and I think that the four films are presented uncut with the addition of the parachute being cut in Rambo 2 which was not in the theatrical version of the film, and the continued cut of the horse fall from Rambo 3. The presentations here are jolly good and fans of the whole series will be pleased to own this box set, but for the more casual viewer the first and last films may prove most attractive as single acquisitions. The four films are available from the US on Blu-ray and prices there seem much more reasonable if as reported those discs are region free and bearing similar extras.