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 rollercoaster 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.
This is a rather marvelous effort from Sony with just about the whole disc encoded at 1080i or 1080P and a rather magnificent transfer to boot. The latest transfer in the series is terrific, phenomenally detailed, sympathetic to the cooler more natural aesthetic of this new film, and with perfect handling of the contrast in the assault on the military camp and lighter sequences too. I noticed no attempts at edge enhancement and this looks as good a transfer as I have seen.
The sound is provided via a Dolby True HD 5.1 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. This is a superbly edited movie and this track is a perfect way to immerse yourself in the centre of the madness and mayhem.
I have listed all the extras and the respective frame rates, durations and encoding of the extras in the side panel, and along with the film they take up 80% of the dual layer disc's capacity. The extras 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 filming, 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 in total. Stallone's commentary is thorough and he seems genuine in his claims for researching the politics and the 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. This disc even comes with subtitles for those of you who can't understand the commentary which shows a lack of vanity if nothing else. Kudos to Sony for including an audio descriptive track as all modern releases should do this.
My impression of a likeable man is shared by his collaborators who describe him as intuitive and instinctive in the extensive featurettes which also come with the disc. The featurettes cover subjects like how the project got started after such a long hiatus, the editing, sound, the music, the Burmese situation and the film's reception when it was released. Stallone and cast and crew contribute throughout, and the transitions from the old movies to this version is covered in some detail by acknowledging the difficulties in finding the right story and the right person to replace Jerry Goldsmith in creating a new soundtrack. Stallone is quite playful and attempts to steal the credit for the editing from Sean Albertson by suggesting that he and his daughter did it in all in "my garage". The deleted scenes come from the very beginning and towards the very end of the movie and cover the relationship between Rambo and Sarah, they have been cut for pacing reasons and the choice was a good one as the added emotional content is both slow and a little awkward. The disc comes with a BD Live function which wouldn't work on my player but promises access to trailers and other content on line, and trailers for Hancock and Vantage point complete the goodies on offer.
My only gripe is a big one in that this is a Region B disc, which Sony UK - who usually code for all regions - have said is due to them having limited rights on this specific title. Those of you who cynically declared that region coding would start cropping up again after Blu-ray won the Hi Def war, were right on that score and this disc seems to be the tip of the iceberg with more region locked discs (not from Sony, but from other studios) coming our way soon. I only note that the US Blu-ray is reported to be unlocked and shares a similar booty of extras.
I didn't expect to like the film or the director, but I have to say that this shames any other action film I have seen recently. It's disappointing that it comes region locked and at UK prices, but I wouldn't let that put you off owning what is a bit of a corker.