No amount of wide-eyed missionaries, Vietcong soldiers, or small-town cops can change Judge Mike Rubino.
Our reviews of Rambo (Blu-Ray) (published May 27th, 2008), Rambo Collection (Blu-Ray) (published June 2nd, 2008), Rambo: Extended Cut (Blu-Ray) (published July 27th, 2010), Rambo: The Complete Collector's Set (Blu-Ray) (published July 26th, 2010), The Rambo Trilogy: First Blood, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rambo III (published June 3rd, 2002), The Rambo Trilogy: The Ultimate Collection (published January 17th, 2005), and Stallone: 3-Film Collector's Set (Blu-ray) (published September 7th, 2012) are also available.
"Do we get to win this time?"—John J. Rambo
One of the best things about the '80s was glut of manly action icons to come oozing into mainstream pop culture; oddly enough, most of them were named John. Sure they all had their badass background stories and catch phrases (who didn't back then?), but one John stands out from them all as being the bloodiest, most vicious, and most tormented: John Rambo.
He's fought his way through small town America, Vietnam (twice!), Afghanistan, and most recently Burma. Now, all of his bow-and-hunting-knife escapades have been collected into one big, metal tin: Rambo: The Complete Collector's Set
Facts of the Case
This is the third time the original trilogy has been released on DVD (now with Stallone's latest installment), so I'll keep the summaries brief.
First Blood: John Rambo has returned from Vietnam as a lost, scarred veteran with no place to go or live. He wanders into a small rural town where he is harassed by corrupt local law enforcement and forced into a deadly cat-and-mouse game in the forest! The local cops and National Guard are no match for his survival skills, and the only one who can stop Rambo is the man who created him: Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna, The Day Reagan was Shot). This first installment is based on the novel by David Morrell.
Rambo: First Blood Part II: Rambo has been doing hard time at a labor camp when Col. Trautman returns to ask for his help. The U.S. Government needs to confirm that there are P.O.W.s still being held in Vietnam, and they want Rambo to go and take photos of the hostages. Rambo goes to take photos alright…if by "photos" you mean "the lives of dozens of evil Communists!" Needless to say, this installment features lots more explosions, knifings, and helicopters.
Rambo III: When Rambo's mentor Col. Trautman is captured by Russians during a secret mission to help Afghani rebels, Rambo takes it upon himself to save the day. He works hand-in-hand with the Mujahedeen (i.e. rebels) to essentially destroy the invading Russians. Did I mention that he rams a helicopter with a tank?
Rambo: This fourth, simply titled, sequel finds John Rambo living in modern-day Thailand, just miles away from Burma (er, Myanmar). He gets approached by some wide-eyed missionaries who need help getting into Burma to provide aid; after much prodding, he finally obliges and takes them up river. Of course, when these missionaries get captured by the Burmese military, it's up to Rambo and a team of rag-tag mercenaries to go in and save them.
John J. Rambo is an indelible action icon from the '80s who not only racked up a huge body count, but also embodied much of the political sentiment of the time. He was the embodiment of the mistreated Vietnam vets, alone in a country that they love. These vets were a group of people America was just coming to terms with when First Blood hit. All throughout the series, Rambo has been able to bring awareness of certain political/global issues and marry them with mindless action. It's an odd paradox to be sure: a film series that raises big questions, and then kind of ignores them in favor of Stallone's biceps. Yet, I find that part of series' charm.
First Blood is generally agreed to be the best in the series, and rightfully so! It's a layered, expertly constructed survival film rooted in classically-influenced storytelling. Rambo must not only confront a xenophobic small-town police force (led by Brian Dennehy), but also the forces of nature and his inner demons. It's a tight story that is expertly framed and shot by director Ted Kotcheff, and features a memorable score by Jerry Goldsmith (who composes music for the two sequels as well). Like the original Die Hard, First Blood is a perfect action film in three acts, and went on to influence blockbusters over the next two decades.
So often with trilogies, the quality wanes with every sequel; the Rambo series is no exception to that. Rambo: First Blood Part II is a completely different film from the previous installment, but thankfully it still manages to be fairly good. The film's script received the James Cameron treatment, which means a heck of a lot more action (and a naturally larger body count, considering that Rambo doesn't actually kill anyone in the first film). This time around, Rambo has two foes: the Vietnamese military and the Washington Bureaucrats. Part II is an overall brighter, happier film which has the audience completely behind Rambo, rooting for him to kill everything in his path. Director George Cosmatos (Cobra) comes up with plenty of unique action set-pieces and shots that make this film stand out from anything Chuck Norris was doing at the time. Part II would go one to be the most financially successful entry in the series, and firmly plant Rambo in the veins of pop culture (cue the toys, cartoon series, and lunch boxes).
Three years later comes Rambo III, which attempts to bring the series full circle, as Rambo must rescue his mentor Col. Trautman from the Russkies. He essentially partakes in his own private Charlie Wilson's War, helping the Afghani rebels win the war in the mountains. This entry, while heavy on the real-life influences, completely abandons any realism remaining from the last film and replaces it with total over-the-top fantasy. When Rambo isn't busy playing a crazy game of Grab the Goat, he's ramming a tank into a chopper (see photo)! I almost fell out of my chair when I saw that the first time. I give credit to director Peter MacDonald and Sly for trying to make this third entry relevant, but sadly it's the weakest of the bunch.
Recently, it has become very trendy to revive classic film franchises for another go at it. And while these fourth entries range wildly in success, Rambo actually ends up being one of the better revivals. In fact, it's probably second only to the original First Blood. For this fourth entry, Stallone stars, writes, and directs—and he manages to do most of these three things reasonably well.
Rambo is a grueling film to watch. Plotwise, it barely follows the normal rising action-climax-conclusion set up, and instead opts for a series of events that slowly build at a 45 degree angle to a 20-minute finale. It's like a fireworks display, at first slow and tedious but eventually going out with a barrage of hundreds of explosions. Of course, it takes a patient, forgiving, viewer to get to that awesome finale. You must endure plenty of terrible dialogue (like this exchange: Rambo: "No, what you're trying to do is change what is." Sarah: "And what is?" Rambo: "Go home."). You have to sit through countless scenes of people trying to convince Rambo to do something, anything. And you have to experience a group of James Cameron-esque mercenaries, complete with nicknames like "Schoolboy." But boy, once this film starts rolling (about the time they reach the military camp) it doesn't stop until the credits roll.
In one of the special features, Stallone says that he decided to direct the film as if we're watching it through Rambo's eyes. It's an inspired choice, and one that works surprisingly well. There is some beautiful photography here and just about all of it is filmed on location in Thailand. The action scenes are especially intense, with quick cuts so fast you'll feel overwhelmed by the sheer violence taking place before you. It's not a film for everyone, and its extreme, nihilistic cynicism about the way the world works can be a little heavy-handed at times; and yet I find myself fairly forgiving of this film's missteps, because the Rambo series has never been about subtly. This is a dark, serious entry that plays out like an '80s film jaded by today's pessimistic and disillusioned view of society.
Ultimately, the strangest aspect of this film is its stance towards Burma. Stallone is passionate about helping those oppressed people (who have been embroiled in the longest civil war in the history of the world), and yet his message in the film seems to be one of hopelessness. "F*** the world," "Nothing we can do," "When you're pushed, killing's as easy as breathing." Yeah, that sounds pretty negative. Of course, the film, and its best quote ("Live for nothing, die for something"), has actually gone on to inspire the Burmese citizens and freedom fighters, so perhaps Stallone knows something I don't.
Rambo, along with the previous three films, is simultaneously ridiculous and awesome. All films embody the individualist can-do attitude of the Reagan era, an era which has produced an entire flock of excellent action flicks. Now, for hopefully the last time, this series is assembled in an impressive package known as The Complete Collector's Set. This standard-def collection features the same great picture and sound quality from the other releases, along with more special features than you would probably need or want.
The original trilogy discs are essentially the previous "Ultimate" edition releases. First Blood features an entertaining commentary track by Stallone, alternate endings, a deleted scene, and the "Ultimate" survival mode feature. I experienced the interactive military feature from the previous edition, and frankly I found it pretty annoying (mainly because it takes you out of the movie and isn't implemented all that well). Oddly, the packaging also lists commentary by writer David Morrell, but I couldn't find that option anywhere on the disc. Rambo: First Blood Part II features a slightly boring commentary track by Cosmatos, and more of the interactive military survival stuff. Finally, Rambo III comes with a so-so commentary track by director Peter MacDonald, some deleted scenes, and the interactive military thing. Again, nothing new on any of these discs if you already have the "Ultimate Edition."
What is new, of course, is the bevy of features on the Rambo release. Included in this set is the two-disc special edition, which is also available separately. All of the supplemental features are located on the disc with the film, however, and the second disc is reserved just for the digital copy (which allows you to put the movie on your computer, iPod, etc.)
The features on Rambo Disc One run the gamut of "extremely interesting" to "sort of repetitive," but, overall, it's a surprisingly large amount extra content. The best parts of the disc are: Stallone's great, and often hilarious, commentary, which discusses both the technical aspects of the film as well as his motivation for reviving the character; the "Resurrection of an Icon" featurette, which covers the film's independent financing, Stallone's "Rambo" directorial style, and the crew's visit to Thailand; and "Weaponry of Rambo," which discusses all of the weapons used in the film and their authenticity. Other featurettes dive into the situation in Burma, the film's score, the editing process, and the critical reaction to the film (or rather, how they spin the reaction positively). The deleted scenes on the disc aren't anything special, and oddly add more dialogue and roundness for the character of John Rambo. If these clips had remained in the movie, the character may not have been as cold and stoic.
Accompanying all this is a sixth bonus disc. This disc features almost all of the featurettes and videos from the "Special Edition" release of the Rambo Trilogy back in 2002. This means that the entire disc focuses on the original trilogy, but since those "Ultimate" discs are so barren I'm not complaining. There is some great content here, including "Guts and Glory," a 30-minute look at Rambo in the context of Reagan-era politics and Hollywood muscle, and "An American Hero's Journey," which features David Morrell and other scholars speaking about the mythological archetypes and influences in the original trilogy. Many of the featurettes on the disc hover around the 30 minute mark, and while they all seem to feature many of the same folks, each finds a way to discuss different aspects of the films. There are a few clunkers, like "Selling a Hero," which is a strange video showing Rambo action figures flying around a green screen, and "Rambo-nomics," which discusses the gross of each picture (the only problem being that it's a glorified PowerPoint and wasn't updated to include the latest film).
All of this is packaged in a giant fold-out case, which rests nicely inside a hefty tin adorned with the trademark hunting knife. It's hard to imagine a more complete set.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If there is one thing that can be said about the Rambo films, it's that they are very polarizing. Some action movies are universally accepted to be awesome (Die Hard), but depending on your world view, politics, and tolerance of Sly, John J. may not be for you. Of course, you probably know this by now.
The most controversial of the films is certainly this latest one, which directly addresses the horrible situation in Burma (made worse by terrible cyclones this spring). Stallone deserves credit for trying to bring this issue to light, but his use of graphic and gory violence detracts from the message—especially since some of the worst violence is ironically caused by Rambo himself, albeit against the bad guys. Yes, this movie is bloody beyond belief, so if you're at all squeamish, you'd better skip this one.
Just because Stallone has good intentions about promoting the Burma issue doesn't mean he gets a pass on the script, which features some of the worst dialogue I can remember. Thankfully, it doesn't just hover in the realm of "awful" and quickly becomes laughably bad. I especially cringe at all the cockney mercenary dialogue aboard the boat to Burma. Yikes.
If you are a fan of awesome action heroes from the '80s, you won't find much better than Rambo. The films in this series deal with big issues, and yet don't require much thinking—and with this current age of action films doling out heavy-handed messages about politics, this franchise feels refreshing.
This "Complete Collection" is the alpha and omega as far as Rambo is concerned, bringing together almost every special feature and supplement created for the films in one big metal package. If you've only ever owned the "Ultimate" editions (which seem to frequent the Wal-Mart $5 bin), then you will certainly find a lot more to love in this set; however, if you bought the original "Special" editions (which had more features than the "Ultimate" ones) you may just want to pick up the solo edition of Rambo instead. Just a warning.
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Distinguishing Marks, First Blood
• Audio Commentary with Sylvester Stallone
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Distinguishing Marks, Rambo: First Blood Part II
• Audio Commentary with George P. Cosmatos
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• Commentary Track with Peter MacDonald
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