Movies: First Blood; Rambo, First Blood Part II; Rambo III
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Brian Dennehy, Charles Napier
Directors: Ted Kotcheff (First Blood), George Cosmatos (Rambo, First Blood Part II), Peter MacDonald (Rambo III)
Video: 2.35:1 anamorphic/enhanced for 16:9, 1080p HD
Audio: DTS HD Audio 5.1, English DD 5.1 EX (First Blood); DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, French 5.1 DD (Rambo Part II, Rambo III)
Extras: Deleted Scenes, Commentary, Featurettes, Trailers, Trivia Track
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Length: 96 minutes (First Blood); 95 minutes (Rambo Part II); 102 minutes (Rambo III)
Aside from the “Rocky” films, I can’t think of anything else that Sylvester Stallone is more associated with than the Rambo films. With 1982’s First Blood, and the three sequels it spawned over the next 20-plus years, most moviegoers would be hard pressed to name a Stallone role that isn’t Rocky or Rambo-based! I saw the first film at the theater, but didn’t see the next two until their eventual release on VHS in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Having two teenage sons who were huge action movie fans at the time, I’ve seen all three repeatedly (not counting this year’s fourth installment of the franchise), although mostly in bits and pieces here and there. Watching these on their new Blu-ray incarnations marks the first time I’ve actually watched any of these films in their entirety in probably over twenty years. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they had held up as relatively well as they have, not only in terms of the movie-going experience, but in terms of technical quality also.
The story line basically follows a similar path in all three movies, although the later installments definitely ramped up the testosterone level with heavier doses of explosion-fueled action sequences. First Blood (1982) opens with Vietnam-vet John Rambo walking through the countryside, looking for an old military buddy. Upon discovering that his friend has died from cancer-related Agent Orange after effects, he continues until he reaches a small town in the Pacific Northwest. The local sheriff (Brian Dennehy) decides that he doesn’t match his preferred demographics in terms of appearance, and eventually arrests him for vagrancy. In jail, Rambo begins to have the requisite Vietnam flashbacks, and his lack of compliance with the authorities causes the situation to escalate into an APB situation that involves the feds, national guard, etc. He eventually surrenders, but only after blowing up half the town, and wrecking every police vehicle within a fifty-mile radius.
Rambo, First Blood Part II (1985) picks up the action where Rambo is incarcerated for his actions in the previous movie. His old mentor, Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), shows up and offers him a perilous deal that would get him out of prison. By going back into post-war Vietnam, and looking for clues concerning POWs and MIAs at Vietnamese prison camps, he’ll be given a full pardon. Vietnam is still Communist controlled at this point, and the mission is a dangerous one, especially for an American behind enemy lines. While there, Rambo not only discovers that there are still POWs being held, but that the Soviets are aiding the Vietnamese. When he attempts to rescue the POWs, the suit in charge of the operation, Murdoch (Charles Napier), pulls the plug on the mission, and Rambo and the POWs are left at the mercy of their Russian captors. Needless to say, Rambo goes toe-to-toe with the commies, and blows up about half of Southeast Asia in the process, along with numerous Russian attack helicopters.
Rambo III (1988) finds John Rambo living in Thailand, living at a Buddhist monastery where he does repairs to the building in exchange for his room and board. He also leads a double life as a kind of extreme fighter, but he always donates his winnings to the monks of the monastery. He’s obviously still dealing with his inner demons, but he’s desperately trying to find peace and tranquility through his surroundings. Old friend Colonel Trautman tracks him down again, this time to assist him with a mission in Afghanistan, where the Mujahadin (the Afghan guerilla forces) are battling the Soviets (how things would change in a couple of decades when the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan!). Rambo refuses, telling Trautman that his war is over, but of course, Trautman’s mission fails, and Rambo is called upon to rescue him. Once there, he witnesses the plight of the locals, and after rescuing his mentor, helps them combat the repressive Soviets.
Although all three movies follow a similar thread, and are unabashed action movies at heart, Sylvester Stallone does a really good job of adding dimension to Rambo the man. Yes, he’s going to complete his mission, at all costs, but he’s also really battling his inner demons and striving for a more peaceful existence. It’s obvious that he desperately just wants it all to end, so he can finally be at peace with himself.
I was really surprised at just how watchable these three films were, even after almost twenty years. Yes, they’re incredibly violent, with spent shell casings, bombs and explosions (and unnecessary civilian deaths) too numerous to document, but at heart, they were really about a man, trained to do a terrible job, trying to find inner peace and make the world a better place. In terms of technical quality, all three get really good marks for the image transfer. Each not only offered a vibrant color palette, but also significantly improved contrast over their previous issues; this was especially helpful with the first of the trio, First Blood, where much of the action takes place in poorly lit environments. All were presented in their native widescreen-aspect ratios, and film grain was virtually nonexistent. Unfortunately, despite an attempt to update the surround sound quality on each by using DTS HD 5.1 and DTS HD Master Audio codecs, each of the three films was very front-heavy. Only Rambo III offered much, if any, effective use of the surrounds; however, for 20-plus year old catalog entries, the overall sound was quite serviceable and ultimately listenable. In terms of extras, there’s the usual range, including a really good commentary track from Sylvester Stallone; you get a great sense of his passion for these movies. There’s also an HD exclusive trivia track on each, and you’re certain to find interesting bits of information throughout.
While this box set is indeed a whole lotta Rambo, true fans will definitely be willing to accept the mission. These films will probably never appear in any finer incarnations than what you’re getting in this excellent package. The less-than-state of the art audio quality on the first two entries is the only thing keeping this set from getting four stars. Highly recommended!
— Tom Gibbs