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RAMBO: THE COMPLETE COLLECTOR'S SET

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Brian Dennehy, Charles Napier, Steven Berkoff, Julie Benz, Paul Schulze, Matthew Marsden, Graham McTavish
Directors: Ted Kotcheff, George P. Casmatos, Peter MacDonald, Sylvester Stallone
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (Rambo 2008)
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Lions Gate
Features: See Review
Length: 386 Minutes
Release Date: May 27, 2008

“Rambo did bring out a darker side of me.”-Sylvester Stallone

Overview:

John Rambo is one of the most treasured and iconic characters in movie history, so iconic that I think we all tend to forget that the character was originally created in a novel. First Blood was a book written by David Morrell in 1972. Though a screenplay adaptation became a hot property in Hollywood, it had a hard time finding people willing to finance it.

Enter independent producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, who made First Blood the movie a reality simply by asking director Ted Kotcheff if there was a certain film he wanted make. As it turns out, Kotcheff had already been attached to the project when it was being made by another studio that later dropped the movie, so it was clear what movie he wanted to make. Then Kotcheff got a call from Sylvester Stallone, expressing interest in the lead role.

And the rest is movie history.

Though Rambo became the ultimate action hero, the character actually serves a deeper purpose. There were many movies made about Vietnam at the time, but none were made about the soldier returning home. What was it like to be in the shoes of a person who came home from a nightmare war only to be disgraced by fellow countrymen?  First Blood evokes that feeling through its sympathetic lead character.

Films:

First Blood ***

“Are you telling me that 200 men against your boy is a no win situation for us?”

“If you send that many, don't forget one thing.”

“What?”

“A good supply of body bags.”

The year was 1982. At the time, Sylvester Stallone was known mostly for his success with the first three Rocky movies. He had also done one action thriller called Nighthawks, which pitted him against a lethal Rutger Hauer, but Stallone had not yet fully embraced the genre. Engaging in an enterprise somewhat different from the boxing movie franchise, the talented actor and writer tried his hand in his first all out action movie.

The result was First Blood, and as the character of John Rambo, Stallone had arrived in a film that would pave the way for his future career as a successful action movie star. Both an edgy action thriller and a brash political statement, First Blood remains one of the most popular action films of the 1980s. But truth be told, it’s more of a character study than a action movie.

It introduces us to Rambo, a drifter who’s in search of a former army buddy he served with in Vietnam. After learning of his death to cancer, Rambo wanders into a small town looking for simply something to eat. The local sheriff, Teasle (Brian Dennehy) doesn't approve of what he sees when he catches a first glance of the drifter. He escorts Rambo out of the district, advising him to find food elsewhere. When he refuses to obey the sheriff's order, he is immediately and very wrongly arrested.

When faced with a form of police brutality not that different from the POW prison camp in Nam where he was held captive, Rambo quickly fights back with a vengeance. After fighting his way out of the precinct, Rambo eludes the authorities and heads for the mountain areas of the Pacific Northwest. Teasle and his men track Rambo's every move, and once in the mountains, it becomes an all out war between one man and one incompetent-by-comparison task force.

Not too long after the media has made the manhunt their top story, and just when Teasle is wondering just who and what this Rambo really is, a man arrives at the scene to provide the exact answer. That man is Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna), who was Rambo's supervising commander. Trautman advises the sheriff and his men that Rambo is a force not to be messed with, since he is skillfully trained in the arts of jungle survival and combat fighting. Of course, as any ignorant villain would do, Teasle ignores Trautman's advice and engages in a deadly hunt down.

The real message of the film comes near the end when Rambo, confronted by his mentor, cries out about the pain he's suffered as a returning soldier who fought in a war and came home battered and bruised by all the injustices done to him and all the rallies and anti-war demonstrations. It might seem as a cheap and cornball way to end an action film, but Stallone, who co-wrote the screenplay, performs this scene so wonderfully and believable that we buy it.

First Blood is indeed an edgy ride of a movie, filled with constant action, and a moral quality not necessarily needed in such a film, but at the same time, a quality hardly felt in any movie.

Rambo: First Blood Part II ***1/2

“Sir…do we get to win this time?”

“This time, it's up to you.”

The success of First Blood allowed Stallone to evolve a small, surprise hit into another blockbuster franchise, just like he did with Rocky. In the summer of 1985, Rambo: First Blood Part II landed in theaters and went on to become one of the biggest box office hits of that year. There are two sheer qualities to this movie; it’s both a superior follow up and literally one of the most action packed movies to ever hit the multiplex.

Even though this movie dispenses with the grim tone of First Blood, I’ve always thought it was the right direction to go in. While we caught glimpses in the first movie of Rambo’s specialized combat tactics, here we get a first hand look at why he’s the most elite killing machine the army ever produced. Give the man an M-16 and his trademark combat knife, and he’s more than good to go. 

The movie runs a quick 95 minutes, and I will go so far as to say that around 75-80 minutes of the film is nothing but pure action, and some of the best captured on film during the 1980s. Watching Rambo: First Blood Part II is one of those movies where, while watching, you really have to appreciate all of the hard work that went into it. By today’s standards, it still remains a most impressive piece of work as far as the action genre is concerned.

If you recall in First Blood, Rambo was fighting a personal war as society challenged him to live a normal life as a survivor of the Vietnam War. Here, Rambo is yanked from prison by Col. Trautman for a secret operation that could very much redeem him. The mission is to venture into enemy territory, Southeast Asia to be exact, and sneak into a suspected POW camp, which is holding missing American soldiers. He’s ordered to scout the camp, take pictures, and not to engage the enemy, but if anyone is familiar with Rambo's tactics, then it's safe to assume that things won’t go as planned.

At the heart of all of the extravagant action of Rambo: First Blood Part II is Rambo's fight for self-redemption. In the opening of the film, Rambo is doing hard labor as a result of his actions in the first movie. Col. Trautman's surprise assignment is the character's only chance to free himself not just from prison, but also from his inner demons.

The man behind the structure of this operation is a shadowy figure named Murdock, played memorably by Charles Napier. When it becomes clear that Murdock has sent Rambo into enemy territory and not wanting the mission to exactly succeed, Trautman clashes with him in several scenes of debating that are very well acted, even if there isn't a whole lot of meaning to it. All that concerns us is that Rambo extracts his rage on Murdock in the end.

Stallone co-wrote the screenplay with none other than James Cameron, who at this point had already made a name for himself with his breakthrough hit, The Terminator. Cameron, of course, has always had a go-for-broke sense of extreme filmmaking, and the lengthy epic feel of the action is without a doubt in the true Cameron spirit. What more can be said of a guy who got to work with both Stallone and Schwarzenegger in the span of a year?

Much credit should also go to director George P. Casmatos, who also directed Stallone in Cobra, as well as the memorable western Tombstone. Cosmatos applies a grand and atmospheric look to the action and setting. The sequence where Rambo attacks enemy villages by way of a chopper is wonderfully executed, and the visual enhancement that Cosmatos applies makes it inevitably seem like a roller coaster ride, and the result is one of the best action scenes of the 80s.

I also especially get a kick out of the scenes where Rambo takes out his enemies with a bow and arrow equipped with explosive tips. The physical presence of Stallone is totally convincing. This is the movie that really transformed him as a larger than life action star, as Stallone went through a strong physical enhancement.

As far as action movies go, Rambo: First Blood Part II is one you can simply never go wrong with. It represents a high point for the series, as well as action movies in general.

Rambo III **

“Who are you?”

“YOUR WORST NIGHTMARE.”

If Rambo: First Blood Part II is a six pack of beer, then Rambo III is very much a beer keg, and I don’t mean that in a good way.

Three years later, John Rambo would find his way into another hellish nightmare of a war zone…and those are the same words that could easily describe the screenplay of the third Rambo movie. It’s hard not to have a successful movie franchise without one low point of an installment. When ranking the Rambo movies based on quality, Rambo III easily comes off as the Star Trek V of the bunch, or better yet…the Rocky V of the franchise. Ouch!

Audiences were more than pumped for another exciting Rambo adventure. And the filmmakers were more than willing to give the audiences what they wanted, even if it meant basically repeating the plot of the previous movie. And thus we have Rambo III, or as I like to call it, Rambo II 2.0.

It’s pretty much ridiculous right from the start. Col. Trautman approaches Rambo, now living a peaceful life in Thailand, asking him to travel to Afghanistan to help the people in fending off evil Russian forces. When Rambo refuses the offer, Trautman tells him he will be going in alone. At this point, I expected Trautman to strap on a sandwich board saying “I’m going to be taken captive, John”.

And, in a shocking plot development, Trautman does indeed get taken captive by the evil Russian forces. In an even more shocking plot development, Rambo is informed of Trautman’s kidnapping and suits up with enough weaponry to take out three armies (thankfully, he’s only taking out one). Seriously, John Matrix is watching this saying to himself, “Man, he’s overdoing it a bit.”

The only major significance associated with this movie is the use of Afghanistan as a story backdrop. Back in 1988, it may have not seemed so significant. But being that this was the only movie before 9/11 to give  audiences a glimpse into the war-torn country, I seriously wonder if Stallone was trying to warn us about the shape of things to come. And having seen Charlie Wilson’s War, it wouldn’t surprise me if the real Charlie Wilson found this to be the best movie ever made.

However, all the significance in the world can’t change the fact that Rambo III is nothing more than the world’s first live action Looney Tunes movie, with all the cartoon characters pretty much replaced by human actors. How else can you explain a movie that concludes with a tank and a helicopter collision, only to have the hero survive? That’s right, Rambo has become the equivalent of Bugs Bunny, with a godly lion mane of hair substituting for the big bunny ears.

And when I say that Rambo III blatantly repeats the story and all around formula of Rambo II, I don’t exaggerate in anyway. The only difference this time is the action scenes are so overdone and repetitive, it ends up making Rambo II looking as authentic as the Zapruder film.

However, I will say that this movie did make me a believer in one respect. It convinced me that if a man rises up above water while firing off an M-16, he will immediately take out all nearby enemy soldiers. And I’ve also come to realize another significant fact; all of Rambo’s enemies clearly went to the same shooting school as the Stormtroopers, which explains their inability to hit a clear target.

In all honesty, Rambo III isn’t the life-size package of lousy I’m making it out to be. It’s got action, and it’s mostly well done, but for the most part it’s way too bombastic and over-the-top. It’s as if the filmmakers felt that, since the title of the movie is Rambo III, that there should be enough cartoonish violence for three movies. If you think back to the first two movies while watching it, I think you’ll find yourself asking “how did we get here again?”.

But twenty years would pass, and we would get back to basics…WITH A VENGEANCE!

Rambo (2008) ***1/2

“When you’re pushed…killing is easy as breathing.”

Who could’ve predicted that Sylvester Stallone would be able to resurrect his two most legendary characters successfully in back to back movies? His final bout as Rocky Balboa was about as perfect a finale as anyone could’ve hoped for the franchise. By having the story focusing on Rocky’s age, Stallone had us believing once again that he had it in him to get back in the ring.

But when I first heard that he was going to be suiting up once more as military killing machine John Rambo, I was curious to see how this one would turn out. Could Stallone, at age 61, pull off another go around in this most physically demanding role? An aging Rocky is one thing, but the machine gun-toting Rambo is another.

Well, folks, I’m here to say that Sly hasn’t lost any bit of his action mode. In fact, I don’t think he’s been more ferocious on screen than in Rambo. This marks the first movie in the series in 20 years, as well as the first one that Stallone himself has directed.

And Stallone’s creative control can be seen throughout the movie. If you were able to catch the 3-minute online trailer early last year, then you caught glimpses of the graphic brutal carnage that was going to be hitting the screen. And yet, I was still blown away by how much brutality the movie was able to get away with.

To simply put it, this ain’t your daddy’s Rambo. This is a fully orchestrated grindhouse version of a Rambo movie. In fact, if you were to tally up the violence in the previous three Rambo movies combined, you’d still be nowhere near the amount of this one. And no matter how much I keep stressing to you how brutal this movie is, you still won’t be prepared for what you see.

But damn if this isn’t close to being the best movie in the series, which at this point is really something of an achievement. In fact, I’d say that it pretty much ties with Rambo: First Blood Part II, and may even surpass it in the future. The main reason it’s such a strong entry is because of Stallone pushing the envelope in movie violence, because if there’s any movie suitable for doing so, it’s a Rambo flick.

After fighting battles in Vietnam and Afghanistan, not to mention here in the states, Rambo sets its sights on war-torn Burma. John Rambo (Stallone), now officially retired from service, lives quietly in the shadows of Thailand. His daily life consists of catching snakes and taking any form of metal to make weapons out of.

His simple life is soon interrupted by a Christian missionary group requesting his service. They want him to guide them up the river into Burma. By converting the villagers to Christianity, they feel that it will help in ending the bloodshed and change lives, to which Rambo responses one of the most chilling and perfect lines in the movie.

At first he rejects their offer, but the sole female of the missionaries, Sarah (Julie Benz) manages to convince him otherwise. On the way up the river, Rambo is forced to resort to his killing tactics when his boat is stopped by vicious pirates. Despite saving the missionaries’ lives, the leader of the group (Paul Schulze) is turned off by Rambo’s actions, and tells him when off the boat, his services will no longer be needed.

Before long, the missionaries have fallen captive under a deadly army led by a most sadistic colonel. Once Rambo receives word of this, he wastes no time in hopping back in his boat and heading back into the war zone. And he’s not alone on this mission of killing, as a ragtag group of mercenaries have been recruited to take part in the ass kicking.

That’s another angle of Rambo that I found very refreshing. Of course we know that Rambo can take out an entire army by himself, but once they get to Burma it’s easy to speculate that without these mercenaries as backup, Rambo may have become extinct. The standout of the group is the sniper known as School Boy (Matthew Marsden), and after seeing his killing methods I can possibly see this character establishing his own action movie franchise.

The final 20 minutes of the movie have to be seen to be believed. All I can tell you is that if there exists a market for the 50-caliber gun, they should start using clips from the movie’s climax in advertisements. I really lost count as to how many human heads, as well as various other body parts, were lopped of by this weapon alone.

Rambo is without question a movie made for devoted fans of this franchise in the same way Rocky Balboa was made for Rocky fans. And if you think about it, it makes perfect sense for Stallone to cap off both his franchises on high notes, especially since both Rambo III and Rocky V left a bad taste in most people’s mouths.

And if the final shot of the movie is any indication, this might be the last we see of John Rambo. It’s everything a true Rambo movie should be, and a fitting end to a one of a kind action movie series.

Video: First Blood ***, Rambo: First Blood Part II ***1/2, Rambo III ***1/2, Rambo ****

As the movies progress, the video quality gets better and better. First Blood is as good as it’s ever looked on DVD, despite some bits of noticeable grain. Part II, which for me has always looked great on DVD, is also in its best possible form. Both it and Rambo III represent high points for restoration of 80s action flicks.

But it should surprise nobody that the new Rambo is the highpoint in terms of video quality. The video presentation is top notch from beginning to end. The entire movie is set in outdoor settings, and mostly in bright daylight, and that element mixed in with the realistic settings make for one fantastic looking disc.

Audio: First Blood ***, Rambo: First Blood Part II ***1/2, Rambo III ***1/2, Rambo ****

The audio quality also increases with each movie in the series. First Blood has truly never sounded better, even though a great bit of the action doesn’t make it far beyond the front range speakers. With Rambo II and III, you get the best possible sound quality for any 80s action piece. A strong highlight in the first three movies is unquestionably the music score provided by the late Jerry Goldsmith.

Once again, the new Rambo prevails. It’s the only disc of the bunch to feature a Dolby 5.1 EX track. I knew from seeing this movie in the theater that this was going to be an outstanding sounding release, and the sound mix does everything short of blowing your house/apartment building to the ground. The action, which is the real star here, rocks the surround sound system in every way imaginable. That last 20 minutes will have you ducking for cover. Music playback and dialogue delivery are also in top-notch quality.

Features ****

Wow! Lions Gate has crafted quite an astonishing package with this new 6-disc set called The Complete Collector’s Set. What we have here, basically, are the Ultimate Edition releases of the first three movies, the 2-Disc Special Edition release of the new Rambo, and a bonus disc which contains all the extensive bonus material from the out-of-print 2002 Rambo Trilogy release. Really happy to see the resurface of that.

Needless to say this collector’s set is filled to the brim with all things Rambo!

First Blood includes a commentary track from Sylvester Stallone, as well as an Alternate Ending. Rambo: First Blood Part II features a commentary from director George P. Casmatos, while Rambo III includes a commentary by director Peter MacDonald, in addition to Deleted Scenes.

These first three discs also feature some added kicks in the form of the following: Survival Mode: Enhance your Rambo experience with a suite of special ops playback upgrades, Early Warning System (EWS): Get advance notification of upcoming Survival Mode viewing enhancements, MetaBrief: Access instant intelligence dossiers at critical moments in the film, MetaScope: Scope out people, places and events as they occur in the movie, MetaSight: Acquire enemies and objectives via laser-guided targeting, MetaPoint: Track action with a picture-in-picture radar sweep of topography and terrain and MetaMap: Dial in a 3-D on-screen satellite positioning map.

This 2-disc Special Edition release for Rambo (2008) is locked and loaded with a perfect arsenal of extras. Disc One includes a commentary track with Sylvester Stallone, as well Deleted Scenes and six very well handled  featurettes; “Legacy of Despair: The Struggle in Burma”, “It's a Long Road: Resurrection of an Icon”, “A Score to Settle: The Music of Rambo”, “The Weaponry of Rambo” and  “A Hero's Welcome: Release and Reaction”. Disc Two features a Digital Copy of the movie.

Then we get to the big bonus disc, which could be considered the chain of bullets giving off the firing power of this Collector’s Set. We get an arsenal of documentaries, including “The Real Nam: Voices From Within”, “Guts and Glory”, “The Forging of Heroes: America's Green Berets”, “Rambo-Nomics”, “Selling a Hero” (Very very cool feature), “Suiting Up”, “An American Hero's Journey: The Rambo Trilogy”, “Drawing First Blood”, “We Get to Win This Time” and “Afghanistan: Land in Crisis”. Lastly, we get the trailers to all four movies.

Summary:

Lions Gate has delivered what has to be one of the best all around DVD package sets of the year. Rambo: The Complete Collector’s Set is everything fans of the series would want in a DVD set dedicated to one of the most beloved action movie characters of all time. With this release, we all get to win this time!

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